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Russian Interference Went Far Beyond DNC Hack, Senate Panel Hears

Russian Interference Went Far Beyond DNC Hack, Senate Panel Hears

The Senate Intelligence Committee heard during a wide-ranging hearing on Thursday — its first into Russian interference in the 2016 election — that Russian operatives launched a sophisticated, broad campaign that targeted not just the election but sought to deepen division and sow distrust in Western society, and that the worst of the “active measures” campaign may be yet to come.   

The target list for Russian hackers was wider than previously understood, said Thomas Rid, a scholar of cyberwarfare and a professor at King’s College London. Those targets included the personal email address of Hillary Clinton, which was subjected to phishing attempts by hackers working on behalf of GRU, Russian military intelligence, as well as former campaign staffers for Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), a noted Russia hawk. Another such attempt had occurred in the last 24 hours, Rubio said, adding that none had been successful.

Given the wide range of Russian targets, Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the Senate panel that Moscow may be sitting on a trove of explosive information, or what he called “information nukes.”

The Senate hearing comes as former National Security Adviser ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has offered to testify before House and Senate investigations of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in exchange for immunity from prosecution, according to the Wall Street Journal. At the same time, partisan politics threaten to undermine the House investigation. The House Intelligence Committee’s parallel inquiry has ground to a halt amid calls from Democrats that its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.), recuse himself from the investigation.

Democrats argue that Nunes is running political interference on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Trump administration after he claimed that American intelligence agencies had collected information on Trump aides during the campaign. On Thursday, the New York Times revealed that two White House aides had supplied Nunes with those intelligence reports. A spokesman for Nunes refused to comment on the chairman’s sources.

Shortly after the publication of the Times’ story, the White House invited Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, to review intelligence reports. At a press briefing later in the day, Schiff said he would accept the invitation, but noted it was impossible to say whether those reports were the same obtained by Nunes earlier this month.

“We want to find out,” Schiff said, “if in fact these are the same materials earlier provided to the chairman, why that circuitous method was employed to provide them to the committee.”

The Senate committee, in contrast, has sought to downplay partisan divisions.

“If we politicize this process our efforts will likely fail,” committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R.-N.C.), said on Thursday. “The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections, how they came to be involved, how we may have failed to prevent that involvement, what actions were taken in response if any, and what we plan to ensure the integrity of future free elections.”

By a combination of overt and covert techniques, Russian intelligence operatives employed a campaign of propaganda, hacking and leaking, and disinformation to allow Russia to “hit above their weight,” Roy Godson, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University, told the Senate panel Thursday.

These tools are used by Russia to compensate for what Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, described as Russia’s “conventional shortcomings vis-a-vis the West.” The Russian economy is far smaller than those of its adversaries, and its defense spending far smaller.

“A handful of cyber criminals cost a lot less than an armored brigade but can cause a lot of damage,” said Rumer, now a senior fellow and the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russia’s efforts to bolster its national power sometimes has surprising targets. In 2014, for example, Russian bots flooded a White House petition advocating returning Alaska to Russia. In a short time, the petition gained 39,000 signatures, Watts told the committee.

“Our examination of those signing and posting on this petition revealed an odd pattern – the accounts varied considerably from other petitions and appeared to be the work of automated bots,” Watts said. “These bots tied in closely with other social media campaigns we had observed pushing Russian propaganda.”

In another instance described by Watts, Russian bots picked up a false report by RT, a Russian-government controlled broadcaster, that a U.S. airbase in Incirlik, Turkey, was being overrun by protesters. Pro-Russian bots immediately picked up the story, blasted it across Twitter, and promoted it as a replay of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.

In fact, only a small group of protesters had gathered outside the airbase.   

The 2016 election campaign marked a watershed moment for Russian efforts to influence American politics through cyberspace, largely because Moscow found a willing partner, Watts suggested.

Asked why the Russian campaign was so successful, he offered a simple diagnosis: Active measures worked this time because “the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”

Staff writer Emily Tamkin contributed to this article. 

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images