The Intel Community’s Russia Report: A One Year Look Back
Exactly one year ago, the U.S. intelligence community released a groundbreaking report that in effect said there were two campaigns to elect Donald Trump: the Trump campaign and a Russian campaign. All 17 agencies that make up the IC unanimously concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” with “a clear preference” for Donald Trump.
In the face of knowledge Russia hacked America’s election—and could very well do so again—the Trump administration still refuses to act. When news of the report first broke, he railed against the intelligence community, attempted to discredit the report and has consistently maintained that a “Deep State” conspiracy of government officials is out to get him.
While the report identified many issues for the first time, in the year since its release reporting and public research has since corroborated and reaffirmed the intelligence community’s findings.
IC finding: Russia ran a multifaceted campaign to influence the election. “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’”
- What we’ve learned: Facebook revealed in September that a Kremlin-linked troll farm spent at least $150,000 on political ads during the election. Since then, content from Russian bots and trolls has been found on numerous social networks. The Department of Justice has also required Russia’s state-run news network RT to register as a foreign agent.
IC finding: Russia sought to hack US election systems. “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards.”
- What we’ve learned: In June, The Intercept published a leaked NSA document detailing Russia’s phishing attacks against state and local election boards. We now know that Russia tried to hack systems in at least 39 states.
IC finding: Russia sought to disguise their efforts. “By their nature, Russian influence campaigns are multifaceted and designed to be deniable because they use a mix of agents of influence, cutouts, front organizations, and false-flag operations.”
- What we’ve learned: Russian trolls and bots on social media masqueraded as American citizens to spread Russian propaganda. Some even made videos, wrote for online publications, and organized real-world political events.
IC finding: Russia targeted Trump’s political opponents – both Republicans and Democrats. “Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.”
- What we’ve learned: The Associated Press documented in detail Russia’s phishing attempts against a variety of Democratic operatives. Former FBI Director James Comey testified to the Senate in January that hackers targeted the Republican National Committee as well, and Senator Marco Rubio revealed in March that Russian hackers had targeted his staffers, although no material was released from those attacks.
IC finding: Russia laundered stolen hacked materials such as the DNC emails through Wikileaks, such as the DNC emails. “We assess with high confidence that the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.” The IC found that “with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.” It also found that “The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.”
- What we’ve learned: According to his guilty plea, George Papadopoulos learned from an alleged Russian operative that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” CIA Director Mike Pompeo has reaffirmed the IC’s assertion that Russia carried out the hacks.
IC finding: Russia hacked the DNC in 2015. “In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.”
- What we’ve learned: Cyber security experts and reporting confirms the DNC was hacked, and its emails were laundered through Wikileaks just before the Democratic Convention. Trump’s CIA Director Mike Pompeo has reaffirmed the IC’s assertion that Russia carried out the hacks.
IC finding: Russia hacked the chairman of the Clinton campaign. “The General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) probably began cyber operations aimed at the US election by March 2016. We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures.”
- What we’ve learned: According to the Associated Press, at least 29 Democratic operatives, including Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, received phishing emails beginning in March 2016. Emails from his account were laundered through Wikileaks beginning on October 7th 2016.
IC finding: Russia’s messaging campaign about the credibility of US elections abruptly shifted after Trump won. “Before the election, Russian diplomats had publicly denounced the US electoral process and were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results. Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.” But after the election: “Putin, Russian officials, and other pro-Kremlin pundits stopped publicly criticizing the US election process as unfair almost immediately after the election because Moscow probably assessed it would be counterproductive.”
- What we’ve learned: In direct messages between the Wikileaks Twitter account and Donald Trump Jr., Wikileaks advocated that the Trump campaign attack the credibility of the election process. After the election, Russian press and the Russian government hailed Trump’s victory and made no mention of a “rigged” process.
IC finding: Russia’s online campaign for Trump began in March 2016. “Starting in March 2016, Russian government– linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences.”
- What we’ve learned: Russia’s influence efforts appear to have picked up speed in March 2016 – a time when Trump’s candidacy for the Republican nomination was picking up speed. March 2016 is also when Russian-linked figures joined the campaign including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos. John Podesta’s emails were hacked in March and shortly after Papadopoulos was notified by alleged Russian operatives that the Russian possessed emails damaging to the Clinton campaign.
Since the report, senior U.S. intelligence officials have continued to sound the alarm about Russian meddling—and the Trump campaign’s complicity.
- Former CIA Director John Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee in May that Russia “brazenly interfered in the 2016 election process,” and said in October that he found it “implausible” that “the Russians, as good as they are, as sophisticated as they are … were not able to get some Americans to cooperate with them.”
- Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN in May that “never, ever has there been a case of the aggressiveness and direct actions that the Russians took and their conduct of a multifaceted campaign to interfere with our election.” In November, he said that “all [the intel community] knew” before releasing its assessment was how many meetings the Trump campaign had with Russians, and that “everything we’ve learned since only makes those connections worse;” in December, he added that Putin “knows how to handle an asset, and that’s what he’s doing with the president.”
- In June, Comey testified before Congress that Russia’s meddling was “a big deal … We’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods, tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act … it’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America.”