With continued political turbulence in Virginia and throughout the US, RVA Mag reached out to Virginia Senator Mark Warner to catch the vibe in Congress on police violence, tech threats, and our role on the world stage.
Everyone should talk to Senator Mark Warner about something at least once. Because that something is going to branch into something else, and before long you will have covered everything from police violence in America to the global expansion of Chinese tech markets. With a casual demeanor and a conversationalist’s gift of persuasiveness, the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is not only pragmatic about our current predicaments, but forward focused and at ease articulating the future challenges we will face at home and abroad.
And in our age of perpetual political anxiety, this kind of clarity is needed now more than ever.
Given ongoing political turbulence, RVA Mag wanted to catch up with Warner to chat about the state of play throughout the US. Over the course of two interviews, what soon became apparent is that the state of play for Warner is a vast interconnected system, which, with the right motivation, can be re-imagined into a new social contract: one that speaks to the challenges facing a new generation in political and economic transformation. Far from observing politics as a series of disparate events, Warner sees the modern policy landscape as a vehicle to develop new innovation and alliances, which can not only strengthen our individual rights, but bolster democracy globally.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RVA Mag: I think we can start at the place that is most relevant right now — police violence. As a Senator that focuses on national security and intelligence, what’s it like to look around — not just in Virginia, but America, and see militarized police forces engaging civil society the way they have?
Warner: It is a little bit surreal. Especially when you see unmarked, unidentified federal officers in a city like Portland sweeping people into vans and having them disappear. When I was a kid, I was an exchange student in Argentina in the 1970s. The military there tried these same tactics. There was a group of grandmothers of these lost people who would show up every week in Buenos Aires to protest, and now, to have these pictures of moms linking arms in Portland with bicycle helmets trying to defend their children in the United States of America was maybe the most poignant thing of this. Obviously Black Lives Matter is an important movement, and the systemic racism that we’re seeing is why I am proud to be the original co-sponsor of the Justice In Policing Act.
The notion that there are people in America who can be subject to that kind of unidentified policing is why Jeff Merkley’s proposed the legislation he has, which I and others support. If a governor, mayor, or local police chief needs federal assistance, let them ask for it, but let’s not impose this external activity when your local elected officials don’t want it — and in Portland, it has exacerbated the violence.
RVA Mag: You cosigned a letter from “Intel Dems” demanding the answers to 26 questions from the Department of Homeland Security about the deployment of these federal officers. When you read the questions, it sounds like a list of requirements you would ask a CIA Station Chief. Are we at the point in this situation where this level of granularity is required?
Warner: That’s a great question. I hope we’re not at that point. But as we know in the intelligence world, there are protections put in place. We need to have those protections, god forbid, if we see these kinds of activities and use of these kinds of forces in the United States. I have been a little disappointed there has not been broader bipartisan support, because my Republican colleagues, for years, have been saying state and local government should have control and not be subjected to Washington over-reach.
RVA Mag: One of the analogies which has been used is the idea of a “secret police.” Not actually secret, but a police force only accountable to the President. This does seem reminiscent of intelligence services from authoritarian countries. Is there precedent for this kind of police deployment?
Warner: No, I don’t think there is. We had Director Wray from the FBI in the other day and we asked him if there was any FBI involvement. And he said no. So the idea that there are these federal protective services and other entities, who rightfully protect our federal buildings, but are not used in this kind of this context, is one more unprecedented area where this President knows no restrictions.
RVA Mag: Where would the checks and balances against that level of authority and power come from?
Warner: The checks and balances usually come from career professionals at the Justice Department. They say no, but as we’ve seen, you’ve had 2,500 current and former justice department officials asking Bill Barr to resign. You have a president that has very little regard for rule of law, and unfortunately, an Attorney General who views his client not as the people of the United States but Donald Trump, so you’ve got a recipe for this kind of activity. Unless we can get the Majority Leader to let us vote on this bill — there are a number of more classically Libertarian Republican Senators: Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and the others; I would love to hear their reason for not voting for Merkley’s bill — I don’t know where they stand, but the chances are we’d get well over 51 votes.
RVA Mag: When you listen to the concerns of younger people, myself included, there seems to be a growing fear that not only is our democracy under assault, but that the foundational core of the social contract is also at-risk. You don’t really have to look further than the president’s tweets about postponing the election or trying to invalidate mail-in ballots to see this.
Warner: Luckily, you saw many Republicans push back when the president of the United States, in an effort to take people’s attention off of the fact that our economy contracted 36 percent, started saying he might try and delay the election. I think we have seen this president show a willingness use any tactic at all, which he thinks might deflect or remove people’s attention — so I was happy to see so many of my Republican colleagues step up after one of the great abuses of recent time, when military force cleared protestors out of Lafayette Square so that Trump could go hold a bible. That made me particularly angry, because I got married in that church 31 years ago! You saw [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [Mark] Milley being manipulated, but you saw very quickly Milley and [Secretary of Defense Mark] Esper very much pull back. Because this is not the way we operate in this country.
I don’t want to give you my full spiel of the future of capitalism, but I would argue this concern about democracy and the breakdown of the social contract precedes Donald Trump.
RVA Mag: That’s interesting.
Warner: We had a social contract that existed since the 1930s to roughly around the year 2000. It wasn’t perfect, a lot of women and people of color didn’t do well. But generally if you worked hard, paid your taxes, you got a chance to move up in our society. And for 50 years, post-WW2 capitalism created more wealth than any system in the world. But starting in the late 90s, short-term profits became the overriding principle of everything, and where that was demonstrated most was the break down of the social contract. One of the structural changes that has come out of COVID is the idea that we can finally cover gig workers, independent contractors, sole proprietors with unemployment.
Before, only about 50 percent of workers were covered by unemployment. So this whole notion of the social contract has to be redone. If you have the social contract fraying on one end and then your institutions of democracy fraying on the other, that combination comes together and that’s an explosive mixture — Americans by nature are always a little leery of power.
RVA Mag: Do you think the American economy is still accessible? Especially for young people who are invested in a particular kind of economy that didn’t exist even five years ago?
Warner: I’m a classic born-in-the-50s baby boomer. But I also failed a number of times in business. However, had I not been a white guy with the right education, I’m not sure I would have gotten the chances I had. But it is stunning to me that in the UK and Canada, your ability to move from one economic status to another is easier there — the UK used to be the epitome of class structure.
I was an entrepreneur and then a venture capitalist. 50 percent of all new jobs in the last 30 years were from start-up companies. Yet angel and venture capital deals are down 40 percent since 2016. Because if you are talking especially about tech — if your only options are to sell to Google and Facebook, then you can’t get to scale. This is hard. When I hear people say “Oh, Facebook and Google are great and free,” I remind them that they’re not free at all. They’re giant suckers of information.
RVA Mag: Can America compete with countries like China nowadays? They are leading in green energy hardware, advancements in biomedical technologies, and artificial intelligence. Those are the economics of the future — not, as Republicans like to flaunt, coal.
Warner: What the Chinese have done is what America did from around 1920 -1980. But they have done it in a way that was even more slightly sophisticated than we did. I have changed my view completely on China. Ten years ago, I was part of the school that wanted to bring them into the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization — the more you bring them in, the closer they’ll be. I think we were wrong. That was mostly revealed in the changes in the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping. My concern with China is not with the Chinese people; I stand with Hong Kong, and Chinese Americans. One of the things that Trump does is play on racial prejudice — so let me speak about the Chinese economic model, which is pretty wild.
The Chinese allow massive competition in their domestic market for technology until a national champion emerges. And once that national champion emerges, they will end up getting about 70 percent of the Chinese market, which usually equates to about 25 percent of the world market. What we need is alliances that are technology-based, and I think we need a coalition of the willing. In the end, people still trust us to be the good guys, and what we’ve seen over the last three-and-a-half years is what happens when America exits the world stage.
RVA Mag: I want to pick your brain about the place where tech, intelligence, and national security intersect, since this is something you have been super-focused on. How far along are we in our understanding of this intersection, given that bad actors both foreign and domestic are using media platforms to shape their own goals and objectives?
Warner: In some sense, we have come a long way since 2016, when the Russians caught our intelligence community off guard. They generally caught the social media platforms off guard. They showed how vulnerable our whole society was to manipulation. The social media companies recognize this now. I don’t think they’ve gone far enough, but they recognize it. Our intelligence community literally has hundreds of professionals working to monitor this. So we are better aware. But on the other hand, Congress has made absolutely no progress.
RVA Mag: Ah, there it is. Ok.
Warner: We still have not passed basic privacy legislation. We have not done something when in any other time would have been a complete no-brainer — the Honest Ads Act, which had John McCain and Lindsay Graham on it. It’s basically saying, if there is a political ad on Facebook and YouTube, there would be the same disclosure requirements as an ad on TV or radio. I put out a white paper that had the theories of ideas on how we put guardrails around big-tech, and that legislation has basically gone nowhere. Almost all of this is bipartisan, so it is not broken down along those lines. It is almost to the point where big tech at first knee jerked reacted against any regulatory oversight, but now they realize this is in a global context. Even big tech realizes that having some national standards, rather than a patchwork of standards around the country and around the world, makes sense.
We are seeing the big tech security issues moving from manipulation with social media to more nefarious contexts. When we look at the Chinese government combining facial recognition with their big tech companies to create a surveillance state, that might allow them to curtail COVID, but it allows them to spy on people [in ways] that would make Orwell blush. So there is the manipulation of social media, which has morphed into how big tech can be used as an agent of a surveillance state.
RVA Mag: As the Vice-Chair of the Intelligence Committee, what do the threats look like in 2020? Have they evolved in the age of COVID?
Warner: I think technology is a positive force, but can be used as a mechanism of societal control. It goes back to the idea of alliances; what are the alliances of the future going to be? Post WW2, they were all military alliances, with a few economic trading blocs. But I think we are going to need these technology alliances amongst nations who have a basic fundamental belief in individual rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The asymmetric power that comes from technology with a ruthless CEO or ruthless government is daunting. Something that sneaks up on you can overcome your claims of investment in traditional defense technology.
RVA Mag: Well, those are my questions Senator. Thank you for that great conversation.
Warner: Thanks for letting me go on for so long!
*Illustration by R. Anthony Harris