Russia Attacked The 2016 U.S. Election: Why Should We Care?
Five hours and 16 minutes into last month’s 5-hour, 35-minute hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat in his third term representing the people of the 10th congressional district in Washington state, finally cut through the clutter, the distractions and the fake controversies and got to the core of the matter:
“Please explain . . . to me,” Heck asked FBI Director James Comey, “and, more importantly, to the American public why we should care about Russia’s use of U.S. persons, of Americans, helping Russia destabilize our democracy.”
Heck was asking about Russia’s sneak attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Comey was someone who knew exactly why the question was important.
Last October, as the ferocious presidential campaign neared its end, Comey’s FBI joined the other 16 agencies of the American intelligence community in issuing a rare joint public statement through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Their collective judgment was that the Russian government was conducting an ongoing secret cyber operation to interfere with and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The FBI, CIA and NSA followed up two months after the election with an unclassified version of a joint report that revealed facts and details they had uncovered and assessments they had reached about the secret Russian project. Among the findings:
The “active measures” attacks on the U.S. election process were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They represented “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort” over previous attempts to undermine American democracy, the report said.
The multifaceted operation was designed, conducted and supervised by the Russian Army intelligence unit known as the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.
It involved, among other things, breaking into American computer systems and stealing content from people and organizations associated with the Democratic and Republican parties.
It also involved creating entirely false “news” stories and fake conspiracies.
Although the Russian project hacked into computer systems associated with both major political parties, it distributed only materials stolen from the Democratic side that were judged likely to weaken Americans’ faith in their democracy and damage the campaign or possible presidency of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. As the campaign proceeded, Russian intelligence became more focused on actions that might help elect Putin’s preferred candidate, Republican Donald Trump.
The Russians used multiple means to spread the material they stole and the false content they made up. They distributed it, for example, through Russian propaganda channels such as R.T. and Sputnik News, the persona of a supposed hacker/blogger called Guciffer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com. They used “third-party intermediaries” and cutouts to feed it to WikiLeaks, to legitimate media outlets and to partisan organizations and websites eager to run negative material, true or false, about Clinton.
The Russian intelligence operation also identified and hired Internet operatives commonly called trolls to vastly increase the reach of the material through social media and intensify the negative impact on Clinton. Some trolls were able to exploit networks of home and business computers that were infected with Internet robot software (”bots”) and relay the stolen and false information as if it were being sent and shared by multitudes of real people.
At last week’s first open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into Russian interference in U.S. elections, expert witness Clint Watts of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security and the Foreign Policy Research Institute told senators that some of President Trump’s own actions, during the campaign and even since his inauguration, have dovetailed with Russian tactics and objectives. “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election,” Watts testified, “is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”
Watts pointed to Trump’s oft-repeated false accusation during and after the campaign that the election was being rigged against him. “That was the number-one theme pushed by R.T. and Sputnik News all the way up until the election,” Watts said. “I can tell you right now, today,” he continued, “gray outlets that are Soviet(cq)-pushing accounts tweet at President Trump ... when they know he’s online, and they push conspiracy theories.”
Trump’s most direct appeal to the Russian intelligence operation − he later claimed he was joking − came during a July 2016 campaign rally at which he brought up the Clinton e-mail controversy, a subject the secret Russian cyber campaign was helping to stoke. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Below Trump’s level but close to him, there is a troubling abundance of aides, advisers, campaign and administration officials and current and former associates who have had contacts and relationships of various sorts with Russian political leaders and businesses.
They include former Trump campaign chairman and political consultant Paul Manafort, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, U.S. Attorney General and former senator Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State and former chief executive of Exxon-Mobil Rex Tillerson, Trump son-in-law and real estate developer Jared Kushner, controversial consultant Roger Stone, national security campaign adviser J.D. Gordon and former banker and foreign policy campaign adviser Carter Page.
Page was the subject of a BuzzFeed News report earlier this week that he had met with and sent documents to a Russian intelligence agent he met at a U.S. energy conference in 2013. Filings in a New York federal criminal case described contacts between the Russian agent and “Male-1” over the course of some six months. Page confirmed to BuzzFeed that he was the person identified as “Male-1” and that he had no idea in 2013 that the Russian was an intelligence operative. He said the documents he gave the man were adapted from publicly available materials about the energy business and that he had been interviewed by FBI agents at the time. The same court filing also recounts two Russian agents discussing Page as a target for possible recuitment as a source.
In a class by himself for a wide variety of disturbing activities is Michael Flynn. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn briefly held the title of National Security Advisor in Trump’s administration before the president fired him for lying to Vice-President Mike Pence and others.
When questions arose during the post-election period, for example, about contact Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, Flynn denied to Pence and others in the administration that they discussed the existing U.S. sanctions against Russia. Then Flynn changed his story and said that while he didn’t recall discussing the subject, he couldn’t say for sure it hadn’t come up in any of his many calls, texts and meetings with Kislyak. Then Flynn changed his story again, saying he now remembered that he and Kislyak had discussed the sanctions. Flynn’s lawyer has said that his client would be willing to appear before the House and Senate intelligence committees if he first received immunity. So far, the committees have rejected the idea.
Why does any of this matter? Or, as Rep. Denny Heck put it to FBI Director James Comey during the House Intelligence Committee hearing, why should we care?
Comey didn’t hesitate a second: “I truly believe we are a shining city on a hill, to quote a great American,” he said. “And one of the things we radiate to the world is the importance of our wonderful, often messy, but free and fair democratic system and the elections that undergird it. And so when there’s an effort by a foreign nation state to mess with that, to destroy that, to corrupt that, it’s very, very serious, and threatens what is America. And if any Americans are part of that effort, it’s a very serious matter.”