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Sen. Ron Wyden On Michael Flynn's Sentencing, Russia Investigation

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Michael Flynn, President Trump's first national security adviser, will be sentenced in federal court in Washington, D.C., today. President Trump has already tweeted his good wishes for Flynn this morning. Flynn is charged with lying to investigators about his conversations with Russian officials during the president's transition phase shortly after the 2016 election. And this comes as we're getting more details about Russia's effort to intervene in that election. A new report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee shows Russia was using every major social media platform to help elect President Trump. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and joins me this morning. Senator, thanks a lot for coming in.

RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me again.

GREENE: So Michael Flynn gets sentenced today. He's admitted he lied to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia's ambassador. Is there a larger lesson here if you had a foreign government talking to someone working on a presidential transition?

WYDEN: Well, first of all, you shouldn't be doing that. And it just seems to me that any way you slice this, Michael Flynn is an adult. He was a general. He lied to the FBI. That is now indisputable. And I'm sure there can be lots of debates about various motivations for what he's done in the last few days. Maybe he wants this to affect his sentence. Maybe he's hoping for a pardon. But to me, what everybody ought to see as their takeaway is there are real consequences for lying to the FBI, as there should be.

GREENE: Well, let's look at the Russian side of all of this. It's becoming, you know, more clear exactly what Russia was trying to do to intervene to get President Trump elected - still open questions about whether exactly they did influence. But we know they were trying to. I mean, you've had former CIA officials who have said that a lot of countries, including the United States, you know, they try to influence elections abroad. So what did Russia do here that somehow was different or crossed a line in our election in 2016?

WYDEN: What is different now is how clever the Russians and a variety of foreign adversaries have become at what's called precision targeting, and that's what they use to drive messages to African-Americans. And it comes about because now incredibly detailed information about Americans is gathered by companies, often without the permission of our consumers, and then is sold on the open market or stolen by foreign governments. So my bottom line for what we ought to go forward on is recognizing that consumer privacy has to be a top line national security issue and that this Congress has to pass - so it's enforceable by the 2020 election - that there is a tough, enforceable privacy law so that our foreign adversaries can't easily get their hands on the personal information of our people.

GREENE: I just want to underscore one point you made. You said that the Russians were specifically targeting African-American communities. And one thing we're learning from this report it seems is that that was an effort to get Donald Trump elected - to suppress turnout, potentially among African-Americans, who the Russians thought might have supported Hillary Clinton. That was their view. The law you're talking about, can you explain how that type of legislation, if passed, would stop that from happening?

WYDEN: Well, first of all, there's no question that the Russians wanted to help Donald Trump. This was all about using social media to get Donald Trump elected. So to me, if you pass a tough law that ensures that there isn't so much data available about African-Americans - apropos of that question you asked - and everybody else, then you reduce the universe of opportunities for our foreign adversaries to target voters. So what I do in my proposed federal law is I do - I have a do not track provision so that you, again, apropos of a specific group, you can't track them.

If they choose to say, we don't want our information used this way, then there are rules for companies to secure the data because we've all seen these enormous, you know, hacks - Target, Marriott and the like. And then finally, you've got to have - and we don't have it today - is enforcement with teeth. And that would mean that if a CEO lies to the federal government, for example, on their privacy policy with respect to African-Americans or anybody else, the CEO faces real penalties. And that would include jail time.

GREENE: Has this come too late? I mean, do you and your colleagues, lawmakers, others in the U.S. government feel that you were not keeping up with changes in the world - this rapid rise of social media? Were you outsmarted by the Russians in some ways?

WYDEN: Well, clearly, the social media companies were quite slow to understand the seriousness of the problem. For example...

GREENE: But what about policymakers and lawmakers like you?

WYDEN: Well, I have said consistently that the companies have to be more vigilant and more aggressive. I've supported them when they're right - for example, when they are - do down ranking, which makes it harder to get access to the information. And that's why I'm advocating a law that, I think, gets at the heart of this problem, which is, you shouldn't be able to get your hands on people's personal data so easily.

GREENE: Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Senator, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

WYDEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.