Russia: Declassified And Dangerous - #Snowman Series 16
“Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” is a public version of a highly classified assessment that was provided to President Barrack Obama in December 2016, and to additional recipients approved by him at the time.
The report is based on information and intelligence which was available up until the 29th of December 2016.
While the conclusions in the report are all reflected in the confidential version, the declassified report does not and cannot include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence and sources and methods. This is a source and method protection measure.
The report opens by outlining the difficulties faced by intelligence agencies in the current geopolitical climate, and in the face of a complex hybrid threat from Russia, saying “the mission of the Intelligence Community is to seek to reduce the uncertainty surrounding foreign activities, capabilities, or leaders’ intentions. This objective is difficult to achieve when seeking to understand complex issues on which foreign actors go to extraordinary lengths to hide or obfuscate their activities.”
Intelligence tradecraft has developed over the years into a standard model which combines analysis, probability, and logical reasoning. This is the same standard which has been applied throughout this investigation.
“The nature of cyberspace makes attribution of cyber operations difficult but not impossible. Every kind of cyber operation—malicious or not—leaves a trail,” it adds.
This journalistic investigation has never reviewed the report, until now.
“the mission of the Intelligence Community is to seek to reduce the uncertainty surrounding foreign activities, capabilities, or leaders’ intentions. This objective is difficult to achieve when seeking to understand complex issues on which foreign actors go to extraordinary lengths to hide or obfuscate their activities.”
This report includes an analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA), which draws on intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies.
It covers the “motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion.”
The assessment focuses on activities aimed at the 2016 US presidential election and draws on the combined understanding of previous Russian influence operations.
The joint report is clear that the agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” saying “the US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
Many of the key judgments in the assessment rely on a body of reporting from multiple sources that are consistent with the agencies’ understanding of Russian behaviour.
“Insights into Russian efforts—including specific cyber operations—and Russian views of key US players derive from multiple corroborating sources. Some of our judgments about Kremlin preferences and intent are drawn from the behavior of Kremlinloyal political figures, state media, and pro-Kremlin social media actors, all of whom the Kremlin either directly uses to convey messages or who are answerable to the Kremlin,” the report says.
The Russian leadership, according to the report, “invests significant resources in both foreign and domestic propaganda and places a premium on transmitting what it views as consistent, self-reinforcing narratives regarding its desires and redlines, whether on Ukraine, Syria, or relations with the United States.”
“the US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
The key findings of the report are stark from the outset and support the independent conclusions of this investigation.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the reports states.
“We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” it adds.
Where the report uses the term “we” it refers to the corroborated and agreed opinions of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency.
According to the agencies, the level of direct attack deployed in Russia’s hybrid assault are unprecedented. “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations,” the report says.
With moderate (in the case of the NSA) and confidence (of the CIA and FBI), the report goes on to conclude the “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him.”
Moscow’s approach, the spies say, evolved over the course of the campaign in reaction to Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow Hilary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency. The ongoing collection of intelligence between election day in November and the reports publication in December enhanced the confidence in this conclusion.
The influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy which “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,” the agencies say, adding that “Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.”
This investigation has separately established that 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, and have acted elsewhere including in the French elections.
The report, however, specifically confirms the leak activity relating to the DNC hack, saying “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly” and that this was the channel by which Russia laundered the trail and “relayed material to WikiLeaks.”
The warning the report gave made grim reading for the Western world, saying “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”
The warning was proven well-founded in France.
“Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”
“In trying to influence the US election,” the intelligence agencies conclude, “we assess the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly pointed to the financial web unveiled by the Panama Papers and the Olympic doping scandal which ruined its sporting reputation as US-directed efforts to defame his country, and the report suggest he sought to use disclosures to discredit the image of the United States by casting it as hypocritical.
Putin, according to the report, is likely to have targeted 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 assertion that the Russian Government developed a clear preference for Trump over Clinton has been repeatedly supported over time.
Beginning in June, Putin’s public comments about the US presidential race avoided directly praising Trump, “probably because Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire in the United States”, the report says.
Nonetheless, Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his “Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine,” at the same time as consistently labelling Clinton’s foreign policy as “aggressive rhetoric.”
It’s a point of fact that Trump’s own foreign policy was highly sympathetic and that figures involved in shaping his policy have established direct links to Moscow.
According to the report, Moscow also saw the election of Trump as a way to achieve an international counterterrorism coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has come to pass, though this brings its own questions.
“Putin publicly indicated a preference for President-elect Trump’s stated policy to work with Russia, and pro-Kremlin figures spoke highly about what they saw as his “Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine,”
This investigation has already raised serious concerns over the sequence of terrorist attacks in Europe, which follow a distinct exception pattern.
On February the 5th 2017, Trump reporters “it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world — that’s a good thing.”
However, US national security experts do not believe Russia is committed to combatting the Islamic State.
While Washington’s top goal is to retake ground and the ISIS self-declared capital of Raqqa, the Russian goal, appears to be to ensure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
Jim Townsend, Obama’s former deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO policy, told reporters “whatever they [Russia] do against ISIS is done to protect themselves or to support Assad. It's a different kind of fight for them.”
Colin Kahl, former Vice President Joseph Biden’s national security adviser, and Hal Brands, former special assistant to the secretary of defence for strategic planning, have both written that Russia’s “overarching goal, and one that it has been fairly successful in achieving, is to fortify the Assad regime in power and thereby protect Russia’s strategic position in Syria and the broader Middle East.”
Republican Senator John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has openly said, “the time President Trump spent sharing sensitive information with the Russians was time he did not spend focusing on Russia’s aggressive behavior” or putting an end to the “slaughter of innocent civilians and targeting of hospitals in Syria.”
Another Senator, Ben Cardin, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also stated that he “wouldn’t characterize the Russians as allies in the fight against ISIS.” His spokesperson added Cardin “believes [Russian] actions in Syria have exacerbated the conditions that have allowed ISIS to flourish.”
Something is out of balance in respect of Russia’s true intentions and, subsequently, the Trump narrative, and this is driven home by the actions of the former USSR in the Aleppo offensive.
Meanwhile terrorism continues, unrelentingly.
A further attack in the UK, an atrocity at a music concert in Manchester on the 22nd of May 2017, came during Trump’s visit to the Middle East. Speaking in Riyadh before the bombing, Trump said, "this is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.”
During his visit he signed the largest arms deal in US history.
Pro Kremlin commentators and media channels were among the first to attribute the Manchester attack to Islamic terror, hours before the police had even established details of the events. This followed previous patterns across Europe and the US.
Trump then led a call to the world to unite in the fight against ISIS in the wake of the attack, on May the 23rd - a day before James Comey, the dismissed FBI director investigating his administration, was due to give open evidence about his Russia links.
“This wicked ideology must be obliterated and I mean completely obliterated, and the innocent life must be protected. All civilised nations must join together to protect human life and the sacred right our citizens to live in safety and in peace,” Trump said during a press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Ben Cardin, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also stated that he “wouldn’t characterize the Russians as allies in the fight against ISIS.” His spokesperson added Cardin “believes [Russian] actions in Syria have exacerbated the conditions that have allowed ISIS to flourish.”
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 notes. Though it doesn’t go on to specify beyond this, it intimates they were already aware of Trump’s attempted business deals in Russia, and his web of finances which link back to his business empire.
It’s also a shrewd observation that a narrative of contesting the result if it didn’t go Trump’s way – a mirror of Nigel Farage’s rhetoric during Brexit – and publicly criticizing the US election process as unfair by Putin, Russian officials, and other pro-Kremlin pundits, almost immediately stopped once the result was known. Continuing along this line would have damaged the building of positive relations with Moscow, the report concludes logically.
Before the election, pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, to be run on election night in anticipation of Clinton’s victory, according to analysis of their social media activity.
This also provides one of the final links between Russia and the Leave.EU campaign and Westmonster, both projects of Arron Banks and Nigel Farage, who, in the wake of the Macron victory in France, ran a similar campaign on Social Media.
They had openly supported Russian backed and financed, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen throughout the campaign and continue to do so.
The declassified report draws the conclusion the influence campaigns were “approved at the highest levels of the Russian Government—particularly those that would be politically sensitive,” directly pointing the finger of blame at Putin himself.
Moscow’s campaign, the agencies say, “reflected years of investment in its capabilities, which Moscow has honed in the former Soviet states.”
“By their nature, Russian influence campaigns are multifaceted and designed to be deniable because they use a mix of agents of influence, cut outs, front organizations, and false-flag operations,” it adds.
Highlighting the specific example of Moscow’s deployment of these tactics during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when Russia deployed forces and advisers to eastern Ukraine and denied it publicly, the report states: “the Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the US election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into US state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda.”
Russian intelligence collection both informed and enabled the influence campaign, the report adds, saying “Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies. In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.”
This investigation has already uncovered a number of connections between Russia, lobby groups, and Trump.
“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,”
On the DNC email hack and subsequent leaks, the report states “Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be an independent Romanian hacker, made multiple contradictory statements and false claims about his likely Russian identity throughout the election. Press reporting suggests more than one person claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 interacted with journalists.”
This is logical and follows previous findings of extensive state-sponsored Russian hacking determined by this investigation. It also confirms the clear link between Russia as a state actor and the activities of Wikileaks acting as a surrogate.
The content of the DNC leak reviewed in the report was taken from e-mail accounts targeted by the Russian GRU in March 2016 and appeared on DCLeaks.com starting in June. The intelligence agencies state the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.
According the analysts, “Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity” and they note that documents published WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.
In early September 2016, Putin said publicly it was important the DNC data was exposed to WikiLeaks, calling the search for the source of the leaks a distraction and denying Russian “state-level” involvement.
Importantly, the report confirms the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks.
RT’s editor-in-chief visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract with RT, according to Russian and Western media.
Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become "the only Russian media company" to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to "new leaks of secret information."
RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage and provides him a platform to denounce the United States – support which is mirrored by Nigel Farage, who also has close links with RT and who has also visited Assange, as this investigation has separately established.
These election-related disclosures reflected a pattern of Russian intelligence using hacked information in targeted influence efforts against targets such as Olympic athletes and other foreign governments. Such efforts have included releasing or altering personal data, defacing websites, or releasing emails.
A prominent target since the 2016 Summer Olympics has been the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), with leaks assessed “to have originated with the GRU and that have involved data on US athletes.”
Crucially, the report accurately identifies that Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.
On the 6th of August 2016, RT published an English language video called “Julian Assange Special: Do WikiLeaks Have the E-mail That’ll Put Clinton in Prison?” and an exclusive interview with Assange entitled “Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money.”
“Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity”
Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by “serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences,” the report states.
State-owned Russian media made increasingly favourable comments about Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed, while consistently offering negative coverage of the Clinton campaign.
The same pattern was evident in both Brexit and the French election.
Starting in March 2016, Russian-linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences. RT and Sputnik—another government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content in a variety of languages for international audiences—consistently cast Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets which they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.
Again, this narrative is a mirror of both Farage’s and Le Pen’s respective campaigns.
Russian media hailed Trump’s victory as a “vindication of Putin’s advocacy of global populist movements”, which was also the theme of Putin’s annual conference for Western academics in October 2016.
Putin’s chief propagandist Dmitriy Kiselev used his flagship weekly newsmagazine program to cast Trump as an outsider victimised by a corrupt political establishment – the swamp – and faulty democratic election process which aimed to prevent his election because of his desire to work with Moscow.
According to the report, Pro-Kremlin proxy Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, proclaimed just before the election “if President-elect Trump won, Russia would “drink champagne” in anticipation of being able to advance its positions on Syria and Ukraine.”
This again is a repetition of comments attributed to Putin in respect of the result of Brexit.
RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative and focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism. Some Russian officials echoed state lines for the influence campaign - that Secretary Clinton’s election could lead to a war between the United States and Russia.
In August, Kremlin-linked political analysts suggested avenging negative Western reports on Putin by airing segments devoted to Clinton’s alleged health problems.
RT’s most popular video on Clinton, “How 100% of the Clintons’ ‘Charity’ Went to…Themselves,” had more than 9 million views on social media platforms, while the most popular English language video about the then President-elect, called “Trump Will Not Be Permitted To Win,” featured Julian Assange and had 2.2 million views.
This investigation has extensively linked the alternative media outlets of the alt-right with Russia, and this includes their growing social media presence – much of which is also amplified by artificial accounts.
According to the intelligence report, Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Clinton, and this effort amplified stories on scandals about the Democratic candidate and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign.
The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency – which the report defines as “professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg” – is, the report says, “a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.”
One leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed some social media accounts which appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls— as they were previously devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015.
Social media trolls featured heavily in the Brexit and Macron campaigns and have no resurfaced in the UK, though many still are mid transition, bearing mixed US/UK biographies and content. As this investigation has found, since Twitter took steps to allow non verified accounts to be kept mute a greater number of these accounts are being human-managed.
Very often the troll accounts simultaneously support Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and, oddly, Scotland remaining a part of the UK.
“Russian media hailed Trump’s victory as a “vindication of Putin’s advocacy of global populist movements”, which was also the theme of Putin’s annual conference for Western academics in October 2016.”
Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election, according to the report, “represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections.”
The analysts assess “the 2016 influence campaign reflected the Kremlin’s recognition of the worldwide effects that mass disclosures of US Government and other private data—such as those conducted by WikiLeaks and others—have achieved in recent years, and their understanding of the value of orchestrating such disclosures to maximize the impact of compromising information.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used intelligence officers, influence agents, forgeries, and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin, according to former KGB operatives.
Since the Cold War, however, Russian intelligence efforts related to elections have primarily focused on foreign intelligence collection - for decades, Russian and Soviet intelligence services have sought to collect insider information from US political parties which could help Russian leaders understand a new US administration’s plans and priorities.
Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Directorate S (Illegals) officers, arrested in the United States in 2010, were reporting back to Moscow on the 2008 election.
According to the same former KGB operative, in the 1970s, the KGB recruited a Democratic Party activist who reported information about then-presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter’s campaign and foreign policy plans.
The report concludes that “Election Operation Signals”, hybrid conflicts, are the “New Normal” in Russian influence efforts.
The intelligence services firmly believe the Russian intelligence services would have seen their election influence campaign as “at least a qualified success because of their perceived ability to impact public discussion.”
Putin’s public views of the disclosures suggest the Kremlin and the intelligence services will continue to consider using hybrid operations because of their belief these can accomplish Russian goals relatively easily without significant damage to Russian interests.
Russia has sought to influence elections across Europe, the report confirms, adding that the hybrid conflict in the US has not ended with the Trump win.
“Russian intelligence services will continue to develop capabilities to provide Putin with options to use against the United States, judging from past practice and current efforts. Immediately after Election Day, we assess Russian intelligence began a spearphishing campaign targeting US Government employees and individuals associated with US think tanks and NGOs in national security, defense, and foreign policy fields. This campaign could provide material for future influence efforts as well as foreign intelligence collection on the incoming administration’s goals and plans.”
While coming from two very different places, this investigation and the intelligence services have arrived on the same page.