The Cable

U.S. Spies to Trump: Putin Ordered Hacking to Boost Your Chances

The President-elect still refuses to believe Moscow tipped the scales, despite growing evidence of a multi-faceted campaign.

FORT WORTH, TX - FEBRUARY 26:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Trump is campaigning in Texas, days ahead of the Super Tuesday primary.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TX - FEBRUARY 26: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 26, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. Trump is campaigning in Texas, days ahead of the Super Tuesday primary. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign” targeting the 2016 American election to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process” and to “help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” according to a newly declassified report released Friday.

The report, assembled by the CIA, FBI, and NSA, contains the most detailed assessment yet of an unprecedented Russian effort that targeted the computer systems of American political organizations and then leaked the material obtained during those raids. It concludes that Russia carried out a multi-faceted campaign involving hacking, disinformation, and trolls to both sow doubt about the integrity of the U.S. election and to boost Trump’s chances.

Trump has consistently cast doubt on Russia’s responsibility. Even after being personally briefed on that report Friday, he betrayed confusion over what had happened.

“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.”

Except they were, but didn’t release any information. “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign,” the report notes.

U.S. spies intercepted communications from Russian officials celebrating Trump’s victory as a geo political win for the Kremlin, according  to several media reports. U.S. officials have also identified the third party Russian operatives used to pass passed stolen documents to WikiLeaks.

The report describes the campaign as motivated by Putin’s personal grievances. “Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him,” the report argues.

Additionally, humiliation over other disclosures added more fuel to the fire. “Putin publicly pointed to the Panama Papers disclosure and the Olympic doping scandal as US-directed efforts to defame Russia, suggesting he sought to use disclosures to discredit the image of the United States and cast it as hypocritical,” the report said.

During his years in power, Putin has cultivated a roster of Western leaders with whom he has developed close personal ties, with benefits for Russian state-controlled business interests. Friday’s report implies Trump is the latest in a long line of what some intelligence officers describe as “useful idiots” for the Kremlin.

“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,” the report said.

It offers a detailed account of Russia’s ambitions and actions during the 2016 information operation, but offers nothing new in the way of underlying evidence. It is unclear whether the report will sway those, like Trump, who continue to question the accumulating evidence underlying the intelligence community’s assessment.

Friday’s report is an unclassified version of a more thorough classified report that describes the sources and methods that girds the intelligence community’s assessment. Next week, intelligence officials will testify before Congress and brief lawmakers on their full findings.

Cybersecurity experts and intelligence officials argue that the public evidence documenting Russia’s involvement provides conclusive evidence that the Kremlin carried out the campaign. That case rests on the use of malware known to be deployed by hacking groups dubbed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear; the use of computer infrastructure under the control of Russian intelligence; and an examination of the public impact — and likely motive — behind the breaches and the leaks.

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, has denied that Russia served as the source for the leaks, but Friday’s report calls that claim a boldface lie. “We assess with high confidence that the GRU [Russian military intelligence] relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks,” the report notes.

Trump has described the intelligence community’s investigation of Russia’s role in the election as an attempt to discredit the legitimacy of his victory. The report notes, in precise language, that “the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying,” a finding that Trump highlighted Friday. The report does not attempt to analyze the effect of the Kremlin information operation on the election.

American intelligence officials believe the problems is only going to get worse — and not just in Washington. “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes,” the report states.

In Germany, intelligence officials have warned that Russian operatives may try to tilt the election against Chancellor Angela Merkel in favor of the Euro-skeptic AfD, a right-wing group. In France, Russia has provided financial support for Marie Le Pen’s National Front, a populist party sympathetic to Kremlin policies. In both Germany and France, hackers linked to Russia have recently carried out cyberattacks against political institutions and the media.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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