Putin himself ordered Russian hacking of campaign, U.S. says
Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a hacking and disinformation campaign to influence the U.S. presidential campaign and developed “a clear preference” for Donald Trump to win, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a declassified report on their findings.
The agencies said they “assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” according to the report released Friday. “All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
The report was issued shortly after Trump met in New York with top intelligence officials for a briefing on their findings that Russia was responsible for the hacking of Democratic Party computers and the leaking of e-mails damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump has long questioned the conclusion that Russia was behind the breach, a stance that has put him at odds with some top congressional Republicans.
In a statement after the meeting, the president-elect sought to tamp down his differences with the intelligence agencies — he said he has “tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation” — although he didn’t explicitly endorse their conclusions that Russia was responsible.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said.
The intelligence agencies agreed there was no evidence of ballots being hacked but said, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”’
Trump said he will appoint a team that will give him a plan within 90 days of taking office “to aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks.”
In a related move Friday, the Department of Homeland Security designated elections systems as “critical infrastructure,” which will allow the federal government to provide cybersecurity resources to state and local jurisdictions. That includes protecting voter registration databases, voting machines and computer systems used to manage elections, the department said in statement, adding that this doesn’t denote a “takeover” of elections.
During and after his successful presidential campaign, Trump has expressed admiration for Putin as a strong leader and predicted they can work together on issues such as fighting Islamic State terrorists. He also has scoffed at indications Russia was behind the election hacking, saying “it also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Drawing on multiple intelligence sources, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency said in the report that Russia’s operation blended covert activity, including cyberattacks, with public efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media and paid social media users known as “trolls.”
The agencies emphasized that the public version issued Friday — unlike classified versions presented to departing President Barack Obama, Trump and members of Congress — didn’t include all of the sources, methods and supporting evidence used by the American spy agencies.
Russia’s intelligence services initially carried out cyber operations against targets involved in last year’s presidential campaign, including those tied to both U.S. political parties, the agencies said.
“Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates,” according to the report. “When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.”
Eventually, the agencies said, “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. Putin publicly contrasted the President-elect’s approach to Russia with Secretary Clinton’s ‘aggressive rhetoric.”’
Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee networks in July 2015 and remained there until at least June 2016. The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, “probably began cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election by March 2016,” the report said. “By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC.”
“We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks,” the report said. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said Russia didn’t give him the leaked e-mails, although he hasn’t commented on whether an intermediary might have done so.