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The Russian connectionRussia’s used “active measures” in 2016 U.S. election, and will do more in future, experts tell lawmakers

Published 31 March 2017

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday launched its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Expert witnesses told the senators that decades of Russian covert attempts to undermine confidence in Western institutions will only accelerate in the future unless the United States confronts Russia’s “active measures.” Since 2009, 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. Russia created fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and used a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. The FSB and the GRU, the two Russian intelligence agencies, created nearly 1,200 websites (“trolls”) which disseminated the fake news to help the Trump campaign. One experts told the senators that the material published by Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0 “is probably under 1 percent of what we’d attribute to the Russian government stealing,” and that Russia will use the rest of the material to try and blackmail American politicians in the future.

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.