Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” in the 2016 US election to undermine faith in the democratic process, harm Hillary Clinton’s electability and improve Donald Trump’s electoral chances, the US intelligence has said.
A declassified summary of the American intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the polls ---released on Friday --- also said the Russian government had “developed a clear preference” for Trump.
Contents of the report were shared with Trump at a briefing by intelligence community leaders after which the President-elect acknowledged the possibility of the hacking of the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee.
But in a statement after the briefing, Trump said: “There was absolutely no effect (of the hackings) on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
Later, he tweeted:
Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place.The Republican National Committee had strong defense!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 7, 2017
The report didn’t say that either, but, in the assessment of the intelligence community, Putin and the Russian government had “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him.”
Russian meddling in US elections is not new, the report said, citing 2012 and 2008 polls as recent examples, but it was the most egregious yet—“demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations”.
And it was ordered directly by President Putin, the report said. “We assess that influence campaigns are approved at the highest levels of the Russian government—particularly those that would be politically sensitive.”
The goal was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency”.
They then “developed a clear preference” for Trump, and when it appeared to Moscow that Clinton could win, the “the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency”, the report said.
Though a clear timeline didn’t emerge in the report for the “influence campaign”, its first traceable manifestation was Russian intelligence gaining access to the Democratic party’s computers in July 2015. They stayed there till June 2016.
The US has blamed Russian intelligence agencies General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (better known the world over as just GRU) and the Federal Security Service (also known as FSB, successor to KGB) and sanctioned their leaders.
The report said GRU began cyber operations aimed at the presidential elections in March 2016, by hacking personal email accounts of Democratic party leaders, most damaging of which was that of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
By May, the report said, GRU operatives had shovelled out vast amounts of data—US intelligence called it “victim data”—that they put out in public through Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks.
The report said some of this stolen stuff started appearing on DCLeaks.com from June. And later on WikiLeaks, which, it added, may have been chosen “because of its self- proclaimed reputation for authenticity”.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has denied, as recently as earlier this week in an interview to an American news channel that Russia was the source of the hacked emails his website had released in tranches in the final days of the campaign.
The intelligence report also considered in exhaustive details the role of a Russian government-backed television news channel RT (formerly Russia Today), whose American network parlayed some of the most damaging conspiracy theories about Clinton.
It ran baseless reports about Clinton’s health, the Clinton Foundation’s charity work, links to Islamic extremists stoking, that tapped into, and stoked, every right-wing falsehood that Trump himself endorsed, or insinuated.
The report named officials close to Putin who portrayed Trump “as an outsider victimised by a corrupt political establishment and faulty democratic election process that aimed to prevent his election because of his desire to work with Moscow”.
The “influence campaign”, the report said, followed a multifaceted approach that “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’”.
President Barack Obama has come under criticism for not responding aggressively to this even after becoming aware of it. He has said he told Putin to “cut it out it” at a summit in September, but Russians had had already achieved much of what they had set out to by then already.