Top Democrats are calling on Congress to give the FBI $300 million to fight potential foreign interference in this year’s midterm elections, a request that comes just days after the Justice Department indicted Russians for meddling in the 2016 presidential contest.
The letter being sent Wednesday by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and top Democrats on the House and Senate appropriations committees calls on Republicans to provide the funding as part of “a robust and urgent response” to the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in American elections.
“Congress must respond immediately to attacks on our democracy by a foreign adversary,” the Democrats wrote. “We urge you to join us in vigorously combating efforts to sow discord in our country and support our state and local officials with the critical resources they need to protect our election systems.”
Democrats say they are seeking $300 million more for resources and manpower to counter foreign influence operations in the United States, “especially Russian operatives operating on our social media platforms.” They also call for an unspecified but “substantial” increase in funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Election Assistance Commission’s work with state and local governments to bolster the security of election infrastructure, including voter databases and voting machines.
A massive spending bill is set to be passed by March 23, when current government spending expires. A temporary spending bill passed last month set the spending levels that House and Senate appropriators are now working to fulfill. The omnibus spending bill is set to be the only significant must-pass bill to clear Congress early this year — putting pressure on both parties to pack it with political wins.
The figure sought by Democrats was requested in consultation with FBI leadership, according to senior aides familiar with their talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. One of the senior aides called the issue “a sense of urgency” that has been especially neglected by House Republicans, who have yet to hold hearings on potential election interference.
The Justice Department announced a sweeping indictment of a notorious Russian group of Internet trolls last week — charging 13 individuals and three companies with a long-running scheme to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, was named in the indictment as the hub of an ambitious effort to trick Americans online into following and promoting Russian-fed propaganda that pushed 2016 voters toward then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and away from Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In the days since, Trump has mostly stewed on Twitter about the indictments and seized on statements by top Justice Department officials to claim that the indictments did not prove any “collusion” between his campaign and Russian figures. But he has said or done nothing to denounce the Russian interference or take steps to punish the accused actors and entities.
The Trump administration is asking Congress for $8.77 billion to fund the FBI in the current fiscal year. The congressional debate continues, with the Senate Appropriations Committee setting aside $9 billion for the agency, a $213 million increase above the budget request. House appropriators have budgeted $8.8 billion, with just modest increases to counter foreign political interference.
Overall, House Democrats want the federal government to approve more than $1 billion to help states improve ballot security, part of a set of measures they say are necessary to mitigate foreign interference in future election cycles.
The proposals are part of a report released last week by a task force House Democrats convened last year to examine responses to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. They include establishing grant programs to help states update voting machines and improve cybersecurity protocols, adopting basic standards for voting systems, requiring the federal government to issue regular pre-election threat assessments, and designing a national strategy to counter foreign interference.
“This issue is simply too important to sit back and watch state governments and the federal government pass responsibility back and forth,” Democrats wrote in their report. “The federal government should provide the funds necessary for states to defend themselves.”
Some state and local elections officials have complained in recent days that federal authorities are not giving them access to federal information on specific threats to voter databases, voting machines and other information about how hackers might try to manipulate information.
State officials have been scrambling to address vulnerabilities in their systems, particularly since the fall, when DHS disclosed attempts on 21 states. Though it is not believed there were further attacks, experts say Russian operatives may have been laying the groundwork for a more aggressive effort in 2018.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday touted her meetings over the weekend with elections officials at the annual conference of the National Organization of Secretaries of State. But several attendees complained about the lack of federal cooperation.
“We got some new information that was interesting. Did it change the course of what we were going to do or not do [in 2018]? No,” Michele Reagan, Arizona secretary of state, told The Washington Post.
Read the full text of the letter below:
Dear Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan:
The most essential elements of America’s democracy are under attack by a foreign adversary and Congress must respond immediately. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent criminal indictment provides further evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his operatives undertook significant covert activities to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. In order to counteract another attack in the 2018 elections, America must bolster our domestic defenses. Accordingly, we must provide urgently needed resources in the FY2018 Omnibus due on March 23rd for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counterintelligence activities; the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to assist state and local governments enhance their election infrastructure security; and Election Assistance Commission state election security grants.
As Russian efforts to interfere with our democracy continue, the burden placed on the FBI to investigate and counter these operations only increases. In order to ensure our nation’s premier law enforcement agency can adequately respond to this threat, we urge you to support a $300 million increase in the Bureau’s 2018 budget request. This additional funding should be targeted to ensure the resources and manpower to counter the influence of hostile foreign actors operating in the U.S., especially Russian operatives operating on our social media platforms.
Our intelligence agencies have also made clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hackers attacked state and local election infrastructure during the 2016 election. This aggression requires state and local governments to enhance their defenses against cyber-attacks; replace outdated registration and voting systems; and ensure procedures are in place to accurately count every ballot. As State and local governments face significant resource challenges to address this threat, we recommend a substantial increase for both the Department of Homeland Security and Election Assistance Commission’s activities to assist state and local governments with the security of their election infrastructure. These investments are critical for elections in 2018 and beyond and for the resiliency of our democracy.
These attacks and Putin’s ongoing efforts to again interfere in our upcoming elections demand a robust and urgent response, and Congress must respond immediately to attacks on our democracy by a foreign adversary. We urge you to join us in vigorously combating efforts to sow discord in our country and support our state and local officials with the critical resources they need to protect our election systems.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.)
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.)