At the Aspen Security Forum, Senator Mark Warner speaks about the threat of Huawei and election interference from Russia, China, and Iran.
Should you delete TikTok from your phone? Senator Mark Warner, Vice-Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would probably say ‘go for it, but you should know there are more pressing issues at hand.’
Warner joined New York Times National Security Correspondent David Sanger for a panel titled “The View from the Hill: Protecting Liberal Values with Digital Tools” on Thursday. The panel, hosted by the Aspen Security Forum, is an exploration into how foreign interference plays out in the digital age. Warner suggested there are bigger threats out there than TikTok and Chinese apps, pointing instead to Huawei and Russian disinformation campaigns.
Warner: ‘If we cry wolf too often, the rest of the world is not going to accept American credibility’
On Thursday, the Trump administration unveiled a plan to protect America’s technology infrastructure from “aggressive intrusions by malign actors,” namely, the Chinese government. In this plan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeks to crack down on Chinese apps and services, removing them from telecommunications networks and app stores in the U.S.
This plan follows President Trump’s decision, made last Friday, to ban TikTok, a popular video app where teenagers and content creators dance or lip-sync to viral audio clips. When asked if TikTok is a problem, Warner replied, “yes. [But] when on the hierarchy of problems, we’re talking about an app that allows you to make funny videos.”
Warner added that Tiktok may also be limiting critique of the Chinese government on the app. While members of the U.S. military and government should remove the app due to concerns of data privacy, Warner said the preoccupation with TikTok “shows a little bit of the haphazardness of this administration.”
The biggest technological threat coming out of China is Huawei, according to Warner. Huawei seeks to be a part of American infrastructure and its equipment is readily purchased by smaller telecommunications companies because it is cheaper. More concerning is the overlap in where Huawei equipment may be in usage and where the U.S. stores its nuclear missiles.
“You’ll see where Huawei equipment is sold and where our nuclear missiles and missile systems are is almost a complete overlap,” said Warner. “And when you’re talking about your telecommunication system, that is an issue of concern much, much greater of national security interest than TikTok.”
Huawei is also the focus of the new Clean Network plan announced Thursday, but only in its effort to provide “Clean Apps”. The plan states that American companies should “remove their apps from Huawei’s app store to ensure they are not partnering with a human rights abuser.”
Though the Chinese tech giant saw its presence weakened in the U.S. — with the Commerce Department instating tech restrictions against its products — its hold in European countries is still a cause for concern.
In July, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson reversed a previous decision to allow Huawei equipment to be used in the new 5G network. While this is a win for the Trump administration, the UK’s initial decision also set Germany upon a similar path. Unlike the UK, however, Germany has not banned Huawei.
Huawei is undoubtedly higher on the “hierarchy of problems” and should be a stronger focus for the Trump administration, Warner suggested.
“What we have to be careful is if we cry wolf too often, the rest of the world is not going to accept American credibility when we have to actually call out a bad actor,” said Warner. “… And from the President’s language, he seems to even use, at times, stronger language against TikTok than against Huawei. To me, that is not a strategically smart choice.”
Warner on the 2020 presidential elections: “Just because we’ve not seen the Russians ramp up… doesn’t mean that we won’t see further activity a month from now.”
The 2016 presidential election was a historic event for a litany of reasons, one of which is still at the forefront of national dialogue today: Russian interference and disinformation. The issue of foreign interference spurred special counsel investigations and congressional hearings with tech CEOs. With the next presidential election under 100 days away, a matter of urgency for Warner is how the U.S. can combat the further foreign interference.
Warner believes the U.S. is better prepared this time around for possible interference from Russia, China, and Iran — the latter two interfered with the 2018 midterms.
“I think the threat is serious from all three of these nations. It appears in different forms and we are better prepared. We’re better prepared because our election systems are more secure,” said Warner.
“We have gotten better at identifying the bad guys. What we have not done yet though is, I think, made the level of disclosure that we need to make to the American public,” Warner continued.
Warner echoed similar sentiments made earlier in a statement he released jointly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Representative Adam Schiff of California, all of whom condemned the Counterintelligence and Security Center for shielding Americans from what they need to know about foreign interference.
Their statement was in response to one published by William R. Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, as a warning about Russia, China, and Iran. Evanina’s statement “does not go nearly far enough in arming the American people with the knowledge they need about how foreign powers are seeking to influence our political process,” the Democrats’ statement read.
“I’m going to continue to push the administration to get this information out in a way that, again, protects sources and methods, because remember, voting this year is going to start much earlier in many states,” said Warner. “… And just because we’ve not seen the Russians ramp up [today] doesn’t mean that we won’t see further activity a month from now.”