The Intelligence Community #Russianhacking Assessment : An Analysis

Executive Summary: While the report provides new and important details on the multifaceted Russian operation, its failure to include declassified primary source data for key claims ensures the controversy has not been put to rest.

Background: On December 9, President Obama ordered a larger review of allegations and evidence that the Russian government took multiple measures to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The partially declassified and summarized assessment released on January 6, 2017 is an abbreviated version of a longer, still-classified assessment of Russian government activities to influence U.S. elections going back to at least 2008.

Key conclusions: The joint CIA/FBI/NSA report explicitly accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the multilayered cyber-enabled effort to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2016, with a clear-cut preference towards the election of now President-elect Donald Trump.

The report also states that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.” (emphasis added)

The report further assesses that “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.”

Issues With The IC Assessment

Russian leadership involvement: The IC Assessment states on p. 1

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.

However, despite the “high confidence” rating assigned to this assertion, no specific, declassified intelligence was made public to buttress the claim.

While the report goes on to provide several unclassified, public examples of statements or actions by Putin or other Russian government officials showing a clear preference for President-elect Trump prior to the election, the failure of the IC to make public at least some of the actual intelligence underpinning the larger allegation of a direct Putin order to execute the election intervention campaign undermines, but does not destroy, the credibility of the overall assertion.

Russian Alleged Use of Wikileaks As The Leak Vehicle of Choice: The IC Assessment states on p. 3

We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.

The IC Assessment provides no specific, declassified intelligence data to demonstrate how the GRU or any other Russian intelligence element actually ensured Wikileaks received the purloined data while maintaining a credible attribution “firewall” between the Russian government and Wikileaks. However, Soviet/Russian tradecraft in the use of “cut-outs” or “illegals” is well documented, and there is no indication that any individual associated with Wikileaks has the requisite counterintelligence (CI) training or skills to detect and defeat such tactics. Accordingly, while the IC Assessment on the alleged Russian use of Wikileaks as the vector for the leaks is both logical and plausible based on past Soviet/Russian tactics and behavior, the failure to include at least some specific, declassified intelligence to support the conclusion somewhat undermines, but does not destroy, the credibility of the assertion.

Overt and Semi-covert Russian Influence Operations: The IC Assessment’s description of the interlocking nature of the relationships between the Russian leadership, Russian state-owned or state-financed media outlets, and the use of “fake news” sites and pro-Russian/pro-Trump/anti-Clinton social media “trolls” is the most well-documented section of the report. However, as with the other major assertions in the report, this section also lacks specific, declassified intelligence to further illuminate the relationships and activities of the Russian entities in question, although the quantity of publicly verifiable data in this area makes the omission of declassified, supporting intelligence somewhat less problematic.

Conclusion

The abbreviated, unclassified IC Assessment provides important new details about Russian attempts to influence #Election2016, but the failure to include at least some key, declassified intelligence to support the Assessment’s most spectacular allegations represents a major misjudgment and will make it easier for Russian officials to attack the Assessment’s conclusions.

Additionally, the failure of the Assessment to address the propaganda value to Russia of major U.S. government policy failures (for example, the domestic surveillance abuses revealed by Edward Snowden) in the Russian influence operation is another major misjudgment. While we should expect the Russian government to continue its efforts to undermine the Western Alliance, the U.S. government and its allies aid Kremlin efforts by engaging in policies at home and abroad that make the Russian propaganda and influence operations easier.