Bipartisan Veterans Demand Investigation of Suspicious VSO Social Media Accounts

March 19, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.Congressman Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (CA-39) led Reps. Don Bacon (NE-02), Ted Lieu (CA-33), and W. Gregory Steube (FL-17), a bipartisan group of veteran Members of Congress, in sending a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray demanding an investigation into suspicious veterans service organizations (VSOs) accounts on social media.

“As a Navy Veteran, it’s troubling to see that foreign actors are distributing false information to our servicemembers and their families, impersonating congressionally-chartered VSOs, and deceiving the American people,” said Rep. Cisneros. “This is a bipartisan letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray calling on him to immediately launch an investigation into these shadowy figures in order to identify and dismantle these cyber threats before they cause harm. Our servicemembers safeguard our country against threats to our democracy like the ones posed by these bad actors, and now it’s time to safeguard our veterans and their families.”

“For nearly two years the Vietnam Veterans of America has been investigating the problem of foreign trolls targeting the veterans community to push divisive propaganda and engage in fraud while pretending to be American service members and veterans organizations,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, chief investigator at VVA. “The problem is persistent, widespread, and presents a threat to the force and the veterans community. We’re glad that Congressman Cisneros and the Members are taking this issue seriously, and we hope that Director Wray will too. Depending on social media companies to stop bad-actors is not enough — we need to hold the people behind these fraudulent online avatars accountable.”

Rep. Cisneros is a 10-year Navy veteran and former Lt. Commander and supply and logistics officer and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Veterans Affairs. He recently heard testimony from every major veterans’ organization in the United States on their policy goals for 2019, including the Vietnam Veterans of America.

The full text of the letter is below:

 

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March 19, 2019

 

Dear Director Wray:

Thank you for your service. We write to express our concerns about reports that foreign entities are targeting American troops and veterans through online influence operations. As the federal law enforcement agency responsible for criminal and counterintelligence investigations, we respectfully request answers to our questions below about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s work to combat such predation.  

On October 17, 2018, The Wall Street Journal chronicled the work of an investigator at Vietnam Veterans of America – a Congressionally-chartered veteran service organization (VSO) – who tracks “suspicious Facebook pages that target military personnel and veterans by using patriotic messages and fomenting political divisions.”[1] The article details disturbingly sophisticated efforts by foreign adversaries to build online audiences among members of the military, veterans, and the law enforcement community by deploying propaganda, false news, and by fraudulently representing legitimate VSOs. 

Online influence and psychological operations against trusted civilian community leaders like our nation’s veterans are novel threats that demands law enforcement attention. A recent University of Oxford study found that, during the 2016 election, Russian operatives engaged in “significant and persistent interactions” with veterans using ads to microtarget audiences that were the most susceptible to their messaging.[2] These groups have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms, which compound the problem of online propaganda by algorithmically promoting divisive content. Moreover, such fake groups use the names and trademarks of real VSOs, a practice detailed in a letter sent by the Vietnam Veterans of America to the FBI last year.[3]

Public reporting also indicates that one particularly influential fraudulent Facebook page, “Nam Vets,” was incidentally taken down for copyright infringement.[4] We cannot allow such a haphazard enforcement regime to dictate what is inherently a matter of U.S. national security. The Military Coalition, a group of 32 military, veterans, and uniformed services organizations, has called on Congress and the federal government to investigate the attacks and protect these groups against further harm.[5]

As you know, the FBI joined the intelligence community in its joint assessment of Russian interference in the U.S. political system – a crucial piece of which was online influence operations “that blend[ed] covert intelligence operations…with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”[6]

It is clear the FBI has a strong role to play in protecting our nation’s veterans against these egregious attacks. As such, we request answers to the following questions:

  1. Is the FBI aware of the issue described above?
  2. Did the FBI receive a letter sent on April 5, 2018, from the Vietnam Veterans of America about this issue?
  3. It is our understanding that, to date, VSOs tracking foreign entities have received little support from the U.S. government. Has the FBI contacted any veteran service organizations about foreign entities targeting, impersonating, or contacting veterans?
  4. Has the FBI contacted any social media companies about the use of their platforms for the purposes of targeting, impersonating, or contacting veterans?
  5. Which office within the FBI is responsible for managing requests for assistance from entities that believe they are being targeted by hostile foreign actors?
  6. Will the FBI commit to meeting with groups, including veterans and law enforcement representatives, that have grappled with hostile foreign actors in the manner described above?

We appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to your response. 


[1] Ben Kesling and Dustin Volz, “Army Veteran Wages War on Social-Media Disinformation,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2018.

[2] Natasha Bertrand, “The Fake Facebook Pages Targeting Vietnam Veterans,” Atlantic, April 12, 2018.

[3] Vietnam Veterans of America, Letter to House Committee on Energy and Commerce, April 5, 2018.

[4] Bertrand, Atlantic, April 12, 2018.

[6] “Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 6, 2017.