Axios@ (Adds detail, background)
WASHINGTON, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Facebook Inc Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said on Thursday the company was fully committed to helping U.S. congressional investigators publicly release Russia-backed political ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. election.
"Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened," Sandberg said during an interview in Washington with the Axios news website. "We told Congress and the intelligence committees that when they are ready to release the ads, we are ready to help them."
But Sandberg sidestepped a number of questions about what the world's largest social network knew about the extent of Russia's use of its platform. She was asked three times whether Facebook had seen overlap in ad targeting between Russian accounts and Donald Trump's presidential campaign but did not answer directly, saying that targeting on Facebook is often very broad.
The live interview was the first by a senior Facebook executive since the company disclosed last month it had found some 3,000 politically divisive ads believed to have been bought by Russia in the months before and after the presidential campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia used cyber-enabled means in an attempt to help Trump win the White House, an allegation the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
The interview with Sandberg came during a multi-day visit to Washington that included meetings with U.S. lawmakers. On Wednesday, she met privately with the leaders of the House of Representatives' Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation.
Sandberg's outreach comes as the social media giant and other major internet firms, including Alphabet's Google and Twitter, are on the defensive as they try to limit the fallout from a torrent of new revelations about how Moscow sought to use their platforms as vehicles to sow discord in the United States and to influence the election.
Sandberg told Axios the company began hearing rumors of Russian attempts to use the platform to spread propaganda around Election Day last November, but did not give a precise timeline about when the company began its review.
Sandberg said she supported the public release of those ads, and the pages they were connected to. Information about how the ads were targeted toward specific kinds of users would also be released, she said.
Asked if Facebook contributed to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's defeat last year, Sandberg, an open Clinton supporter during the campaign, did not answer directly, but said it was important the website was "free from abuse" during any election in any country.
Congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Russian interference in the election, including whether there was any collusion between Trump associates and Moscow.
'WE'RE ANGRY. WE'RE UPSET.'
Sandberg acknowledged the company had erred in how it handled the issue of foreign interference last year.
"It's not just that we apologize. We're angry, we're upset. But what we really owe the American people is determination" to do a better job of preventing foreign meddling," she said.
"We don't want this kind of foreign interference" on Facebook, Sandberg added. "Any time there is abuse on our platform, it troubles us. It troubles us deeply."
She said the company had been too permissive at times in terms of how advertisers are allowed to target users, and that Facebook did not want to allow ads that may be "discriminatory."
Still, Sandberg said it was important to protect "free expression" on Facebook. Had the Russian ads been bought by legitimate accounts instead of fraudulent ones, many would have been allowed to run on the site, she said.
She also criticized Twitter's decision this week to remove a campaign video from Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. Twitter took down the video, saying a remark Blackburn made about opposing abortion was inflammatory, but later recanted.
"In that ad, there are a lot of things that people don't like, that I don't like. ... But the question is, 'Should divisive political or issue ads run?' Our answer is yes, because when you cut off speech for one person you cut off speech for all people," she said.
Sandberg said the company wanted other internet firms to work to make ad purchases more transparent, but said Facebook was still talking about the issue with lawmakers who want to introduce legislation on the topic.
Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter are expected to testify about Russian influence at hearings before the Senate and House intelligence committees on Nov. 1. (Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Bernadette Baum)