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Senators push to declassify TikTok intel and hold a public hearing ahead of ban vote

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, talks with Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, during a panel hearing earlier this month.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, talks with Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., left, during a panel hearing earlier this month.

Senators from both parties say the public should get access to at least some of the sensitive information that U.S. agencies shared at a closed-door classified intelligence briefing Wednesday about the influence and reach of TikTok.

Many senators emerging from the session argued it was time to take up House-passed legislation that would force the Chinese owner of TikTok to divest or face a ban in the United States. But it's clear that any Senate action could take weeks, if not months, and the chamber is likely to put its own stamp on a bill.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, endorsed the House bill and told reporters he backed declassifying some of the analysis communicated in the briefing, which he organized for his colleagues to discuss the impact of the video-sharing app.

"The reality is that we have that entity having that much personal data, access to, and that much potential to manipulate content on a platform that a lot of young people look to as their No. 1 news source," Warner said.

Warner noted that after the House received a similar briefing about national security concerns, a key committee approved a bill 50-0. The measure was then overwhelmingly approved by the House 352-65. But Warner said there is a need for more senators and the public to process the information, and the senators aren't likely to act as swiftly as their House counterparts, despite many echoing concerns about the issues posed by the app.

"My reaction to this briefing is that TikTok is a gun aimed at Americans' heads," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters while leaving the session, adding, "The Chinese Communists are weaponizing information that they are constantly, surreptitiously collecting from 170 million Americans and potentially aiming that information, using it through algorithms at the core of American democracy."

Blumenthal declined to say what evidence was presented that detailed that ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, was sharing Americans' private data with the Chinese government, but he said, "All of it should be made public."

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., agreed some information could be released, but he maintained that what is known publicly already demonstrates the threat to users' personal data security and to national security. Pressed on the details of evidence about data directly shared with Chinese government officials, Cotton pointed to the terms and conditions stating that the app can access data once it's downloaded. "TikTok and ByteDance and Chinese leaders go to great lengths to try to conceal what they are doing," he said. He also pointed to TikTok's lobbying campaign of targeting messages to users during last week's House debate, urging them to try to influence American political debate.

Cotton also said academic studies about TikTok's use of its algorithm show use of the algorithm to highlight specific political points of view. Cotton pointed to what he described as a "clear skew in pro-Hamas propaganda on TikTok versus other social media apps" and added, "You don't need an academic study to use common sense."

Some senators call for a public hearing

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the issue, told reporters she wanted a public hearing, potentially with the Senate Intelligence Committee, a move that could slow down Senate action.

Warner agreed. "We've got still some education to do — to members and, frankly, the public," he said. He noted the speedy House passage of the legislation and conceded, "I'm not sure the Senate has got that same kind of timetable."

But Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, said that the focus on just one social media app ignores a broader problem: "A discussion of TikTok that does not discuss all the other American social media companies is missing the forest for the trees."

He cited statistics about the rise in teen suicides and the link to the explosion of use of multiple social media platforms. Markey declined to say whether he opposes the House bill, but he said the media's coverage of the debate over TikTok was "allowing one company to dominate the discussion, which is every American company is part of that very same threat that is occurring right now, not in the future." Markey said he has sponsored broader bills with new guardrails around all social media companies, and he told reporters at the Capitol, "I need them to move."

But the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, pointed to a Chinese law governing Chinese-owned companies, regardless of who is on their board, that dictates that every technology under Chinese control is required to do whatever the Chinese government tells it to do.

And he cited the algorithm used by TikTok to determine which content is served up to U.S. users as a key reason why Congress needs to act. "That algorithm in a moment of conflict or an ongoing basis can be altered in order to drive certain messages, to divide Americans, to destabilize our politics, to influence policymakers, to denigrate policymakers, to tear our country apart, and China clearly wants to achieve that."

TikTok denounced the House bill last week as an attack on the free speech rights of the app's users and argued that shutting it down would negatively affect small businesses that use it and content creators who rely on it for their livelihoods.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sidestepped answering when the bill would move in the Senate, telling reporters, "I'm talking to the members of my caucus to decide the best path forward."

Lawmakers from both parties who back the House bill say the new owner of TikTok doesn't necessarily need to be an American company.

There is also an acknowledgment that if six months is not enough time to make a transition to a new owner, as the House bill specifies, the Senate could amend the legislation and provide a longer time frame.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.