But to the intelligence analysts and outside experts who have spent the past three years dissecting Russian motives in the 2016 election, and who tried to limit the effect of Russian meddling in the 2018 midterms, what is unfolding in 2020 makes perfect sense.
Trump and Sanders represent the most divergent ends of their respective parties, and both are backed by supporters known more for their passion than their policy rigor, which makes them ripe for exploitation by Russian trolls, disinformation specialists and hackers for hire seeking to widen divisions in American society.
While the two candidates disagree on almost everything, both share an instinct that the U.S. is overcommitted abroad: Neither is likely to pursue policies that push back on Putin’s plan to restore Moscow’s influence around the world, from former Soviet states to the Middle East.
And if you are trying to sow chaos in an already chaotic, vitriolic election, Putin could hardly hope for better than a faceoff between an incumbent with a history of race-baiting who is shouting “America First” at rallies — while darkly suggesting the coming election is rigged — and a democratic socialist from Vermont advocating a drastic expansion of taxes and government programs like Medicare.
“Any figures that radicalize politics and do harm to center views and unity in the United States are good for Putin’s Russia,” said Victoria Nuland, who served as ambassador to NATO and assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and had her phone calls intercepted and broadcast by Russian intelligence services.
The intelligence reports provided to the House Intelligence Committee, inciting Trump’s ire, may make the U.S.’ understanding of Putin’s plans sound more certain than they really are, according to intelligence officials who contributed to the assessment. Those officials caution that such reports are as much art as science, a mixture of informants, intercepted conversations and intuition as analysts in the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies try to get into the heads of foreign leaders.
Although intelligence officials have disputed that the officer who delivered the main briefing said Russia was actively aiding the president’s reelection, people in the room said that intelligence officers’ responses to lawmakers’ follow-up questions made clear that Russia was trying to get Trump reelected.
Intelligence is hardly a perfect process, as Americans learned when the nation went to war in Iraq based in part on an estimate that Saddam Hussein was once again in search of a nuclear weapon.
But in this election, the broad strategy — as opposed to the specific tactics — are not exactly a mystery. Putin, analysts agree, mostly seeks anything that would further take the sheen off American democracy and make presidential elections in the United States seem no more credible than his own. After that, he is eager for a compliant counterpart in the White House, one unlikely to challenge his territorial and nuclear ambitions.
Not surprisingly, the Kremlin said this is all an American fantasy aimed at demonizing Russia for the United States’ own failings. “These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the election,” Putin’s confidant and spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by Reuters telling reporters Friday. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”
No matter who is elected, Putin has likely undermined one of his own primary goals: getting the United States and its allies to lift sanctions that were imposed after he annexed Crimea and accelerated a hybrid war against Ukraine.
“By actively exploiting divisions within American society and having its activities revealed, the Kremlin has ensured that its longer-term goal of having the U.S. remove sanctions and return to a less confrontational relationship so far has been thwarted,” Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and now a professor at Georgetown University, wrote in her book, “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.”
On Saturday, Stent noted that if the Russians are in fact interfering in this election, “it could bring about new energy sanctions.” She noted that one piece of legislation in the Senate, the DETER bill, would require new sanctions if evidence of Russian meddling emerges from intelligence agencies. Stent noted that, so far, Putin may have concluded that the penalties are a small price to pay if he can bring his geopolitical rival down a few more notches. And the early intelligence analyses suggest that, by backing Sanders in the primary and Trump in the general election, he would probably have a good chance of maximizing the electoral tumult.
Sanders is hardly a new target for the Russians. The 2018 indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for their activities in the last presidential election — issued by the Justice Department under the Trump administration — claimed that the officers “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
Robert Mueller, in the report on his investigation into Russian operations, concluded that the release of memos hacked from the Democratic National Committee were meant to inflame Sanders’ supporters by revealing that the committee was funneling assets to Clinton.
The more recent public reports emerging from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, and classified reports generated by the CIA and others, suggest that while the Russian objectives have remained the same, the techniques have shifted.
“The Russians aren’t going to use the old playbook; we know that,” said Christopher Krebs, who runs the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
His organization, along with the National Security Agency and British intelligence, has been steadily documenting how Russian operatives are becoming stealthier, learning from the mistakes they made in 2016.
As they focus on evading more vigilant government agencies and technology companies trying to identify and counter malicious online activity, the Russians are boring into Iranian cyberoffense units, apparently so that they can initiate attacks that look as if they originate in Iran — which itself has shown interest in messing with the U.S.’ electoral process. Russians are putting more of their attack operations on computer servers in the United States, where the NSA and other intelligence agencies — but not the FBI and Homeland Security — are prohibited from operating.
And, in one of the most effective twists, they are feeding disinformation to unsuspecting Americans on Facebook and other social media. By seeding conspiracy theories and baseless claims on the platforms, Russians hope everyday Americans will retransmit those falsehoods from their own accounts. That is an attempt to elude Facebook’s efforts to remove disinformation, which it can do more easily when it flags “inauthentic activity,” like Russians posing as Americans. It is much harder to ban the words of real Americans who may be parroting a Russian storyline, even unintentionally.
Krebs noted that this was why the Department of Homeland Security had to focus on educating Americans about where their information was coming from. “How do you explain,” he asked last year, “‘This is how you’re being manipulated; this is how they’re hacking your brain’?”
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
In 2018, the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA mounted a new and more public campaign to push back at the Russians, attacking and blocking their Internet Research Agency for a few days around the November elections, and texted warnings to Russian intelligence officers that they were being watched. The NSA is preparing for similar counterattacks this year: On Thursday, the United States cited intelligence and blamed Russia for a cyberattack last fall on the republic of Georgia, another place where Putin seems to be holding dress rehearsals.
Now U.S. intelligence agencies face a new question: How do they run such operations and warn Congress and Americans at a moment when the president is declaring the intelligence on Russian election meddling is “another misinformation campaign” that is “launched by Democrats in Congress”?
The intelligence agencies are loath to cross him. The acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire, resisted appearing in public to provide the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” that is usually given to Congress before the president’s State of the Union address. (He was dismissed last week before he had to testify.) Because Trump was so angered by how his predecessor’s testimony contradicted his own statements last year — particularly on Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State — Maguire was in no hurry to repeat the experience.
His successor, Richard Grenell, the current U.S. ambassador to Germany, is known for his political allegiance to Trump, not for his knowledge of the U.S. intelligence agencies. He is widely viewed by career officials as more interested in making sure public intelligence reports do not embarrass Trump than sounding the clarion call that the Russians are coming, again.