In order to keep ourselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House tells us to frequently wash our hands and to avoid close contact with other people, and instead connect with friends and family online. To slow the spread and prioritize critically ill patients, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has either cancelled or moved online the majority of outstanding appointments. But as the White House and VA push millions of veterans to be more connected to the internet than ever before, new and increasing health threats await us in these cyber environments — threats that the Trump administration has done nothing to address.
After discovering an imposter Facebook page and website made to look like that of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), we began a two-year investigation that found foreign trolls from 32 countries pretending to be American veterans, and using our name and reputation to engage in illegal behavior ranging from election interference to financial fraud.
After waiting since September 2019 for the administration to respond to VVA’s 191-page report on the foreign entities targeting troops and veterans online, with multiple letters to the White House and various agencies being ignored, it’s become clear that any progress in addressing the issue will require action from Congress. Thankfully, there seems to be a bipartisan willingness to do just that.
On Wednesday, the full U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held its first ever virtual hearing, where members discussed the evolving state of American cybersecurity and posture and recommendations made in a report by the bipartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Chief among the recommendations is to create a Senate-confirmed position for a National Cyber Director, a proposal that was also included in VVA’s report. We also called for the creation of a Senate-confirmed position at the VA — an assistant secretary of cyber health — who would be tasked with ensuring that veterans have all that they need to remain safe in cyber environments.
The White House National Security Council had a cybersecurity coordinator starting in 2008, until Ambassador John Bolton eliminated the position two years ago this month. Since then, legislators’ pleas to the Trump administration to reinstate the role on the NSC have fallen on deaf ears, with even the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Ron Johnson, complaining in his opening remarks for Wednesday’s hearing that he can’t get an answer to the simple question: “who’s in charge?”
VVA’s report found “persistent, pervasive, and coordinated online targeting of American servicemembers, veterans, and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy,” and revealed that the infamous Russian hacking of 2016 involved the direct targeting of multiple veterans organizations. Veterans and the organizations that represent them have been specifically targeted because they, like Putin’s other American targets, possess a strong sense of identity. What makes veterans a higher priority target than our civilian counterparts is veterans’ greater level of civic engagement and political influence on those around them. Both foreign and domestic trolls know that changing the mind or behavior of a service member or veteran can have a multiplying effect, bringing entire families and communities with them.
As VVA’s chief investigator, I’ve struggled to combat this effect even within our own organization during the COVID-19 crisis. Conspiracies like the recently viral “Plandemic” video — which encourages people to act against their own health interests and aims to discredit our most important sources of real health information, such as Dr. Fauci — have been promoted by influential members of VVA on our own internal networks as an informative and important service announcement of sorts. Though social media companies have been taking down copies of the video for spreading harmful and misleading health information, it’s been viewed at least 8 millions times, and continues to be promoted by extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.
Despite Facebook using its algorithm to demote the Plandemic video, I watched as veterans from around the country and of multiple generations found themselves convinced enough by the conspiracy theory to aggressively spread it to their networks as if it were critical information. Among a host of other dangerous lies, the video discourages people from getting the influenza vaccine — which increases the likelihood that aging, health-compromised Vietnam veterans will die unnecessarily in what could be America’s “darkest winter.”
Meanwhile, it’s been nearly two weeks since the viral event yet the VA hasn’t done anything to debunk this dangerous health-related disinformation or to otherwise make veterans more resistant to falling victim to COVID-19-related scams.
This type of disinformation campaign erodes trust in the American government and encourages health decisions that endanger us all during this pandemic, and it should not go without a full-throated rebuttal.
As Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the co-chairmen of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission report warn, “Your entire life — your paycheck, your health care, your electricity — increasingly relies on networks of digital devices... These networks are vulnerable, if not already compromised.” Even the government’s own networks’ vulnerabilities to state-sponsored actors became clear when the Office of Personnel and Management was penetrated by Chinese hackers years ago, with the sensitive background-check information for millions of government employees and veterans being stolen for what could be ammunition for another devastating cyber attack.
Inaction from the Trump administration demands an aggressive and assertive Congress, willing to put forward prescriptive legislation that makes improvements to America’s cybersecurity inevitable. Congress must require the VA to meaningfully address the issue of cyber hygiene, to ensure that veterans have all of the tools that they need to remain safe as the Internet becomes an evermore central part of all of our lives.
Furthermore, the House and Senate should establish Select Committees on Cybersecurity to ensure attention and oversight of this important domain cannot be ignored by this or any future administration. This upcoming National Defense Authorization Act would be an appropriate vessel to implement the recommendations provided by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s and VVA’s reports. America can’t wait any longer
Kristofer Goldsmith is associate director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
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Correction: The status of a potential VA assistant secretary for cyber health has been updated.