WASHINGTON — The US intelligence community concluded in a declassified report released Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
The campaign — which consisted of hacking Democratic groups and individuals, including Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and releasing that information via third-party websites, including WikiLeaks — amounted to what the intelligence report called “a significant escalation” in longtime Russian efforts to undermine “the US-led liberal democratic order.”
The report was the first official, full and public accounting by the US intelligence community of its assessment of Russian cyberhacking activities during the 2016 campaign and the motivations behind that hacking.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary 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 report said.
“Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations,” the report continued.
The report said Moscow used a variety of tactics in a bid to sway the outcome.
“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations — such as cyberactivity — with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users or ‘trolls,’ ” the report found.
The US intelligence community released several new pieces of information to support its conclusions.
It noted that in the final run-up to the election, when polls favored Clinton to win the election, Moscow shifted its campaign to influence the election to one aimed at undermining the validity of the electoral results.
“Before the election, Russian diplomats had already publicly denounced the US electoral process and were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results,” the reported stated, adding that pro-Russian government bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign on Election Night using the hashtag “#DemocracyRIP.”
US intelligence officials also assessed “with high confidence” that the GRU Russian intelligence agency “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyberoperations publicly.” The intelligence community also assessed “with high confidence” that the GRU provided WikiLeaks with the material they obtained from hacking the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials.
US intelligence agencies also noted in the report that the Russian influence campaign was not limited to the cyberhacking and release of private documents that drew headlines during the presidential campaign.
The report stated that the campaign blended cyberhacking intelligence operations with overt propaganda efforts carried out by state-owned media outlets and paid social media users.
The propaganda efforts included Russian state-owned media outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik casting Trump as “the target of unfair coverage from traditional US media outlets” as well as Russian propaganda officials casting Trump during the campaign as a victim of the US political establishment.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community noted that “RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton … was consistently negative and focused on her leaked emails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism.”
Clinton’s campaign first argued Russia was aiming to help Trump back in July, to which Trump’s campaign called the comment “a joke.” After the election, Clinton argued to donors that Putin got involved in the 2016 election partially due to a grudge against her, a view that’s backed up in Friday’s report.
“Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him,” the report said.
The Clinton campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. But Jesse Lehrich, a spokesman for Clinton’s campaign, expressed vindication Friday afternoon, tweeting:
REPORTER: what about *this* @wikileaks email?
ME: part of an unprecedented foreign cyberattack!!!
REPORTER: so… no comment?”
The report, which was commissioned by President Barack Obama, comes as Trump has continued to resist the US intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia was responsible for the hacking and that it aimed to help his campaign.
Trump was briefed earlier Friday on the report by top US intelligence and law enforcement officials, and while he said he had “a constructive meeting,” he declined to publicly agree with their conclusions.
Instead, Trump stressed that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome whatsoever,” which the US intelligence community asserted in its report it was not in a position to assess.
Trump did acknowledge in his statement the possibility that Russia could have been behind the hack, though he named China as well as a persistent cyberhacker.
The US intelligence community also warned in its report Friday that Moscow would likely continue to pursue cyberhacking campaigns to influence future elections.
“Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes,” it assessed.
The 17 US intelligence agencies first concluded in October that Russian intelligence, directed by the most senior Russian officials, orchestrated the hacking of Democratic Party organizations.
But since then, the US intelligence community said it had gathered additional information to make assessments of the motivations behind the cyberhacking operations: that the effort was aimed at undermining the US democratic process, hurting Clinton and helping Trump in the 2016 presidential election.