The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday launched its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S.election, hearing from several expert witnesses.
Former FBI special agent Clint Watts, now with the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, told the committee that the investigation should move forward without delays because the Russians may now be trying to cover their tracks.
“Follow the trail of dead Russians,” Watts said. “There’s been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation who have assets in banks all over the world” (see “Ukrainian businessman with links to Trump, Russia dies in mysterious circumstances,” HSNW, 6 March 2017).
Watts told the lawmakers that one reason why the intervention by hackers from the FSB and the GRU, the two Russian intelligence agencies, worked, was the willingness by Donald Trump and his senior advisers to use Russian disinformation, which was disseminated by the nearly 1,200 websites (“trolls”) created by the FSB and the GRU to disseminate fake news to harm the Hillary Clinton campaign and help Trump win the election.
“I can tell you right now, accounts tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they know he’s online and they push conspiracy theories,” Watts, the former FBI agent, told CBS News.
Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, perhaps unwittingly, embraced and promoted narratives, including false ones, which were helpful to Russian interests. CBS News reports that among the examples Watts pointed to were a fake story about a terrorist attack on the Turkish airbase at Incirlik, which is used by U.S. and NATO forces, and baselessly doubting the U.S. citizenships of Ted Cruz.
“On 11 October, President Trump stood on stage and cited what appears to be a fake news story from [the Russian government propaganda outlet] Sputnik Newsthat disappeared from the internet. He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged – that was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News,” Watts testified.
The Russian campaign was effective for another reason: Many of the fake news stories begin with real events. For example, last August, during an active shooter incident at New York’s JFK airport, Watts says Russian fake news writers added to the panic.
“We watched social media trolls and grey outlets pump fake stories out,” Watts said, “… which ramped up that fear.”
Trump, Clinton, or Obama were not mentioned in the fake Russian story, but it contributed to the perception Trump and his campaign were openly conveying – that the Obama administration, and Clinton, were soft on terrorism, and the terrorism and crime were on the rise.
They FBI also documented the Russian sustained effort to sow unrest and anxiety in the United States by exaggerating to size and of protest demonstrations by groups such Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter, and the violence attendant to these demonstrations.
In addition to Watts, the committee also heard from Kevin Mandia, chief executive officer of cybersecurity company FireEye; former National Security Director Gen. Keith Alexander; and Thomas Rid, professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.
Rid said Russia seized an opportunity in 2016 when the United States was extremely polarized, politically speaking.
“The more polarized a society, the more vulnerable it is,” Rid said.
Mandia told CBS that Russia also used sophisticated hacking — like the methods they used to hack the networks of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign – to steal much more material than what has been released on WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.
“What we’ve seen publicly released is probably under 1 percent of what we’d attribute to the Russian government stealing,” Mandia said.
Several experts told the senators that decades of Russian covert attempts to undermine confidence in Western institutions, including planting or promoting false news stories or spreading doubt about the integrity of elections, will only accelerate in the future unless the United States confronts Russia’s “active measures.”
“Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at time [sic] against his opponents,” said Watts.
Those active measures have migrated online with astonishing in recent years, Watts told the panel’s first public hearing. He added that the U.S. intelligence community has noticed social media accounts used to disseminate pro-Russian fake news as far back as 2009. He indicated that the questions about the U.S. citizenship of the just-elected Barack Obama originated on these GRU– and FSB-run trolls. Trump, who launched his political career in 2010 by championing the “birther” narrative, probably picked up the fake stories about Obama’s birthplace from these sites, the same way he picked up, and used, these sites’ fake stories questioning Ted Cruz’s U.S. citizenship.
The experts told the lawmakers that Russia has in its possession unreleased hacked information on thousands of Americans, information Russia could “weaponize” to discredit inconvenient sources.
These and other measures offer Russia a ready and inexpensive tool to destabilize its wealthier Western adversaries and keep them in check, and help bring pro-Russian politicians and parties to power, or at least increase their strength and sway in their countries.
When senators asked Watts why the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, felt the 2016 U.S. election provided the Kremlin an opportunity to intervene, Watts pointed to Trump.
Intelligence experts told the lawmakers that in the last seven years, Russia has built a vast information warfare infrastructure, which now involves at least 15,000 operatives worldwide writing and spreading false news stories and conspiracy theories online. Witnesses said the effort goes back years and often starts with Russian-backed media.
These experts told the Senate panel that Russia had every ability to create fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and use a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik.
“This Russian propaganda on steroids was designed to poison the national conversation in America,” Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said.
CBS News notes that the first public hearing by the Senate intelligence committee into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election offered a stark contrast to the rancor which has enveloped the House Intelligence Committee.
The Senate committee chairman, Senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), who was a Trump ally during the Republican primaries, pledged a “thorough, independent and non-partisan review” of evidence potentially tying Trump to Russia.
“If we politicize this process, our efforts will likely fail,” Burr said at the outset of the hearing.
As a mark of Burr’s and Warner’s seriousness, Burr assigned seven committee staffers to the inquiry.
In closing his testimony, Watts urged the lawmakers to help formulate a clear, coherent strategy toward Russia’s growing interference in U.S. politics. He described the current U.S. strategy, such as it is, as “provocatively ambiguous.”
“I’m not sure what our policy or stance is with regards to Russia at this point in the United States. I think that’s the number one thing we’ve got to figure out, because that will shape how they interface with us,” he told senators.
For more on The Russian connection, Homeland Security News Wire