'There is a great, great deal of smoke': Senate Intel Committee holds first public hearing on Trump-Russia probe

Warner burrWin McNamee/GettySenate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, right, and Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member, at the hearing on March 30.

WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday held its first public hearing about its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The hearing focused on Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton and boosting President Donald Trump.

“As the intelligence community unanimously assessed in January of this year, Russia sought to hijack our most cherished democratic process: our presidential election,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s ranking Democrat, in an opening statement. “As we’ll learn today, Russia’s strategy and tactics are not new, but their brazenness certainly was.”

The hearing, titled “Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaigns,” featured testimony from former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, also a former commander of US Cyber Command; the CEO of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, Kevin Mandia; and Thomas Rid, a Professor at Kings College London’s War Studies department.

Also testifying were Clint Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security; Eugene Rumer, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Roy Godson, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

“Today, Russia seeks to win the second Cold War through the force of politics as opposed to the politics of force,” Watts said in his opening statement. “The final piece of Russia’s modern active measures surfaced in the summer of 2016 as hacked materials from previous months were strategically leaked.”

Warner added: “Our witnesses today will help us understand how Russia deployed this deluge of disinformation in a broader attempt to undermine America’s strength and leadership around the world.”

“Are we in the middle of a blitzkrieg conducted by Putin-led Russian trolls to sow instability and pit Americans against one another?” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked in the first half of the hearing.
Rubio said during the second half of the hearing that his campaign staff had been targeted by IP addresses based in Russia during the primaries, and that it happened again in the past 24 hours.

“I think you hit the nail on the head — we are faced with a strategic attack,” Rumer said.

Watts added that the Russians “win because they play both sides” — targeting both Democrats and Republicans — and would turn on Trump if they thought it was in their interest to do so.

Sen. Susan Collins, in the first half of the hearing, asked about state-sponsored news agency Russia Today and whether it was used to promote the interests of both the far left and the far right. Rumer replied that it was “in the interests of Russian propaganda to play up major fault lines in our society,” wherever those fault lines fell on the political spectrum.

“The best propaganda has a grain of truth in it,” Rumer said.

‘There is a great deal of smoke’

Sen. Warner said in his opening remarks that “in addition to what we know” about Russia’s efforts to undermine the election, “any full accounting must also find out what, if any, contacts, communications, or connections occurred between Russia and those associated with the campaigns themselves.”

“We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke,” Warner said.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked witnesses about Russia’s “corruption problem,” and if they could help the committee “follow the money” in its investigation.

“How can the committee track this fuzzy line between the Russian oligarchs, Russian organised crime, and the Russian government?” Wyden asked.

Watts, a counterterrorism expert, replied that “there is a money trail to be discovered” and that the committee should also “follow the trail of dead Russians.”

Eight high-profile Russians have died over the past five months, including Denis Voronenkov, a Putin critic who had fled to Ukraine, and Oleg Erovinkin, a former Russian law enforcement official who had close ties to Russian intelligence.

Watts added that while Russia’s disinformation campaign in the US began as early as 2014, its active measures were particularly effective during the 2016 election because Trump “used these active measures against his opponents.”

Watts cited Trump’s tendency to push conspiracy theories like claims the election was rigged — which was “the number one theme pushed by RT” — and that President Obama was not a US citizen. He also referred to a rally last year when Trump appeared to cite a Sputnik report that later “disappeared” from the Russian news agency’s website.

Sen. Kamala Harris asked the panelists if they thought Russia’s interference was “an act of war.” Watts replied that it was “definitely part of Russia’s Cold War system,” and the US does not yet have its “most talented” hackers dedicated to offensive and defensive cyber operations as Russia does.

“We need to invest in people,” Watts said. “The reasons the Russians are winning is because they have great propagandists, and the best hackers out there.”

A slow, but steady, start

The Senate intel committee’s work is off to a slow start. The House Intelligence Committee said it was further along than its Senate counterpart before it reached an impasse earlier this week stemming from Rep. Devin Nunes’ excursions to the White House the week before.

Still, the senators have said they are trying to gather all of the appropriate information before interviewing the more high-profile witnesses, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

Warner listed Manafort, Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as subjects of interest to the committee, describing them instead of referring to them by name.

“A campaign manager, who played such a critical role in electing the President, was forced to step down over his alleged ties to Russia and its associates,” Warner said. “And since the election, we have seen the President’s national security advisor resign — and his Attorney General recuse himself — over previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian government.”

Warner also alluded to former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who he described as “an individual associated with the Trump campaign” who “accurately predicted the release of hacked emails weeks before it happened” and “admits to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russia intelligence persona responsible for those cyber operations.”

Stone told Business Insider earlier this month that he had a private conversation on Twitter with Guccifer 2.0, and that the interaction was so “brief and banal, I had forgotten it.”

“Not exactly 007 stuff even if Gruccifer 2.0 [sic] was working for the Russkies,” Stone said. “Meaningless.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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