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Agents probe effort by Russia to covertly smear U.S. politics

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | September 6, 2016 at 3:47 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad, covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.

The agencies' aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia's ability to spread disinformation.

The effort to better understand Russia's covert influence operations is being spearheaded by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. "This is something of concern for the [director]," said Charles Allen, a former longtime CIA officer who has been briefed on some of these matters. "It is being addressed."

A Russian influence operation in the United States "is something we're looking very closely at," said one senior intelligence official who, as did others who were interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Officials are also examining potential disruptions to the election process, and the FBI has alerted state and local officials to potential cyberthreats.

The official cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has "definitive proof" of such tampering or of any Russian plans to do so. "But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern," the official said. "It's the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system."

The Kremlin's intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack U.S. democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

U.S. intelligence officials described the covert influence campaign as "ambitious" and said it is also designed to counter U.S. leadership and influence in international affairs.

One congressional official who has been briefed recently on the matter said that "Russian 'active measures' or covert influence or manipulation efforts, whether it's in eastern Europe or in the United States," are worrisome.

It "seems to be a global campaign," the aide said. As a result, the matter has "moved up as a priority" for the intelligence agencies, which include the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security as well as the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Some congressional leaders briefed recently by the intelligence agencies on Russian influence operations in Europe, and how they may serve as a template for activities here, have been disturbed by what they heard.

After Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ended a secure, 30-minute phone briefing by a top intelligence official recently, he was "deeply shaken," according to an aide who was with Reid when he left the secure room at the FBI's Las Vegas headquarters.

The hack of the Democratic National Committee, disclosed by the DNC in June but not yet officially ascribed by the U.S. government to Russia, and the subsequent release of 20,000 hacked DNC emails by WikiLeaks, shocked officials. Analysts traced its digital markings to known Russian government hacking groups.

"We've seen an unprecedented intrusion and an attempt to influence or disrupt our political process," said Rep. Adam Schiff, Calif., the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, speaking about the DNC hack and the WikiLeaks release on the eve of the Democratic convention. The disclosures forced the resignation of DNC Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Members of both parties are urging the president to take the Russians to task publicly.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement urged President Barack Obama to publicly name Russia as responsible for the DNC hack and apparent meddling in the electoral process. "Free and legitimate elections are non-negotiable. It's clear that Russia thinks the reward outweighs any consequences," he wrote. "That calculation must be changed. ... This is going to take a cross-domain response -- diplomatic, political and economic -- that turns the screws on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his cronies."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Monday that she is concerned about "credible reports about Russian government interference in our elections."

"We are facing a very serious concern," Clinton told reporters traveling with her to Illinois, adding that the U.S. has never had a foreign power get involved in electoral system like the recent hacking of the DNC.

Clinton said the U.S. has shown "great restraint" to a series of cyberattacks by state and nonstate actors, but "we are going to have to take those threats and attacks seriously."

She said Putin appears "quite satisfied with himself" and the U.S. needs to "make clear that we're not going to let anyone interfere with the decisions of the American people."

Russia has denied that it carried out any cyber intrusions in the United States. Putin called the accusations against Russia by U.S. officials and politicians an attempt to "distract the public's attention."

Obama, speaking at a news conference after a meeting with Putin, declined to directly answer a reporter's questions about the email hacking, citing an ongoing investigation, but he acknowledged tensions.

"We've had problems of cyber intrusions from Russia and other countries in the past," Obama said, "and we're moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities. We have more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively. Our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate the cycle of escalation we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather implementing some norms so everyone is acting responsibly."

Help for states

The Department of Homeland Security has offered local and state election officials help to prevent or deal with Election Day cyber disruptions, including vulnerability scans, regular actionable information and alerts, and access to other tools for improving cybersecurity at the local level. It will also have a cyber team ready at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center to alert jurisdictions if attacks are detected.

Last month, the FBI issued an unprecedented warning to state election officials urging them to be on the lookout for intrusions into their election systems and to take steps to upgrade security measures across the voting process, including voter registration, voter rolls and election-related websites. The alert said investigators had detected attempts to penetrate election systems in several states.

Arizona, Illinois and both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as the DNC, have been the victims of either attempted or successful cyberattacks that FBI agents with expertise in Russian government hacking are investigating.

Federal law enforcement and local election officials say the decentralized nature of the voting process, which is run by states and counties, makes it impossible to ensure a high level of security in each district.

"I have a lot of concern" about this year's election, said Ion Sancho, the longtime supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla. "America doesn't have its act together," said Sancho. "We need a plan."

Sancho and others are particularly concerned about electronic balloting from overseas that travels on vulnerable networks before landing in the United States and about efforts to use cyberattacks to disrupt vote tabulations being transmitted to state-level offices. Encryption, secured paper backups and secured backup computers are critical, he said.

Tom Hicks, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an agency set up by Congress after the 2000 Florida recount to maintain election integrity, said he is confident that states have sufficient safeguards in place to ward off intrusions. He noted that electronic balloting from overseas is conducted by email, not through online voting machines. The email may still be hacked, but it is not a systemic risk, he said.

Russian propaganda

Russia has been in the vanguard of a growing global movement to use propaganda on the Internet to influence people and political events, especially since the political revolt in Ukraine, the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia and the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union.

The Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine have been subject to Russian cyberattacks and other hidden influence operations meant to disrupt those countries, officials said.

"Our studies show that it is very likely that [the influence] operations are centrally run," said Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a Riga, Latvia-based research organization.

He also said there is "a coordinated effort involving [groups using] Twitter and Facebook and networks of bots to amplify their message. The main themes seem to be orchestrated rather high up in the hierarchy of the Russian state, and then there are individual endeavors by people to exploit specific themes."

Information for this article was contributed by Dana Priest, Ellen Nakashima, Tom Hamburger, William Wan, Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.

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