Intelligence Leaders Confirm Russian Influence Op to Undermine Election

Cyber and psychological warfare threats grow

Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcell Lettre, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee

Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcell Lettre, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee / AP

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Russian intelligence agencies sought to influence the 2016 presidential election through coordinated cyber and propaganda activities, three U.S. intelligence leaders told a Senate hearing Thursday.

Additionally, Senate testimony revealed that the National Security Agency, the government's key cyber intelligence and technical spying service, confirmed the Russian intelligence service's covert cyber and propaganda effort to influence the election campaign.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper previewed a forthcoming government report, to be released as early as Monday, on the Russian intelligence operations that included intrusions into Democratic National Committee computers and the email account of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta.

The Russians then orchestrated the release of hacked internal information through three propaganda conduits in a coordinated campaign.

"This was a multifaceted campaign, so the hacking was only one part of it," Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news."

The forthcoming report will describe the full range of Russian intelligence activities during the campaign, Clapper said.

Clapper confirmed the details of the Oct. 7 statement issued jointly by his office and the Department of Homeland Security accusing Russia of interfering with the 2016 election. That statement identified three entities, the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, another site called DCLeaks.com, and a hacker code-named Guccifer 2.0, as the outlets for the hacked information.

"Our assessment now is even more resolute than it was with that statement on the 7th of October," Clapper said. "I don't think we've ever encountered a more aggressive or direct effort to interfere in our election."

Asked if the earlier assessments about Moscow's disinformation program had changed, Clapper stated: "No. In fact, if anything, what we've since learned just reinforces that statement the 7th of October."

NSA Director Mike Rogers told the hearing that the report was "done essentially" by the CIA, FBI, and NSA.

The inclusion of NSA in the report is the first time NSA's role in assessing the Russian cyber attacks was mentioned.

NSA's capability to monitor foreign cyber intelligence operations is highly advanced. Documents disclosed by renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the agency in the past has broken into foreign intelligence service networks and stolen information those services were gathering from spies—without being detected.

A government report made public last month and the Oct. 7 statement on Russian hacking did not mention the NSA. The earlier government statements were instead attributed to the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the FBI.

Clapper revealed that the forthcoming report will identify several different motives behind the activities linked to Russia's GRU military intelligence service and the civilian Federal Security Service to the political attacks on the U.S. election campaign.

"There's actually more than one motive, so that'll be described in the report," he said, without elaborating.

The Russians used sophisticated spy tradecraft in a bid to disguise the origin of the disinformation activities, he stated, noting that the activities did not end with the Nov. 8 election and are continuing.

Russian election campaign hacking has set off a fierce political debate.

Democrats and some Republicans are asserting the Russian election hacking helped elect Donald Trump, a charge critics dismiss as a political attempt to undermine the legitimacy of Trump's stunning election upset.

Trump and his supporters have questioned U.S. intelligence judgments about the Russian cyber intelligence and political influence operations. Trump has suggested U.S. spy agencies are not capable of proving direct links to Moscow and ties to senior leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A joint written statement submitted to the committee by Clapper, Rogers, and Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, for the first time disclosed that information warfare involves "psychological operations" in addition to technical cyber intrusions.

"The breadth of cyber threats posed to U.S. national and economic security has become increasingly diverse, sophisticated, and serious, leading to physical, security, economic, and psychological consequences," the statement said.

"Online information operations and manipulation from both states and non-state actors can distort the perceptions of the targeted victim and other audiences through the anonymous delivery of manipulative content that seeks to gain influence or foment confusion and distrust," the three intelligence leaders said.

"Information taken through cyber espionage can be leaked intact or selectively altered in content," they said. "For example, Russian actors have seeded falsified information into social media and news feeds and websites in order to sow doubt and confusion, erode faith in democratic institutions, and attempt to weaken Western governments by portraying them as inherently corrupt and dysfunctional."

The joint statement concluded that "the breadth of cyber threats to U.S. national and economic security has become increasingly diverse, sophisticated, and dangerous."

Foreign states are likely to conduct additional "cyber-enabled psychological operations and may look to steal or manipulate data to gain strategic advantage or undermine confidence," the statement said.

Under questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Clapper said U.S. intelligence agencies are ill-equipped to assess questions about the effect of Russian attempts to influence the election.

Analyzing Russian influence on the U.S. election is not the "purview of the U.S. intelligence community," Clapper said. "We have no way of gauging the impact that—certainly the intelligence community can't gauge the impact it had on the choices the electorate made. There's no way for us to gauge that," he said.

Cotton noted that Russian covert support for Trump's election would not advance Moscow's security or financial interests.

"There's a widespread assumption—this has been expressed by Secretary Clinton herself since the election—that Vladimir Putin favored Donald Trump in this election," Cotton said.

"Donald Trump has proposed to increase our defense budget, to accelerate nuclear modernization, to accelerate ballistic missile defenses, and to expand and accelerate oil and gas production which would obviously harm Russia's economy," the senator added.

The Arkansas Republican noted that Trump's policies would give the United States a stronger posture against Russia, indicating that "perhaps Donald Trump is not the best candidate for Russia."

Rogers, the NSA director, appeared to defend Trump against charges from Democrats that he has been too dismissive of U.S. intelligence judgments, noting that all intelligence professionals respect the wide range of opinions about intelligence products.

"And I'm the first to acknowledge there's room for a wide range of opinions of the results we generate," the four-star admiral said.

"I've had plenty of times in my career when I have presented my intelligence analysis to commanders and policymakers and they've just looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Mike, thanks, but that's not the way I see it,' or ‘You're gonna have to sell me on this.'"

Rogers has been mentioned as a candidate for an intelligence post in the coming Trump administration and angered Obama administration officials for meeting with Trump after he became president-elect.

Clapper said the Russians have used disinformation to interfere in elections, both their own and those of foreign nations, going back to the 1960s.

The impact is greater today because of the proliferation of communications channels. "The cyber dimension and social media and all these other modes of communication didn't exist in the Cold War," Clapper said.

Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said the current government policy of responding to cyber attacks on a case-by-case base indicates there is no coherent strategy for dealing with cyber threats.

"Unless we demonstrate that the cost of attacking the United States outweigh the perceived benefits, these cyber attacks will only grow," McCain said.

"This is also true beyond the cyber domain. It should not surprise us that Vladimir Putin would think he could launch increasingly severe cyber attacks against our nation when he had paid little price for invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, subverting democratic values and institutions across Europe, and, of course, helping Bashar Assad slaughter civilians in Syria for more than a year with impunity."

In addition to Russian cyber threats, China, Iran and North Korea also are engaged in aggressive cyber attacks against both government and private networks.

"Put simply, we cannot achieve cyber deterrence without restoring the credibility of the U.S. deterrence more broadly," McCain said.

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