Chair of the Senate intelligence committee has 3 big concerns about 2024's election
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Among many officials who are worried about this year's election is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, has three big concerns - foreign powers who want to attack American democracy, the Americans who deny election results, and all the new tools that make it easy to sow doubt, such as artificial intelligence that can fake a candidate's voice and image. He wants the Biden administration to do a lot more than it's doing to counter all this. When I spoke to Senator Warner, I asked how confident he is that the election will be safe and secure.
MARK WARNER: Well, A, I wish I could say I was confident, but we may be headed for the perfect storm in terms of election interference. And let me give you, quickly, a couple of reasons. One, Russia with its war in Ukraine, Iran with its challenges in the Middle East, they have a higher interest than ever in interfering in American elections. Two, we know in America you've got folks who are election deniers still trying to relitigate 2020. Third thing is there is a court case that came out of Texas that basically is constraining the government from even having voluntary conversations with the social media firms. That was something that came out of the 2016 election, but there was a case that basically tries to hold off that communication, which is very troubling.
MARTÍNEZ: That Texas case, is that the one where you filed the amicus brief urging the Supreme Court...
MARTÍNEZ: ...To reverse that injunction? OK.
WARNER: Yes. I'm trying to say that this does not go to, I don't believe, the issues of free speech. It does go to the ability of the government to be able to at least talk to Facebook and Google to say, hey, if you see misinformation, disinformation - or can we share evidence of Russian activity? How do we cooperate together?
MARTÍNEZ: OK, so I was wondering about that because that injunction appears to have an exception for that purpose. So what am I missing on that?
WARNER: What you're missing is, I think, a very timid Biden administration. You've got CISA, the cybersecurity information agency that, frankly, did a great job in 2020, actually, even under President Trump, that's holding back. You've got the FBI, which investigates most of the counterintelligence efforts in the country holding off. So this is a concern. I'm trying to push the Biden administration to be a little more aggressive. But I can - rest assured that there is not the level of communication that existed in 2020 or 2022 or 2018.
MARTÍNEZ: Which of the threats that you mentioned is the one that concerns you the most?
WARNER: Well, you take an aggressive Russia sometimes not just spreading disinformation but amplifying, many times, American disinformation. You think about that being used sometimes with AI tools that can do this disinformation at scale and speed that's unprecedented. And we're seeing this with public figures already. There's been some deep fakes using President Trump's voice and image. There's been some deep fakes recently - inappropriate photos that were not real of Taylor Swift. You know, these tools are out there.
MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned how you want the Biden administration to be more aggressive. What does that look like?
WARNER: Well, I think it looks like taking advantage of the exemption that was in that case to say, no, we can have regular communications with the social media companies, because my fear is if they wait until the Supreme Court, a lot of mischief could be done. I also think we got through 2020 because we were relatively well-protected. I just worry the public focus isn't as high right now. And the fact that we got through 2022 - but 2024, with these new AI tools and the fact that the war in Ukraine elevates Russia's interest in determining or trying to drive the outcome of the elections in the United States, this is a recipe potentially for a real problem.
MARTÍNEZ: But having the FBI or other government agencies be in contact with social media companies, aren't we treading close to a First Amendment violation there?
WARNER: I think when you're talking about true misinformation or disinformation, or when you're talking about utilization of deepfakes where an image of A Martínez or Mark Warner is put up and it's not us, but it looks like us and sounds like us, I don't think those are First Amendment protections. I think those are, frankly, just malicious - the kind of manipulation that we've already banned from things like public trading in the stock market. The same rules ought to be applicable.
MARTÍNEZ: So, Senator, what would a failure to address those election integrity issues - what might that mean for our democracy?
WARNER: You could have chaos. It could change the results. With advancing technology, if we don't take this as a serious threat to our democracy - and, you know, we've got lots of Americans who think 2024 - and I'm one of them, think it's one of the most important elections in our country's history in terms of protection of our democracy. We could come out of this at the other end in a very bad spot.
MARTÍNEZ: That's Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He's also the chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Senator, thanks.
WARNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.