Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report confirmed Russia’s “sweeping and systemic” interference in our democratic process. Mueller’s investigation revealed evidence of Russian hacking and dissemination of stolen data from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, a sophisticated Kremlin social-media influence operation, and efforts to hack into U.S. election infrastructure.
Putin’s intelligence services have deep experience in the art of spying, which only a “cardinal in the Kremlin” (to borrow Tom Clancy’s phrase) who stole secrets on our behalf could uncover. But in this case, the Kremlin’s election interference was not meant to be clandestine. Putin was running discoverable influence operations.
Echoing the January 2017 report of the Office of National Intelligence (DNI), Mueller concluded that Russia favored then-candidate Trump and disparaged Secretary Clinton. Mueller would have been more precise if he had included a factual statement and analytical judgment about the clandestinity — or lack thereof — of the Kremlin’s attacks.
Having tracked Russian intelligence for the better part of my CIA career, I would assess with a high level of confidence that the Kremlin sought, above all else, to disparage our entire political process, not just one of its political parties or a single candidate.
Putin calculated that the virus he injected into our political process would be more harmful to our democracy if it included a Kremlin return address. He wanted one side to accuse the other of crimes they did not commit, even if the Kremlin’s discoverable machinations made it appear otherwise.
The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency began conducting cyber operations against the United States as early as 2014. Russian military intelligence units were responsible for hacking operations as well as the dissemination of stolen information through WikiLeaks. These operations reached a crescendo during the spring and summer of 2016.
It was only on Oct. 7, 2016, one month before the election, that the U.S. intelligence community issued an unprecedented warning about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Putin was baiting the Obama administration. Partisan warfare would have broken out with great intensity if Russian election interference had been exposed earlier, especially with the accompanying analytical judgment that the Kremlin was favoring Trump over Clinton.
Putin would have expected that his discoverable influence operations would spark an investigation of the Trump campaign, which would profess innocence and complain of unfair treatment from the Obama administration, especially in the event that Trump had lost the election.
After Clinton’s unexpected loss, Putin pivoted. Now the Kremlin would benefit from partisan fratricide with debates about whether Putin was the 2016 election’s kingmaker. Politicians and pundits speculated publicly about his impact, often without any factual basis, even though the DNI’s January 2017 report did not render a judgment on the impact of Russia’s information warfare on our election results.
Putin’s overarching goal was to sow chaos in our democracy by pouring gasoline on the partisan fires already burning hotly in Washington.
Consider just some of the evidence, starting with how little of the Mueller report was redacted to protect sensitive sources and methods. That, and other aspects, clearly indicate that Putin’s information warfare was barely — and purposely — hiding in plain sight:
- Demonstrating no interest in hiding their identities, Russian operatives purchased advertisements on Facebook with rubles.
- Putin outsourced Russia’s cyber attacks to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), and that troll group created a wide network of fake American activist groups and personas to operate on the web. Mueller indicted the man nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin, chief financier of the IRA — all of which worked to Putin’s advantage, since he clearly wanted the world to know that he was using the IRA to influence U.S. public opinion.
- A British publicist arranged the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting — with an easily discoverable email. The Russians who attended the meeting had obvious Kremlin ties and, in one case, a link to the notorious Federal Security Service, or FSB, the dominant Russian state security agency and primary successor to the old Soviet KGB — connections that never would have been utilized if the purpose was to operate in secret. Yet, this was never meant to be a clandestine meeting, and no information of any value was exchanged. Instead, the meeting was an easily discoverable “poison pill,” which put the Trump team on the defensive about its alleged ties to Russia.
- And Russian operative Maria Butina was arrested in July 2018, allegedly for using the National Rifle Association and conservative U.S. religious organizations to create back channels to Russian officials. She openly highlighted her relationship with Putin confidant Aleksander Torshin. Clearly, Putin sought to soil the Republican Party’s reputation by making it appear as though it was subjected to the Kremlin’s influence and intrigues.
Putin despises Democrats and Republicans alike. What scares him most is democracy. For Putin, who served in the KGB and as the director of Russia’s FSB, the United States is Russia’s “Main Enemy.” He wants all of us to be sick from the Kremlin’s discoverable influence-virus.
For Putin, success means preventing a bipartisan consensus on defending, deterring and countering Russian aggression. All the better if health care, immigration reform and other critical national interests suffer collateral damage.
Putin might have been channeling the late Roy Cohn who once said, “I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.”
It’s not too late, however, to create the antibodies to Putin’s virus.
To start, our elected officials should shift their ire from their colleagues across the political aisle to the Kremlin. Of course we expect our politicians to have differences with one another and to argue amongst themselves. But if they can increase their shared space, where finding common ground best serves our national security, then Russia — like other enemies that attacked our democracy — will have succeeded, ultimately, only in uniting us in victorious self-defense.