U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are probing what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.
The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation.
A Russian influence operation in the United States “is something we’re looking very closely at,” said one senior intelligence official who, as others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Officials are also examining potential disruptions to the election process, and the FBI has alerted state and local officials to potential cyberthreats.
The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack U.S. democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
One congressional official, who has been briefed recently on the matter, said “Russian ‘active measures’ or covert influence or manipulation efforts, whether it’s in Eastern Europe or in the United States” are worrisome.
Some congressional leaders briefed recently by the intelligence agencies on Russian influence operations in Europe, and how they may serve as a template for activities here, have been disturbed by what they heard.
The Russian government hack of the Democratic National Committee, disclosed by the DNC in June but not yet officially ascribed by the U.S. government to Russia, and the subsequent release of 20,000 hacked DNC emails by WikiLeaks, shocked officials. Cyber-analysts traced its digital markings to known Russian government hacking groups.
Russia has been in the vanguard of a growing global movement to use propaganda on the Internet to influence people and political events, especially since the political revolt in Ukraine, the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union.
Sarts said the Russian propaganda effort has been “successful in exploiting the vulnerabilities within societies.” In Western Europe, for instance, such Russian information operations have focused on the politically divisive refugee crisis.
On the eve of a crucial post-revolution presidential vote in Ukraine in 2014, a digital assault nearly crippled the country’s Central Election Commission’s website. Pro-Moscow hackers calling themselves the CyberBerkut claimed responsibility, saying they were not state-affiliated, but the authorities in Kiev blamed Moscow. The Russians used a “denial of service” technique, flooding the commission’s Web server with a high volume of requests, which was meant to slow down or disable the network.