On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing titled, Protecting Our Elections: Examining Shell Companies and Virtual Currencies as Avenues for Foreign Interference. The hearing emphasized the need for more transparent campaign finance disclosure laws in the United States. Foreign actors utilize the same tactics used by domestic special interests to funnel money into our elections. In particular, shell corporations and virtual currencies can be used in tandem to bypass accountability and conceal hidden influence.
David Murray, Vice President of the Financial Integrity Network, delivered the first testimony. Murray noted that foreign interference in U.S. elections is not novel. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union repeatedly employed covert influence in an attempt to inflame domestic passions and disrupt American political life. Russia’s interference in our 2016 elections, however, represents the “boldest yet” of these efforts. A January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) called the latest campaign of Russian interference a “significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections.”
Murray ultimately provided three recommendations to shield against foreign interference in U.S elections. He suggested that the government take the following steps:
- Ban anonymous companies;
- Enforce the Customer Due Diligence (CDD) rule;
- Require reporting of cross-border funds transfers.
These three steps, if implemented together, would work to mutually reinforce one another, and help banks and other financial intermediaries identify and intercept foreign influence campaigns.
Scott Dueweke, President of the Identity and Payments Association (IDPAY) and director of DarkTerror, focused in his testimony on how virtual currencies function as a vehicle for anonymous political contributions. Every U.S. state except for Kansas currently permits campaign contributions in Bitcoin. The FEC requires that campaigns and PACs treat Bitcoin contributions as “in-kind donations” capped at $100, and that they verify donor identity. The disclosure laws with regards to super PACs are considerably less transparent, however – donors can essentially use virtual currencies to make unlimited, anonymous contributions to super PACS.
Much of the concern with regards to virtual currencies and foreign election interference has concentrated on decentralized cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. Dueweke noted, however, that the Russians don’t need to rely on cryptocurrencies to maintain their influence campaign. Russian operatives linked to the Moscow-based Internet Research Agency purchased politically-themed Facebook ads during the election cycle using Qiwi, a centralized Russian-language virtual currency with which the credit card giant Visa partnered with in 2011 to offer a virtual wallet. Other similar currencies favored by Russian operatives include WebMoney, Yandex.Money, and PerfectMoney.
In some ways, these centralized virtual currencies pose a greater threat than do decentralized cryptocurrencies. Like cryptocurrencies, centralized virtual currencies often lie outside of the purview of the Western financial system – but they lack the accountability of a Bitcoin’s public, permanent blockchain ledger.
In the final testimony, Sheila Krumholz from the Center for Responsive Politics stressed that, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, our political system has grown dramatically more vulnerable to foreign interference. “Regulatory inaction has led to much less transparency in terms of the original sources of these funds,” Krumholz, stated. “[I]t would be foolish to think that the same types of outside forces that sought to undermine the integrity and independence of our electoral system two decades ago would not be interested and perhaps even more confident in their abilities to manipulate electoral outcomes to favor their own interests.”
You may access the full hearing, including video and the written testimonies, here.