Top U.S. intelligence officials detail Putin’s U.S. election “influence campaign” in declassified report
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified report on Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election Friday afternoon, hours after briefing President-elect Donald Trump on its contents. The report states that the CIA, the FBI, and NSA all believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”
According to the ODNI, these efforts included not just covert cyberattacks on American institutions and political parties but also a significant misinformation campaign carried out by Russia’s state-funded media and “paid social media users or ‘trolls.’”
The intelligence community believes Russia’s goals “were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The Russian government, the report states, “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” over his Democratic rival.
Trump and his team have been publicly skeptical — at times outright hostile — to U.S. intelligence leaks that link Russia to the hack of senior Democratic Party members’ emails. Those emails, including many from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, appeared on the site WikiLeaks in the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign and created a media frenzy that Trump used to his advantage. The intelligence community believes that Russia chose to secretly publish the emails through WikiLeaks because of “its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.”
Embarrassing infighting within the Clinton Foundation and Clinton campaign were exposed, and Clinton’s opponents cited the content of some emails as proof that foundation supporters received access to the upper echelons of the State Department in exchange for donations.
In addition to covert cyberattacks, the intelligence community says Russia also attempted to undermine the election through a multifaceted propaganda campaign. The ODNI report includes the claim that some social media accounts previously used for Russian propaganda supporting military action in Ukraine were repurposed to support Trump’s presidential campaign as early as December 2015.
Officials appear to be particularly concerned with RT, the state-owned Russian TV channel in the U.S. A significant portion of the new report highlights RT’s negative coverage of Clinton and its effusive praise of both Trump and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
It is still unclear, however, what effect the leaked emails and misinformation campaign had on the outcome of the election.
Predictably, Trump and Clinton disagree on this point. In a statement, Trump said “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election” due to the cyberattacks. Speaking to donors last month, Clinton said the hack of her campaign chair was one of two “unprecedented” events that led to her defeat, the second being the letter from FBI Director James Comey to Congress 11 days before the election about a further investigation that could be relevant to the one into Clinton’s private email server.
While the report states unequivocally their assessment that Russia was responsible for the hack and disclosed the private emails via WikiLeaks, the intelligence community as a whole is not as certain about Russia’s ultimate motivation. The CIA and FBI assessed with high confidence that Putin carried out the influence campaign in order to help Trump claim the Oval Office, but the NSA has only “moderate confidence” in that assessment.
Russia targeted both the Democratic and Republican parties, which suggests that their motivations may have been more about sowing chaos in the American electoral process than harming Clinton directly. But the intelligence officials indicate that while the Russians “collected” information on Republican officials, they “did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.” The intelligence agencies believe that the Russian government saw an opportunity to work with Trump “as a way to achieve an international counterterrorism coalition” against the Islamic State.
The United States has resisted cooperating significantly with Russia on this front because of Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. President Bashar Assad and his government have perpetuated the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people and created an intractable refugee crisis during Syria’s nearly six-year civil war.
After his meeting with the leaders of the FBI, NSA, CIA, and ODNI today, Trump released a statement for the first time acknowledging that Russia, along with other countries, are consistently trying to hack into “our infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses, and organizations, including the Democrat National Committee.”
Trump has come under intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for his flip dismissals of the intelligence community over the past week. In Friday’s statement, he seemed to address such concerns by stating his “tremendous respect” for the men and women in the intelligence community.
Earlier Friday, Congress officially accepted the Electoral College results certifying Trump’s election victory. He is set to be inaugurated on Jan. 20.