We need an independent commission on Russia hacking now

Our democracy was attacked in 2016’s presidential election. Now it’s up to our country’s leaders to name who was responsible, find out how we were so vulnerable, and stand together – as Democrats and Republicans – to show we will do all we can to ensure we are secure going forward.

This attack came without a shot fired or a bomb dropped; instead, America’s longstanding tradition of having free and fair elections was hacked by a foreign actor, with all evidence indicating Russia’s responsibility. The attack was electronic, almost invisible.

But to just chalk this up to information-era antics, or to shrug it off because the attack helped the candidate of your choice, is to deem this behavior acceptable – and to cede control of our future elections to the most aggressive meddlers.

The American people were loud and clear in this election that the economy is the most important issue facing our country. But owning and bettering our economy depends on our ability to own and better our democracy, and to ensure our dialogue always belongs to us.

‘This attack came without a shot fired or a bomb dropped.’ Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/TASS
‘This attack came without a shot fired or a bomb dropped.’ Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/TASS

To accomplish that, we need an independent commission of foreign policy, national security and elections experts to set the record straight on what happened, and to recommend how best to protect ourselves from now on.

That’s why I and Representative Elijah Cummings – ranking member of the House committee on oversight and government reform – have reintroduced the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Since we first introduced this bill on 7 December, it has gained the support of all Democratic House members. Still, we continue to seek Republican co-sponsors because this effort must be about country, not party.

Our bill would create a 12-member, bipartisan, independent commission empowered to interview witnesses, obtain documents, issue subpoenas and receive public testimony in examining the Russian government’s attempts to use electronic means to influence, interfere with, or sow distrust in this year’s US elections.

The commission – which also would examine similar efforts by any other foreign governments or entities – would issue a final report including recommendations for future security protections to Congress and the president.

Each of the four Republican and Democratic Senate and House leaders would appoint three commission members, and the commission would then choose a chair and vice-chair of different parties. But this commission would include neither members of Congress nor federal employees.

Rather, appointees would devote themselves full-time to the investigation, a commitment that members of Congress and congressional staff would not be able to make. The commission would be comprised of prominent US citizens with national recognition and significant depth of experience in governmental service, law enforcement, armed services, law, public administration, intelligence-gathering, foreign affairs, cybersecurity and federal elections.

Senate Democrats have introduced similar legislation. The idea also is supported by respected leaders outside of Congress: 15 prominent intelligence, foreign policy and homeland security experts – including the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, and former 9/11 commission vice-chairman and congressman Lee Hamilton – issued a statement on 4 January urging the commission’s creation.

These highly knowledgeable men and women understand that our elections should always belong to us; that any foreign meddling must be met with bipartisan resolve; and that failing to act now would leave us vulnerable and normalize such meddling going forward.

We do not seek to relitigate last year’s election; we seek to protect all our elections to come. We welcome parallel and simultaneous congressional investigations by the appropriate committees of jurisdiction, but we fervently believe that only an independent commission’s investigation can rise above accusations of partisan bias that inevitably would accompany any Capitol Hill hearing.

The dire need for an independent commission is brought into even sharper focus by the president-elect’s ongoing and baseless accusations of bias against the 17 US intelligence agencies which have concluded that the Russian government ultimately was responsible for hacks into private email systems and several states’ voter registration systems.

And the specter of foreign leverage over our incoming president should send a chill down every American’s spine. In the short term, he would do a service to his own presidency and to our country by releasing his personal and business income tax returns, as well as information on any global financial holdings.

In the longer term, restoring faith and trust in our institutions requires review and recommendations by an entity operating outside of those institutions.

This is no time to be immobilized by partisan finger-pointing or residual recriminations over campaign-trail smears. Our nation’s adversaries thrive on our internal discord. Just as America unites in the face of physical attacks from abroad, so too must we come together now to investigate and prevent electronic attacks on the essence of America.

Anything less is a betrayal of our dearest national values, and of the sacred trust we carry as a beacon of freedom to the world.

Representative Eric Swalwell (CA-15) is Ranking Member of the CIA Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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