In the chaos of World War II, the U.S. Information Agency began a German radio broadcast to counter Nazi propaganda. The Voice of America (VOA) was designed to promote American values abroad, and after the end of the war, the United States enacted the Smith–Mundt Act to continue its broadcasts during peace time.
During the Cold War, VOA took on a new target—Soviet propaganda—and concentrated its message on communist nations in eastern and central Europe. By 1953, VOA was broadcasting 3,200 programs in 40 languages every week.
And America was not alone. The Soviet Union soon began adopting similar technology, attempting to influence elections through radio broadcasts, campaign funding, and recruitment efforts. In the 1970s, for example, during a U.S. presidential race, the Soviet KGB recruited a U.S. Democratic party activist to report on Democrat Jimmy Carter’s campaign and foreign policy plans.
Fast-forward to the present, when influence is no longer restricted to radio broadcasts or recruiting covert agents; it’s now being conducted on social media by nation-states. In an unprecedented unclassified report, the U.S. intelligence community detailed Russia’s most recent efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of candidate and eventual president Donald Trump.
The report, crafted by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), the CIA, and the FBI, and released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.
Putin’s goals, according to the report, were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Democratic candidate former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.
“In trying to influence the U.S. election, we assess the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime,” the report explained.
To carry out this influence campaign, Russia used a messaging strategy that blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users—known as trolls.
“The Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the U.S. election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into U.S. state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda,” the report added. “Russian intelligence collection both informed and enabled the influence campaign.”
For instance, in July 2015 Russian intelligence organizations gained access to the U.S. Democratic National Committee’s (DNC’s) networks and maintained access to them until June 2016. Using this access, Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) compromised the personal email accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures, including Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta.
Then, under the alias Guccifer 2.0, the GRU leaked those emails to DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks, which shared information with RT—the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet, which has more than 4 million Likes on Facebook and 2 million followers on Twitter.
“Russia’s state-run propaganda machine…contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences,” according to the report. “State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 U.S. general and primary election campaigns progressed, while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton.”
For instance, Russian media began to call Trump’s impending victory a “vindication of Putin’s advocacy of global populist movements” and the “latest example of Western liberalism’s collapse.”
Millions of people viewed these articles and shared them on social media, spreading them among U.S. voters. The U.S. intelligence community did not conduct opinion polls to see how Russian propaganda influenced voting behavior, said former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a Senate hearing. But he did reinforce the report’s assessment that Russia will apply lessons it learned from the campaign to future efforts to influence the United States and its allies.
And, because Americans elected Trump in the 2016 election, Russia is likely to view its influence campaign as a success and continue using similar methods to influence future elections.
“Putin’s public views of the disclosures suggest the Kremlin and the intelligence services will continue to consider using cyber-enabled disclosure operations because of their belief that these can accomplish Russian goals relatively easily without significant damage to Russian interests,” the report said.
Putin may hold this view because the United States responded to the influence campaign through targeted sanctions. One week before the U.S. intelligence community’s report was released, former U.S. President Barack Obama sanctioned two Russian intelligence services, four individual intelligence service officers, and three companies that provided material support to the Russian intelligence service’s cyber operations.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury also sanctioned two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to misappropriate funds and steal personal identifying information. The U.S. Department of State also shut down two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York that were used by Russia for intelligence purposes, and declared 35 Russian intelligence operatives “persona non-grata.”
“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” Obama said in a statement. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”
While some experts are not surprised by Russia’s actions, one expert has said he was surprised at Russia’s willingness to engage in a disruptive cyberattack against U.S. institutions.
Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman chair in emerging technologies and national security and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, published The Hacked World Order at the beginning of 2016, saying that he thought states on the periphery—Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine—would conduct disruptive attacks on each other, but that major nation-states would not.
“Clearly, I underestimated the willingness of Russia to use disruptive attacks on the United States,” Segal said at an event hosted by the American Bar Association in January. “I never considered disruptive attacks on the United States focused on institutions, even though I thought those might be the most vulnerable to attacks in the future.”
Disruptive attacks, like the Russian influence campaign, will be a difficult area for the Trump administration moving forward, especially based on the U.S. response to the activity.
Segal, who had just returned from China before speaking at the event, said that the Chinese “seem to see no deterrent value” in the U.S. response to Russia and that the response needed to be stronger to send a clear message not just to Russia, but to other adversaries who might try something similar.
That message was further muddled when just weeks into Trump’s presidency, the U.S. Department of the Treasury eased sanctions to end a ban on selling information technology products to Russia. The ban was originally put in place by Obama in 2015 in response to alleged “malicious cyber-enabled activities” by Russia’s security service in the U.S. electoral process.
Despite the deficient response to the disruptive attack, however, Segal said he still thinks that Russia and China are unlikely to use destructive cyberattacks against the United States—such as targeting critical infrastructure and causing damage—unless their national interests are threatened.
“The Chinese definition of core interests is unfortunately expanding,” Segal said. “But the Chinese know that the United States is going to attribute an attack to them, so they have to be ready for escalation.”
An escalation of destructive cyberattacks is something Leo Taddeo, former special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York Cybercrime Office and current CSO of Cryptzone, a network security and compliance software provider, says he sees happening in 2017. In an interview with Security Management, Taddeo says he sees nation-states—including the United States—taking a more aggressive position on international cybersecurity, leading to a cyber escalation between nation-states.
The U.S. public has an “appetite for more aggressive cyberactivity” and for “striking back” against those who conduct cyberattacks against American interests, according to Taddeo.
However, Taddeo says he is concerned that the U.S. private sector will be caught in the crossfire of this escalation involving the United States, Russia, China, and possibly Iran, when banks, power companies, and other critical infrastructure—largely controlled by the private sector in the United States—are targeted.
“The Russians don’t have that problem as much as the United States does because Russia is more autocratic,” Taddeo adds. “The private sector there doesn’t complain without permission from the regime and can tolerate more in a crisis.”
Those attack methods are also likely to trickle down to regional conflicts between nation-states with less cyber prowess, such as India and Pakistan. For instance, Taddeo says to look at the attack on the Bank of Bangladesh in 2016 when hackers stole $81 million.
“That type of attack may have been committed by a nation-state to obtain much needed cash resources or to embarrass a smaller state,” Taddeo says. “I think we’ll see more types of cyber conflict…some adopted by nation-states, some by super powers, but with all of these different tools becoming part of the arsenal.”
Taddeo adds that, with today’s technological advances and hacking services for hire, it doesn’t take a great deal of expertise to steal information and share it with organizations like WikiLeaks.
Either way, Taddeo says the “genie is out of the bottle” and actors and nation-states are now using cyber methods to conduct influence campaigns for strategic goals.
For the Kremlin, this includes gathering information and attempting to influence public—and government—opinion via social media in favor of Russia.
“Immediately after Election Day, we assess Russian intelligence began a spearphishing campaign targeting U.S. government employees and individuals associated with U.S. think tanks and NGOs in national security, defense, and foreign policy fields,” the U.S. intelligence report said. “This campaign could provide material for future influence efforts, as well as foreign intelligence collection on the incoming administration’s goals and plans.”