Russia’s intervention in the US election was “unusually loud,” FBI Director James Comey said during a hearing on Monday before the House Intelligence Committee on the Russian efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“They were unusually loud in their intervention,” Comey said, when asked by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida what the Russians did in the 2016 presidential race that they hadn’t done before.
“It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew.”
Comey suggested that Russia may have wanted the US government to tell the public what Russia was doing, so as to “amplify” their efforts.
“Their loudness, in a way, would be counting on us to amplify it by telling the American people what we saw and freaking people out about how the Russians might be undermining our elections successfully,” Comey said.
Many cybersecurity and Russia experts agree with Comey that the Russian hacking and disinformation campaign throughout the election was highly conspicuous.
Digital footprints were left on the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta hacks, which were sloppy and easy to link back to the Kremlin, as state-sponsored Russian news agencies like Russia Today and Sputnik, openly backed then-candidate Trump. American eavesdroppers, meanwhile, intercepted calls between foreign nationals and Russian officials allegedly discussing the presidential campaign — a similarly sloppy move, given the open secret that intelligence agencies routinely spy on each other.
Twitter bots — many of them linked to Russia, and aided by professional trolls being paid by the Kremlin — flooded the social media platform with pro-Trump rhetoric and fake news throughout, and especially in the days leading up to, the election. The bots favoured Trump by five-to-one, according to Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute.
“A big difference to me in the past was, while there was cyber activity, we never saw in previous presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed both from private individuals as well as organisations associated with the democratic process both inside the government and outside the government,” Admiral Mike Rogers, the Director of the National Security Agency, said at Monday’s hearing.
Thomas Pickering, the former US ambassador to Russia under Bill Clinton, told CNN on Tuesday that the flagrant nature of the operation “was unusual.”
“Putin clearly wanted to deal the US a lesson, which helped him promote his own national popularity at home,” Pickering said.
Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Business Insider recently that this kind of noise aligned with Putin’s desire to “stir public doubts about the legitimacy of the elections in part because he expected Clinton was going to win.”
“He wanted to portray her election as unfair and illegitimate,” Kramer said.
Indeed, Comey noted on Monday that the Russians “hated her, Secretary Clinton, wanted to harm her and thought they might have a chance to help Mr. Trump. And then later, they concluded that Mr. Trump was hopeless and they would focus then on just trying to undermine Secretary Clinton.”
For Clinton to win amid all of the hacks and negative press would have enabled Putin “to say to his domestic constituents: ‘See? Elections in the West are just a sham, and they’re nowhere near as fair as our elections,'” Kramer said.
Both Comey and Rogers agreed that the Russians likely viewed the operation as successful given the near-daily revelations about the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia that have largely stemmed from those easily traceable hacks and phone calls.
Reports emerged after the inauguration that the Kremlin was getting nervous about the chaos, because the government had been counting on Trump to improve the US-Russia relationship. But Comey said that “one of the lessons [Russia] may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord, and sowed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process.”
“Their number one mission was to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation,” Comey added.
“I fully expect them to continue this — this level of activity,” Rogers said. “Our sense is that they have come to the conclusion that it generated a positive outcome for them in the sense that [they have] called into question” the US’ democratic process.
“We have to assume they’re coming back,” Comey said.
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