VA ‘inadequate’ in response to veterans targeted by foreign threats online, senators tell Wilkie

Abbie Bennett
March 06, 2020 - 4:00 pm

Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens/North Carolina National Guard

The Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing enough to protect veterans from being targeted by foreign actors online, a group of 19 senators said again in a letter to Secretary Robert Wilkie this week.

An investigation by a veteran service organization found that malicious foreign entities were targeting veterans through misinformation on social media and other online tools and that such targeting continues related to the upcoming federal election. 

The senators’ letter to Wilkie, obtained by Connecting Vets, is dated March 5 and is the second effort by senators to call on Wilkie to defend the veterans in his care. 

Last year, the Vietnam Veterans of America released the results of a two-year investigation which "documented persistent, pervasive and coordinated online targeting of American service members, veterans and their families by foreign entities who seek to disrupt American democracy." Following that report, senators, led by Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote to Wilkie seeking information about VA's efforts to combat the attacks on veterans.

Three months later, the senators said they received a brief response: 

“VA continues to support federal efforts to combat foreign influence by educating veterans, VA employees and beneficiaries on threats from foreign influence operations. VA partners with a wide variety of agencies regarding national security matters and will continue to work on behalf of veterans, VA employees and beneficiaries to counter the full spectrum of threats to national security.” 

When asked to respond to the senators' most recent letter, VA spokeswoman Susan Carter provided Connecting Vets the same statement. 

Senators were not satisfied with Wilkie’s words.

“This response was wholly inadequate because it did not describe in any meaningful detail how VA educates veterans on foreign influence operations or supports interagency efforts to address this threat,” they wrote in their second letter. “Moreover, it is silent on what specific actions, if any, VA has taken to implement the recommendations of the (VVA).” 

Lawmakers were particularly concerned with potentially increased threats during an election year. 

“VA’s vague and wholly inadequate response … is deeply disturbing and provides no indication that the department is taking all reasonable steps to protect veteran communities from this threat,” they wrote, repeating their request for information on how VA is working to protect veterans from being targeted. “VA must take quick and decisive action to meet this challenge.” 

Army veteran Kris Goldsmith, VVA chief investigator and author of the report, told Connecting Vets that his nearly 200-page investigative report “documented everything from financial scams targeting disabled veterans to foreign entities using VVA’s logo to push falsified news about VA cutting benefits.” 

Foreign scammers are 'stealing veteran voices.' Congress wants answers from Twitter, Facebook

Since Goldsmith and VVA released their report “VA hasn’t even so much as reached out to us to talk about tackling these issues.” 

Goldsmith said VVA appealed to President Donald Trump about the dangers in December, “specifically about how Macedonians had been tricking his supporters into sending their political donations overseas.” 

But so far, the White House has not responded, he said. 

“We’re thankful that these senators are acknowledging this new reality and hope that the Trump administration does the same soon.” 

VA largely silent on measures to protect veterans' data. Here's who can access your records.

Information security is a 'major challenge' at VA, watchdogs tell Congress


Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.