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Putin and Prigozhin
Russian president Vladimir Putin (center) with Yvgeny Prigozhin, financier of Russian influence operations.

[First in a Series: How Top World Intelligence Agencies Assess the US Election]

Russian intelligence agencies – encouraged by the absence of any real U.S. pushback – are actively promoting disinformation about the U.S. presidential election, while seeking to hack into election systems, according to former CIA officers with Russian expertise and a wide variety of U.S. government agencies.

In 2016, Russian intelligence went into a mode American that intelligence had never seen before – a highly creative, aggressive modus operandi that surpassed the standard interference that American and Russian intelligence had previously both deployed.  Cyber teams from the GRU, nicknamed Fancy Bear, hacked and disseminated Democratic Party emails.

In 2020, the Russian efforts have evolved. Among their more brazen efforts has been feeding anti-Biden disinformation to Donald Trump himself, through the pipeline of Rudy Giuliani, the jet-setting former Mayor of New York who is personal lawyer to the President. Earlier this year Robert O’Brien warned Trump “in a private conversation” that Giuliani was delivering information “considered contaminated by Russia,” according to the Washington Post. Trump, already facing impeachment over his “perfect” Ukraine call to trade arms for Biden dirt, shrugged off the warning.

Last week Giuliani took credit for giving a hard drive, supposedly containing Hunter Biden’s emails, to the New York Post. In one alleged e-mail from Burisma, the energy firm that put Hunter Biden on its board, a company official thanked Hunter Biden for setting up an April 2015 meeting with then-Vice President Biden. The Biden campaign says there is no such meeting on Biden’s calendar.

One New York Post reporter took his name off the story out of concern for its accuracy. No other news organization has been able to confirm the authenticity of the emails. The FBI is investigating whether Russians had a hand in spreading the story.

Of course when it comes to spreading false information, the Russians have plenty of help from the President and his media allies. According to an MIT study released earlier this month, examining five million Tweets, 75,000 Facebook posts and 55,000 media stories between 2015 and 2018, Trump and Fox News are the key players in spreading disinformation, not Russian trolls.

Former Moscow CIA station chief John Sipher said the GRU’s job has gotten easier since 2016, when they had to create conspiracies out of nothing. Now, he noted, they merely need to amplify the President’s own words.

“Trump’s stoking of white supremacy and claims that the election is illegitimate provide plenty of social media chatter and conspiracy nonsense – QAnon –  that the Russians can exploit,” Sipher said. “The President is making their job easy. The important thing to remember is that the Russian security services are relentless. It is their job to engage in subversion, deception and disinformation. They have been at it for over 100 years and are not going to stop. >>>not election related…. …. The US needs to strengthen its counterintelligence cadre to meet the challenge and elect a President that won’t make their job easier.”

Assessing Russia

GRU Emblem
Emblem of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)

Last year, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report determined that Russian election interference was real and ongoing, and that Russian hackers had probed the election systems of 22 states and tried to gain access to voter information. That public accord proved little deterrent to Russian planners: Senator Mitch McConnell killed efforts to tighten U.S. election security.

In January Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia was actively seeking to amplify U.S. divisions in an effort to influence American politics and the election — and this was before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.

In August, the Office of the Director for National Intelligence issued an assessment the “Russia is using a range of measures primarily to denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an “anti-Russia establishment,” the DNI stated. “For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

In a classified internal report, CIA analysts named Derkach as a prime player in the effort to disseminate disparaging information about Biden, through lobbyists, Congress, the media and contacts with figures close to the president – and that the operation was “probably” directed by Putin himself,” according to Washington Post columnist, Josh Rogin, who was shown at least portions of the report.

“We assess that President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November,” the first line of the document says, according to Rogin.

In September FBI Director Chris Wray testified on Capitol Hill about Russian measures.  “We certainly have seen very active — very active — efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020 to both sow divisiveness and discord, and I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, to primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden in what the Russians see as a kind of an anti-Russian establishment.”

In an unprecedented video message, “Safeguarding Your Vote,” posted on YouTube October 5, FBI’s Wray, DNI counterintelligence chief William Evanina,  Chris Krebs, director of the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency, and National Security Agency director Gen. Paul Nakasone jointly warned of foreign election interference.

These conclusions are shared by independent researchers.

Chris Vickery, a digital security researcher and “data breach hunter” who has, among other work, assisted a UK investigation into misinformation, Facebook privacy practices, and suspected voter registration data breaches told me, “I can state unequivocally that there are current, active, efforts of information warfare being conducted against us with a goal of interfering in this election. I am also confident that a considerable amount of those efforts would not be happening without the involvement of the Russian Federation. Yes, they are active now.”

Unleashed

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former CIA officer (Credit: Harvard University)

The Russian intelligence agencies feel unleashed this year, says Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA intelligence chief for decades in Europe, with expertise in Russia.

Since Russian active measures in 2016 didn’t much affect Russia-US relations over the next four years, the Russians haven’t got much to lose by aggressive measures this year, Mowatt-Larssen says.

 “In five years the US has never seriously confronted the Russians and demanded in serious way  that they stop. which would mean sending the CIA director to Moscow and saying cut the crap or we do X, Y, and Z.”

“To some extent, I don’t think they thought it would work in 2016,” he said. “The single biggest difference between then and now is they are building on success. In 2016, their disregard of publicity and getting caught was is so brazen you almost don’t even believe it’s intelligence anymore. But all those things are precedent, and they worked. So now it’s time to go to Part B. You can’t do that same thing again. Now the risk-versus-gain is off the charts in terms of being willing to take risks to keep him in office.”

Mowatt-Larssen said he was not aware of the specifics of the Russian operations, but he laid out how he, as a former spy chief facing off similar situation and odds, would be operating this year.

 “If I were Russian, I would be laying the groundwork to help Trump credibly assert that the election is as compromised as possible, by displaying voter fraud and by bringing forth evidence,” he said. “I would be moving from exploratory efforts to see just how far they could go to destroy the integrity of a Western election, from changing votes electronically to getting in the ballot box.

 “This second round is where I might be more cautious about showing my hand,” he said. “If the Russian government is shown to be the source of showing our voting is fraudulent, that is not as good as having some independent effort. So, if I were running, it I would bring people forward. We know they hire Americans to write articles, sometimes unwittingly.” Mowatt-Larssen referred to one incident in which an American researcher only learned after being notified that he was part of a Russian effort sponsored by St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

If Trump Loses

This operation is believed to be of daily interest to Vladimir Putin. “That’s what’s changed since 2016,” Mowatt-Larssen said. “Now that they placed their bet and won, they are desperately trying to keep him in place. In 2016 they took a long shot getting an agent or possible agent elected and now they are desperately trying to keep the joyride going.”

If Trump loses the election, Mowatt-Larssen said the Russians will almost certainly work to help Trump sow distrust and chaos and try to give him and his supporters “some ammo” – that will appear to have been independently discovered.  “I can guarantee they are working furiously behind the scenes. They have had four years of benefit watching since 2016 to how we adapted or not to what they did.  At the political level how transparent we are plays to their advantage. They have everything they need to make a really accurate assessment of how what they do will have an impact.”


Nina Burleigh is a national political journalist who has been tracking the rise of Trump and Slavic despotism in America since 2015. Her latest book is The Trump Women: Part of The Deal.

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