Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a wide-ranging campaign to disrupt the American presidential election, seeking to “denigrate” Hillary Clinton and boost the chances of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, according to an unusually detailed declassified report released by the U.S. intelligence community Friday.
The Kremlin efforts involved cyberattacks, state funded propaganda, including by its RT TV network, and social media “trolls.” Russia’s military intelligence hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic political leaders and then “relayed material it acquired” to WikiLeaks. The intelligence community reached that conclusion with “high confidence,” directly refuting statements this week by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that he did not receive hacked emails from the Russian government.
The 14-page report, a public version of a more extensive classified assessment briefed to President Obama on Thursday and President-elect Trump on Friday, goes well beyond previous public statements by U.S. intelligence community officials about the election. It includes several alarming new details: In early 2014, it says, Russian intelligence began researching “U.S. electoral processes and related technology and equipment” and later “obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.” The type of systems compromised, however, were not involved in vote tallying.
The report also delves more deeply than earlier statements into Putin’s motives for ordering the influence campaign. Beyond the Kremlin’s longstanding interest in undermining “the US-led liberal democratic order,” Putin viewed the release of the Panama Papers (revealing the secret bank accounts of several of his associates) and the Olympic doping scandal as “US-directed efforts to defame Russia.” He also “most likely” wanted to discredit Clinton because he “holds a grudge” against her for public comments she made supporting protests in Moscow and other cities against the 2011 Russian elections that kept Putin’s party, United Russia, in power.
But it also cites one reason that Putin appeared to look favorably on Trump — the president-elect’s business background, including dealings over the years in Russia: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.” (After leaving office, Schroeder joined the board of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, and has maintained close ties to Putin.)
Even when polls indicated Trump losing, the Russians continued their efforts to undermine Clinton, according to the intelligence report. “When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency, the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the election,” the report states.
The report was released shortly after Trump received a classified briefing on its contents at Trump Tower by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey and CIA Director John Brennan. Trump then released a public statement that avoided any mention of its principal conclusions — that the Russians sought to defeat his opponent and elect him — and focused instead on its finding that no actual vote tallies were compromised.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said in a statement. “There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.” (The report notes that the Russians targeted both major political parties, but does not indicate whether it penetrated the Republican National Committee.)
Trump’s statement drew an immediate rebuke from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee. “The president-elect’s statement that the Russian hacking had ‘absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election’ is not supported by the briefing, report or common sense,” he said. “It is one thing to say that there was no tampering with vote tallying — which is true — it is another thing to say that the daily dumping of documents disparaging to Secretary Clinton that was made possible by Russian cyber-operations had no effect on the campaigns. The consequence of these disclosures was hugely beneficial to the president-elect and damaging to the Clinton campaign, just as the Russians intended. Whether they had a decisive impact on the outcome will never be known and was certainly not the subject of the intelligence community’s analysis, but that they were of great consequence is undeniable.”
It’s far from clear that the report will settle the ongoing debate in Washington over the role of Moscow in the 2016 elections. It discloses little of the evidence that supports its conclusions, saying only as a general matter that intelligence analysts integrate information from “human sources, technical collection and open sources.” It says that making attribution in cyber-operations is “difficult but not impossible. Every kind of cyber-operation — malicious or not — leaves a trail.”
The report also indicates there was little dissent among the intelligence agencies about the findings. It says the entire intelligence community has “high confidence” that Putin ordered the influence and hacking campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and “denigrate” Clinton. On another major finding — that Putin and the Russian government intended to boost Trump — the CIA and FBI have “high confidence” in that conclusion. The National Security Agency has “moderate confidence” in that judgment.
Warning that the Russian operation portends a “new normal” in Russian efforts to undermine Western democracies, the report sounds an alarm about the danger that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts in the United States and worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”
One of the more revealing sections of the report deals with RT, the Russian worldwide television network, which regularly airs programming denigrating the United States, including allegations that American elections are rigged and that the United States is a “surveillance state.” The Kremlin has invested $190 million a year in RT programming and now, according to its website, reaches more than 550 million people. The report notes that RT has “actively collaborated” with WikiLeaks; its editor-in-chief visited Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in August 2013 and reached an agreement to provide access to “new leaks of secret information.”