Declassified assessment says Russia ‘had clear preference’ for Trump, who met with US intelligence chiefs on Friday but refused to endorse their findings
By Spencer Ackerman and Sam Thielman
The report found that a multifaceted Russian campaign, going beyond the
high-profile data breaches, included state-owned media and social media
campaigns. Photograph: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images
Russian president Vladimir Putin interfered in the US presidential election to aid Donald Trump, according to a declassified assessment by the NSA, CIA and FBI.
“Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the agencies found in a long-awaited report that stands to hang over the head of the incoming Trump administration.
The report (pdf), for weeks the subject of leaks that have incensed and vexed Trump, contradicts the contention from his transition team that Russia did not prefer him in the 2016 election, as well as Trump’s insistence that the culprits behind the hacks of Democratic political figures are fundamentally unknowable.
The report keeps classified any crucial technical data demonstrating Russian culpability, which means the release of the report is unlikely to persuade skeptics that the intelligence agencies have definitively proven their case. Nor does the intelligence assessment claim that Russian interference was decisive in the election.
However, the three US intelligence agencies assessed with “high confidence” that Russian military intelligence was behind anonymous hacking entities Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com, and relayed to WikiLeaks data stolen from prominent Democrats. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has denied receiving any material from the Russians.
“Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity. Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries,” the agencies found.
The intelligence assessment found that a multifaceted Russian influence campaign, going beyond the data breaches at the Democratic National Committee, began as an effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s “expected presidency” and included state-owned media and social media campaigns. It foreshadowed “future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes”.
“We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” the report said.
While Russian influence campaigns against western powers and Russia’s neighbors have been seen before, and are “designed to be deniable”, the intelligence agencies called the public release of the stolen data “unprecedented”.
Russia also “collected on some Republican-affiliated targets,” the report claims, without elaboration, but “did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign”.
After meeting with US intelligence officials at Trump Tower, Trump did not endorse the conclusion of Russian interference but said he would task his administration with devising a new plan to “aggressively combat and and stop cyber attacks”.
Trump, in a statement following his meeting with intelligence chiefs, discussed digital intrusions in a generic sense, referring to “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people” that engage in digital theft, remaining agnostic on the intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian interference.
He said it was ultimately irrelevant, describing the data penetration and leak as having “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election”.
Several US cybersecurity firms, including CrowdStrike and FireEye, have released public reports over several months attributing the data breaches and disclosures to groups in Russia, providing vastly more technical detail and analysis than does the declassified report.
Brian Bartholomew of Russia-based security firm Kaspersky believes the hacks were the work of a group known by several code names, among them Fancy Bear, Sofacy and APT 29.
Bartholomew told the Guardian yesterday that while Kaspersky tends to shy away from attribution and focus on deterrence and analysis, it had already become difficult to reach any other conclusion than that Russian state actors are behind the Fancy Bear hacks.
“[Julian] Assange said it could have been a 14-year-old hacker – if you look at the collective operations of this group, there’s no way a 14-year-old has this much money, time and effort to conduct all of these operations together,” Bartholomew said.
Kaspersky believes Fancy Bear controlled several operations attributed to Isis and other international groups, among them hacks on TV5Monde, the German Bundestag, and the DNC. Those attacks look sloppy and public by design, Bartholomew said.
“What it came down to was essentially plausible deniability,” he said. “You have an espionage group that is linked to a nation-state group; if you have a group that is targeting media or election systems, that’s taking it past the line that traditional groups used to follow.”
The fronts for Fancy Bear allowed a more organized and well-funded actor to pretend to be a gang of dissidents that just happened to act in a way that furthered the interests of the group backing them. “It all forms a line with the Russian sphere of influence,” said Bartholomew.
Bartholomew said he hoped the new report would contain at least some new technical details, but it is entirely free of specifics. Instead, it contains an analysis of Russian state news outlet Russia Today dating back more than four years, and the detail that among other tactics, the GRU is said to have hired Twitter trolls.
“Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity,” analysts wrote in the declassified report.
Hours before the release of the declassified report, Trump derided the intense political focus on the hack as a “political witch-hunt”, engineered to delegitimize his presidency before it begins.
“To some extent, it’s a witch-hunt. They just focus on this,” Trump told the New York Times ahead of a Friday briefing on the hack by senior US intelligence officials. Trump and Putin have expressed mutual respect, and Trump has said he desires a warmer relationship with Russia – a desire shared by predecessors George W Bush and Barack Obama whose achievement was thwarted by divergent national interests.
It was the latest turbulence in what is shaping up to be an acrimonious relationship with US intelligence agencies. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russian hacking assessment for months, even putting out a dismissive December statement saying its authors were “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction”, and this week cited Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, a hated figure in US intelligence circles, casting doubt on Russian culpability.
By mid-Friday, Trump tweeted that he wanted the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate “top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it”.
In a Senate hearing on Thursday, the NSA director warned that intelligence officers perceiving disrespect or irrelevance from a Trump White House might “walk”. The outgoing director of national intelligence testified that US intelligence has only grown more confident in attributing the DNC hack to Russia since initially releasing its assessment in October.
Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and Pentagon chief in the Obama administration, told the Today show he has “never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” with a president elect “undermining the credibility of the very intelligence agencies that have to provide information to him in order for him to be president of the United States”. The outgoing vice-president, Joseph Biden, said it was “absolutely mindless” for Trump to feud with the intelligence apparatus.
Ahead of the report’s release, 176 Democratic members of the House of Representatives threw their support to a push, opposed by GOP leadership, to create an independent commission to investigate the electoral interference and recommend measures to prevent future breaches.
“If we do nothing, we are telling the world our elections are open for influence by the most aggressive meddler,” said Eric Swalwell of California, a senior member of the intelligence committee and co-sponsor of the effort.
Trump struck a conciliatory tone after his “constructive” meeting with Clapper and other senior intelligence officials.
“I have tremendous respect for the work and service done by the men and women of this community to our great nation,” Trump said in a statement.