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WASHINGTON – The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday held its first public hearing about its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The hearing focused on Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton and boosting President Donald Trump.
“As the intelligence community unanimously assessed in January of this year, Russia sought to hijack our most cherished democratic process: our presidential election,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s ranking Democrat, in an opening statement. “As we’ll learn today, Russia’s strategy and tactics are not new, but their brazenness certainly was.”
The hearing, titled “Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaigns,” featured testimony from former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, also a former commander of US Cyber Command; the CEO of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, Kevin Mandia; and Thomas Rid, a Professor at Kings College London’s War Studies department.
Also testifying were Clint Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security; Eugene Rumer, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Roy Godson, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
Warner said his hope is that “our witnesses today will help us understand how Russia deployed this deluge of disinformation in a broader attempt to undermine America’s strength and leadership around the world.”
- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Watts, in his opening statement, did not mince words: “Today, Russia seeks to win the second Cold War through the force of politics as opposed to the politics of force. The final piece of Russia’s modern active measures surfaced in the summer of 2016 as hacked materials from previous months were strategically leaked.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio chimed in later, asking the witnesses if they thought the US was “in the middle of a blitzkrieg conducted by Putin-led Russian trolls to sow instability and pit Americans against one another.”
Rumer replied that Rubio had “hit the nail on the head.”
Rubio dropped somewhat of a bombshell when the hearing resumed after a brief recess, telling the committee that his campaign staff had been targeted by IP addresses based in Russia during the primaries – and that it had happened again in the past 24 hours.
“In July of 2016, shortly after I announced I would seek reelection to the United States Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team, who had access to the information of my presidential campaign, were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia,” Rubio said.
“That effort was unsuccessful. I would also inform the committee that within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a second attempt was made against former members of my presidential campaign team… again targeted from an IP address from an unknown location in Russia. That effort was also unsuccessful.”
Rubio revealed the efforts after Watts said that the Russians “win because they play both sides” – targeting both Democrats and Republicans – and that they had probably targeted Rubio while he was running for president against Trump.
Russia’s state-sponsored news agency, Russia Today, has also been known to “play both sides.” When asked by Sen. Susan Collins if the network had been used in the US to promote the interests of both the far left and the far right, Rumer replied that it was “in the interests of Russian propaganda to play up major fault lines in our society,” wherever those fault lines fell on the political spectrum.
“The best propaganda has a grain of truth in it,” Rumer said.
‘There is a great deal of smoke’
Sen. Warner said in his opening remarks that “in addition to what we know” about Russia’s efforts to undermine the election, “any full accounting must also find out what, if any, contacts, communications, or connections occurred between Russia and those associated with the campaigns themselves.”
“We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke,” Warner said.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked witnesses about Russia’s “corruption problem,” and if they could help the committee “follow the money” in its investigation.
“How can the committee track this fuzzy line between the Russian oligarchs, Russian organized crime, and the Russian government?” Wyden asked.
Watts, a counterterrorism expert and former FBI agent, replied that “there is a money trail to be discovered” and that the committee should also “follow the trail of dead Russians.”
Eight high-profile Russians have died over the past five months, including Denis Voronenkov, a Putin critic who had fled to Ukraine, and Oleg Erovinkin, a former Russian law enforcement official who had close ties to Russian intelligence.
- Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
Watts added that while Russia’s disinformation campaign in the US began as early as 2014, its active measures were particularly effective during the 2016 election because Trump “used these active measures against his opponents.”
Watts cited Trump’s tendency to push conspiracy theories like claims the election was rigged – which was “the number one theme pushed by RT” – and that President Obama was not a US citizen. He also referred to a rally last year when Trump appeared to cite a Sputnik report that later “disappeared” from the Russian news agency’s website.
Sen. Kamala Harris asked the panelists if they thought Russia’s interference was “an act of war.” Watts replied that it was “definitely part of Russia’s Cold War system,” and the US does not yet have its “most talented” hackers dedicated to offensive and defensive cyber operations as Russia does.
“We need to invest in people,” Watts said. “The reasons the Russians are winning is because they have great propagandists, and the best hackers out there.”
Keith Alexander, the former NSA director, echoed that claim in the second half of the hearing. “We need to have the right people in place to prepare” for this kind of attack, he said.
When asked if the cyberattacks could have been a “false flag” operation staged by someone other than the Russians, Kevin Mandia, of FireEye, said that his company has been observing Russian hacking activity since 2007.
“I am confident” the hacking group that breached the DNC “is sponsored by the Russian government,” Mandia said.
A slow, but steady, start
The Senate intel committee’s work is off to a slow start. The House Intelligence Committee said it was further along than its Senate counterpart before it reached an impasse earlier this week stemming from Rep. Devin Nunes’ excursions to the White House the week before.
Still, the senators have said they are trying to gather all of the appropriate information before interviewing the more high-profile witnesses, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Warner listed Manafort, Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as subjects of interest to the committee, describing them instead of referring to them by name.
“A campaign manager, who played such a critical role in electing the President, was forced to step down over his alleged ties to Russia and its associates,” Warner said. “And since the election, we have seen the President’s national security advisor resign – and his Attorney General recuse himself – over previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian government.”
Warner also alluded to former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who he described as “an individual associated with the Trump campaign” who “accurately predicted the release of hacked emails weeks before it happened” and “admits to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russia intelligence persona responsible for those cyber operations.”
Stone told Business Insider earlier this month that he had a private conversation on Twitter with Guccifer 2.0, and that the interaction was so “brief and banal, I had forgotten it.”
“Not exactly 007 stuff even if Gruccifer 2.0 [sic] was working for the Russkies,” Stone said. “Meaningless.”