With anti-establishment politics shaking governments across the west, US and European intelligence chiefs are newly raising the alarm about Russian cyber attacks and information warfare, saying they pose a threat to their democracies.
In the US, the warnings have been met with a mix of outrage and outright dubiousness. While a bipartisan group of senators are calling for an investigation into how Russia might have influenced the US presidential election—saying the reports of interference “should alarm every American”—US president-elect Donald Trump is alleging that Democrats and other opponents are fabricating a story of Russian mischief because they still cannot accept his victory a month ago.
What is the CIA alleging about Russia and the US election? What is Russia’s motive? And if the CIA is right, what happens now?
Here’s what we know so far:
What exactly was Russia’s involvement in the US election?
Hackers deployed by the Russian government broke into email servers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and stole emails from senior members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including campaign chief John Podesta and Clinton herself, according to US intelligence assessments. The circumstantial evidence here is that material from the thefts were passed along to WikiLeaks, which then posted a selection of what it received. The Russians also hacked the Republican National Committee and deployed a campaign of information warfare, involving fake news and tweets.
What was the objective?
The goal, the agencies have alleged for months, was to sow chaos by raising doubts about Clinton, and about the integrity of the election itself. But in a new assessment presented to members of Congress last week, the CIA added a twist on the existing reports, which was the conclusion that Russia’s efforts were aimed to help Trump. This part of the intelligence is under debate within the government, as the FBI sees murkier Russian aims.
Notably, the intelligence chiefs of three European countries—Germany, Sweden and the UK—are raising similar worries about Russian attempts at electoral influence. “The risks are profound. … They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values,” said Alex Younger, head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6.
What is the evidence of Russian meddling?
The first evidence of Russian fingerprints in the DNC hacking came not from intelligence agencies but from CrowdStrike, a private cybersecurity firm. Hired by the DNC to examine its computer system, CrowdStrike found the telltale tradecraft methods of two known Russia-linked hackers—what it calls Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear. It said the two Bears got into not only the DNC, but also the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and numerous Washington-based think tanks. In the past, the same hackers were found to have infiltrated NATO and other western government computers. Two other cybersecurity firms—Mandiant and Fidelis—reached similar conclusions. In independent forensic assessments, the 17 US intelligence agencies said the same thing.
Why would Russia do this?
For starters, since the mid-2000s, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been convinced that the US has an objective to overthrow him. But even short of that, Putin thinks that the US is responsible for political turbulence in his region, namely the fall of pro-Russian governments in Ukraine, and revolutions in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
While Russia has had its setbacks, Putin still regards his country as a rightful geopolitical power, and is resentful that the US has carried out an aggressive foreign policy over the last decade and a half—including the invasion of Iraq and the support of rebels in Syria—without consulting him. He thinks that the West is ultimately hypocritical, and presumes that other countries are guilty of the same corruption, vote-rigging, and official lying as riddles Russian officialdom. Hence, Putin is out for revenge. He wants to shake the political systems across the West, and of NATO.
Could Russia actually have influenced the election result?
The short answer is yes. Though experts call it an extremely remote possibility, Russia could have hacked into voting machines and changed the result in Michigan and Wisconsin, where support for Trump was pivotal to his victory. But we likely will never know whether that happened. Moreover, such a finding does not appear to be the CIA’s objective. Rather, the intelligence agencies appear to be focused solely on finding out what happened in order to protect the country’s political integrity in the future.
What does this mean for the election results?
Whatever is discovered will likely not change the outcome of the election. Expect Trump to be inaugurated on Jan. 20.
How has Donald Trump and his transition team responded to all this?
Trump has cast scorn on the idea of Russia influencing the election outcome, calling it “ridiculous” and “laughable.” He has called it a fabrication of Democrats still sore over his upset victory.
Meanwhile, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee and Trump’s pick for White House chief of staff, disputed the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election and denied that the RNC was hacked by the Russians. He told ABC News:
“We contacted the FBI months ago when the [alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee] issue came about. They reviewed all of our systems. We have hacking-detection systems in place, and the conclusion was then, as it was again two days ago when we went back to the FBI to ask them about this, that the RNC was not hacked.”
In fact, US intelligence found evidence that Russian hackers probed the RNC, but is inconclusive as to whether they actually got in.
How big a threat is Russia, really?
It’s a serious threat. Putin seeks to weaken the US, the EU, and NATO to the degree that they can no longer presume to call the shots without his agreement in international affairs. Since western governments are not ordinarily prepared for such stout challenges to their democracies, they are vulnerable to the weapons of doubt he is employing, mainly creating the impression that there are no indisputable facts, that anything could be true, and that everything is either already compromised, or could be. Since trust is the bedrock of democracy, this threatens social stability across the West.
How should the US respond?
While its defenses are obviously not so great (or at least they weren’t at the time of the hacking), the US has the most advanced offensive cyber capability on the planet. It has been reluctant to retaliate out of fear of triggering a dangerous, all-out global cyber conflict. But it’s clear that the US will have to do something to show Putin that two can play this game.
Among the options is to out him on his presumed personal wealth, with details of all his homes, property, and hard cash. Or the Internet can be shut off to important government or personal facilities or homes. What the US likely won’t do is to launch a debilitating attack, such as temporarily taking out the Moscow electric grid. That would go beyond the realm of mere mischief and into the risk of tit-for-tat warfare.