“Did Russia change my vote?”
Monday’s leak of a classified National Security Agency document detailing how the Kremlin’s military intelligence, the GRU, targeted election officials and breached some voter rolls brought back many Americans’ worst post-election fears—Putin changed their vote for Donald Trump.
At the same time, the dumped intelligence report offered some of the best confirmation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, providing more evidence to tamp down the claims of President Trump and his legions that it was China or a guy in a basement that hacked the Democratic National Committee and many other current and former American officials.
The techniques targeting election officials—spam that redirects recipients to false email login pages yielding passwords to Russian hackers—appear eerily familiar to those used by the GRU against many other U.S. targets in 2015 and 2016.
To the disappointment of Trump’s biggest haters, the NSA leak provides no evidence that Russia changed any votes. And that makes sense, as Russian altering of the tally in favor of their preferred candidate Donald Trump would be sufficient justification for war—one Russia would lose against the U.S.
The Kremlin sought instead to create the perception among Americans that the election may not be authentic in order to push their secondary election effort: Undermine the mandate of Hillary Clinton to govern, should she win.
The NSA report documents cyberespionage operations in August 2016. Putin’s original Active Measures plan of discrediting Hillary Clinton through strategic leaks of hacked secrets while promoting Donald Trump among American audiences worked to a point throughout the summer. Trump’s supporters chanted Kremlin-created or promoted themes regarding Clinton’s lost emails, fictitious health problems, and alleged corruption.
Despite the success of Russia’s hacking-empowered influence efforts, polling showed a Trump campaign destined for defeat after the political party conventions of July 2016. So much so, the Kremlin sought an alternative, second tack to undermine American democracy by sowing chaos and conspiracy.
Starting in late summer and growing significantly into the October leadup to Election Day, the Kremlin’s pumping of Trump slowed a bit and was accompanied and outpaced by allegations of “voter fraud” and that the election was “rigged.”
If Putin couldn’t get his preferred choice into the White House, he wanted to discredit Clinton and degrade the authenticity of democracy such that Americans believed their votes didn’t count and the Democrats framed the election.
Then-candidate Trump echoed these allegations repeatedly and so frequently that when he did win in November, his rhetoric in many ways brought doubt to the authenticity of his own victory.
To help push along the voter-fraud conspiracy, Russia launched hacks in late summer against voter rolls, not so much voting machines, seeking to shake the confidence of democratic systems and support conspiracies of election manipulation.
By the Kremlin’s calculations, if Clinton won, Trump’s supporters’ outrage would then undermine Clinton’s mandate to govern, create chaos among political partisans, and might even mobilize anti-government and alternative-right groups that saw Trump as their savior.
Some will claim that Russia might be seeking voter rolls to determine how to influence certain segments of the electorate in favor of Trump, but American social-media accounts openly provide far richer data on voters’ preferences and vulnerabilities for influence. Just ask Jared Kushner, his data-analytics wunderkinds, and their partner, Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica’s primary backers, Robert and daughter Rebeka Mercer, simultaneously headed a pro-Trump PAC dubbed Make America Number 1, which was headed by White House counsel Kellyanne Conway. The PAC doled out $20 million in 2016—and more to Cambridge Analytica than for any other expenditure. Trump White House Senior Adviser Steve Bannon sat on Cambridge Analytica’s board while running operations at Breitbart before becoming Trump’s campaign CEO.
Russia didn’t need to scout voter rolls to influence them for Trump on Facebook; Cambridge Analytica performed that targeting on its own, delivering stories based on hacked materials to Trump voters—doing the Kremlin’s work for them.
As I noted in my recent testimony to Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and last October, Russia’s Active Measures cyber-playbook works best when paired with provocations—physical actions undertaken by Kremlin agents that provide grains of truth for powering conspiracies.
Countries closer to Moscow receive greater volume and intensity in provocation to undermine democracy and power cyberinfluence. Russia allegedly changed the vote in Ukraine in 2014, a result narrowly caught and corrected before the final tally.
In America, it sought not to alter the tally, but to create the perception that it’s possible—and instill doubt among Americans in the process. Hacking of voter rolls rather than machines creates an impression in the voters’ psyches without provoking the U.S. into open conflict.
Corroborating evidence supporting the Kremlin’s alternate plan to prepare for undermining a Clinton 2016 victory exists. I noticed a shift in Kremlin messaging last October, when its overt news outlets, conspiratorial partner websites, and covert social-media personas pushed theories of widespread voter fraud and hacking.
Reuters recently reported that a Kremlin-backed think tank, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, “drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election.”
“For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency,” Reuters’ Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay, and John Walcott wrote.
The ex-MI6 agent Chris Steele’s dossier echoes these sentiments, noting from pages 28 to 31 that the Russians were having “buyer’s remorse” with Trump and were reorienting their campaigns to achieve their objectives should Clinton win.
In total, Russia’s Active Measures sought to destroy faith in democracy even more than it wanted to elect Trump. And there’s no better symbol of democracy to attack than the purity of elections.
Americans have the luxury to hear the testimony of DNI Coates, NSA Director Admiral Rogers and Acting FBI Director McCabe on Wednesday. The recently released document will likely come up during Senate Select Committee questioning. Sen. Mark Warner already seems to be suggesting this classified doc is just the tip of the Russia meddling iceberg.
For all Americans, I hope we get more answers than questions after the next two days’ hearings.