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Study says Putin ordered campaign to sway US election

Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved cyber attacks aimed at interfering with last year’s presidential election motivated by “a clear preference” for Donald Trump, according to a newly declassified report by the US intelligence community.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report concluded. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The joint effort by the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency said the campaign was in keeping with Moscow’s traditional desire to weaken the US-led global order.

But the use of purloined emails to hobble Democrat Mrs Clinton marked a “significant escalation” beyond traditional Russian espionage activities, it added.

All three agencies agreed that Russia “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances” by discrediting Mrs Clinton or contrasting her unfavourably to him. The CIA and FBI said they had “high confidence” in that judgment while the NSA backed it with moderate confidence.

The declassified review, less than half the length of the 50-page-plus classified version, contained no specific details of wrongdoing.

The report was released only hours after Mr Trump met with the nation’s intelligence chiefs: James Clapper, director of national intelligence; CIA director John Brennan; and FBI director James Comey. Mr Trump, who has scorned the intelligence agencies’ previous assertions of Russian election meddling, later issued a conciliatory statement calling the meeting “constructive”.

“The unclassified report is underwhelming at best. There is essentially no new information for those who have been paying attention,” tweeted Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney.

But it represented the most comprehensive public assessment offered to date of the alleged Russian activity.

Moscow took a flexible approach to executing a multi-faceted campaign involving cyber attacks, traditional propaganda and “fake news” spread via social media “trolls”. When Mrs Clinton appeared likely to be elected, the campaign focused on “undermining her future presidency”.

Mr Putin has nursed a grudge against Mrs Clinton for what he saw as her role in anti-government protests in Moscow in late 2011 and 2012, the report said.

The Russian leader also “has had many positive experiences working with western business leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia”, the report said, citing former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. 

On election day, Russian bloggers readied an effort to question the vote’s legitimacy through the Twitter hashtag #DemocracyRIP, the report said.

Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), responsible for overseas spying, likely began its cyber attacks against the Democratic National Committee in March of last year. By May, Russian hackers had extracted “large volumes of data from the DNC”, the report said.

[Russia] did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign [of material collected from Republican computers]

Russia also collected material from Republican computers “but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign”, the report said, an indication of Moscow’s pro-Trump tilt.

Russia also hacked into computers belonging to US political primary candidates, think-tanks and lobbying groups they saw as likely to influence future government policies, the intelligence agencies said.

The GRU turned over the DNC emails to the radical transparency group WikiLeaks, a site called DCLeaks.com, and a hacker who used the moniker Guccifer 2.0. “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries,” the report added.

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, has denied receiving material from the Russians, an assertion that Mr Trump has welcomed.

After the US election on November 8, Russian intelligence operatives launched a “spearphishing” operation designed to trick US government employees and think-tank national security specialists into revealing confidential material. French and German officials are already on alert for such cyber meddling.

President Barack Obama ordered the intelligence study in early December amid widespread reports of Russian involvement in cyber attacks on Democratic party computers. The subsequent disclosure of internal emails, notably including those of John Podesta, Mrs Clinton’s campaign manager, damaged the former secretary of state’s campaign.

While US intelligence officials did not determine what impact the disclosures had on the voting, saying such political analysis lies outside their remit, Mr Trump went further, claiming categorically that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election”.

Via FT