July 20, 2018
IntelBrief: Not a Clandestine Campaign
There have been two main elements of Russia’s campaign to interfere and influence the 2016 U.S. elections. The more clandestine was the hacking and theft of political party databases and email accounts. The culprits left computer forensic evidence that, along with other evidence and sources, led to the July 13 federal indictments of 12 named Russian intelligence officers by the Mueller investigation. The other thread of the campaign—the careful molding of pro-Russian sentiment; the sowing of discord using online trolls; the influencing of media personalities and U.S. politicians by money and other means—can be described as the most overt-covert influence campaign in modern history. It is also one of the most successful, and nearly impossible to counter with facts or the use of indictments and arrests.
As shown by the recent arrest of Russian national Maria Butina, in which federal authorities allege she worked for years as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government, the campaign to seed and then grow pro-Russian sentiment and policies in the United States was a public affair. There are countless photographs of Butina with prominent U.S. politicians and leaders of conservative organizations. She had an incredible amount of access to people in power—both inside and outside the U.S. government—especially for a graduate student on a study visa. Part of her mission, as laid out by the Department of Justice lawyers, was to create back channels to Moscow with prominent U.S. figures and officials, and to funnel money through the National Rifle Association (NRA) to the Trump campaign.
Instead of ‘plausible deniability,’ Russia and its supporters in the U.S. have gone the opposite route, using coy references and jokes—even as the indictments pile up. This anti-clandestine approach has been wildly successful at the highest levels of the U.S. government. President Trump has consistently mocked the very notion of the Russian campaign and even the loyalties of the FBI and broader U.S. intelligence community. This is nothing new; in September 2016, at the height of the campaign, then-candidate Trump dismissed the assessment that it was Russia that had hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) severs and databases. Trump said ‘I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke in to DNC.’
Now, almost two years later, having been briefed with extremely sensitive information numerous times about the conclusive evidence that Russia did hack the DNC databases for the express purpose of damaging the Clinton candidacy and helping the Trump candidacy, President Trump continues to publicly doubt his own government agencies’assessments. In a public statement aimed at minimizing the growing backlash to his unprecedented press conference in Helsinki,where the U.S. President essentially sided with Russian President Putin’s denial of Russian interference, President Trump still cast doubt on the IC assessment, ending his statement by saying ‘Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.’
The Russian response has been to joke about the issue, as it has over the assassination attempt using a chemical weapon in Salisbury, England, and the murder of 298 people aboard flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. During a press conference in Moscow, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, joked that he wouldn’t say anything positive about President Trump for fear of generating headlines that ‘Russia is again meddling and helping Donald Trump.’ The Russians are now even using the same dismissive terms used by President Trump to demean the integrity of the investigations and the investigators. A prime example is that Ambassador Antonov labeled the ongoing Russian investigation as ‘a witch hunt’ and called the issue of foreign interference into U.S. elections a ‘domestic political battle.’
Meanwhile, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dan Coates, warned last week that the Russian campaign was far from over, despite the deliberate doubt cast on it in Moscow and Washington. He claimed that ‘the warning lights are blinking red again,’ adding that the Russian efforts and actions ‘are persistent. They’re pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.’
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