It was September 2015 when the FBI first noticed that Russian
hackers had infiltrated a computer system belonging to the
Democratic National Committee.
It was the first sign that Moscow was attempting to meddle in the
Nearly a year later, further reporting and testimony from current
and former intelligence officials have painted a portrait of
Russia’s election interference as a multifaceted, well-planned,
and coordinated campaign aimed at undermining the backbone of
American democracy: free and fair elections.
Now, as FBI special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional
intelligence committees continue to investigate Russia’s election
interference, evidence is emerging that the hacking and
disinformation campaign waged at the direction of Russian
President Vladimir Putin took at least four separate but related
The first involved establishing personal contact with Americans
perceived as sympathetic to Moscow — such as former Defense
Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign
chairman Paul Manafort, and early Trump foreign-policy adviser
Carter Page — and using them as a means to further Russia’s
The second involved hacking the Democratic National Committee
email servers and then giving the material to WikiLeaks, which
leaked the emails in batches throughout the second half of 2016.
The third was to amplify the propaganda value of the leaked
emails with a disinformation campaign waged predominantly on
Facebook and Twitter, in an effort to use automated bots to
spread fake news and pro-Trump agitprop.
And the fourth was to breach US voting systems in as many as 39
states leading up to the election, in an effort to steal
registration data that officials say could be used to
target and manipulate voters in future elections.
Former FBI Director James Comey
confirmed in a hearing before the Senate Intelligence
Committee in March, two months before he was fired, that the
bureau was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016
election. That probe included an examination of whether the Trump
campaign colluded with Moscow to undermine Hillary Clinton, Comey
testified at the time.
Restrictions on disclosing classified information in an open
setting precluded Comey from naming names; but reports surfaced
before he testified that certain members of Trump’s campaign had
communicated with Russian officials in ways that raised red
Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, and
Roger Stone were among those being looked at by federal
investigators, reports said, amid the FBI and congressional
probes into whether any Trump associates acted as agents of the
Kremlin, wittingly or not.
Flynn was forced to resign as national-security adviser in
February after it emerged he had discussed US sanctions with
Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, during the
transition period. The White House said Flynn resigned because he
misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversation with
It was later reported that the acting attorney general, Sally
Yates, had warned the White House in January that Flynn could be
vulnerable to Russian blackmail, because US intelligence knew
Pence had publicly mischaracterized Flynn’s interactions with
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, worked to
advance Russian interests for over a decade. Beginning in 2004,
Manafort served as a top adviser to former Ukrainian President
Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian strongman whom Manafort is
widely credited with helping win the presidency in 2010. Between
2006 and 2009, Manafort was paid millions to lobby on behalf of
Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. AP reporter Jeff Horwitz
told Fox News that Manafort was “a gun for hire” who was
willing to work explicitly “on behalf of Russian interests.”
Carter Page, an early foreign-policy adviser to Trump’s campaign,
has also become a subject of FBI and congressional
investigations. His trip to Moscow in July 2016 raised red flags
at the FBI, which was granted a warrant by the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Page’s communications
on suspicion that he was communicating with Russian officials.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, became a
subject of the investigation after US intelligence officials
intercepted communications suggesting he had proposed setting up
a secret backchannel to Moscow using Russian diplomatic
facilities on US soil. Kushner met with both Kislyak and Russian
banker Sergey Gorkov in December and failed to disclose it on his
And Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump, communicated with a
self-described hacker, Guccifer 2.0, in August 2016 who US
intelligence officials believe was a Russian prop.
Former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts told the Senate Intelligence
Committee in May that the Trump campaign itself may have been an
unwitting agent of Russia.
“Part of the reasons active measures have worked in the US
election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian
active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts said,
pointing to Manafort and Trump’s citations of fake-news stories
pushed out by Russian-linked entities last year.
“[Trump] denies the intel from the United States about Russia,
and he claimed the election could be rigged — that was the number
one claim pushed by RT, Sputnik News, all the way up until the
election,” Watts said. “Part of the reasons Russian active
measures work is because they parrot the same lines.”
Indeed, the Trump transition team
released a statement in December that appeared to cast doubt
on the CIA’s findings that Russia had meddled in the election
with the specific purpose of damaging Clinton’s candidacy and
swinging voters towards Trump.
“These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons
of mass destruction,” the statement said.
The DNC, WikiLeaks, and Guccifer 2.0
In July 2016, the Democratic National Committee announced that
Russian hacking groups known as “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” had
infiltrated its servers. The intrusions came after federal
investigators warned the
DNC in September 2015 that its servers had been breached, but
the DNC failed to take action.
After gaining access to the DNC’s system in 2016, Fancy Bear and
Cozy Bear disseminated thousands of emails via hacker Guccifer
2.0, who leaked the information to WikiLeaks. US intelligence
agencies believe Guccifer 2.0 was created by Fancy Bear, or a
Russian organization affiliated with the group. WikiLeaks
published the first batch of DNC emails on July 22, one day
before the Democratic National Convention.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Fox News’ Sean Hannity
during a January interview that
the Russian government did not provide the hacked DNC emails to
him. But US intelligence agencies believe WikiLeaks has become a
Kremlin propaganda tool.
Cybersecurity experts at the intelligence firm ThreatConnect also
linked Guccifer 2.0 back to Russia and concluded the hacker was
the product of a
Russian disinformation campaign.
The New York Times reported in December that Guccifer 2.0 had
also hacked into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
and released the information to reporters covering competitive
A little over two months later, on October 7, WikiLeaks released
a batch of emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s
account. The hack of Podesta’s emails came after
Trump confidant Roger Stone tweeted in August, “Trust me, it
will soon the [sic] Podesta’s time in the barrel.
WikiLeaks continued releasing Podesta’s emails and published
nearly 60,000 messages leading up to Election Day. Podesta
said after the initial breach that Russian intelligence was
“A big difference to me in the past was, while there was
cyberactivity, we never saw in previous presidential elections
information being published on such a massive scale that had been
illegally removed both from private individuals as well as
organizations associated with the democratic process both inside
the government and outside the government,” Adm. Mike Rogers, the
director of the National Security Agency, told the House
Intelligence Committee in March.
It soon emerged that Russian hackers had also accessed the
Republican National Committee’s servers and accounts belonging to
Republican officials, but had chosen
not to release the information. This development appeared to
confirm intelligence findings that Russian meddling was done
specifically to hurt Clinton and aid Trump.
The US intelligence community “is confident that the Russian
Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US
persons and institutions, including from US political
organizations,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
and the Department of Homeland Security said in a
joint statement shortly after the first batch of Podesta’s
emails were first leaked.
During a January hearing before the Senate Armed Services
Committee with other intelligence chiefs,
Clapper reaffirmed that finding. “We stand more resolutely on
that statement,” he said.
Fake news, trolls, botnets
In early January, the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence released a
declassified report documenting the results of the
investigation former President Barack Obama had requested into
Russian election interference.
The report said that while Russian operatives did not change vote
tallies, Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an
elaborate effort to propel Trump to the presidency — not only via
hacking but also through the dissemination of “fake news” aimed
at undermining Clinton and boosting Trump.
The Russians, Comey said in March, were also “unusually loud” in
their intervention, leaving digital footprints on the DNC and
John Podesta email hacks that were sloppy and easily linked back
to the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, state-sponsored Russian news agencies like RT and
Sputnik, openly backed Trump. And automated Twitter accounts —
many of them linked to Russia and
aided by professional trolls paid by the Kremlin — flooded
the social-media platform with pro-Trump rhetoric and made-up
news throughout the campaign and especially in the days leading
up to the election.
Russian internet trolls — paid by the Kremlin to spread false
information on the internet — have been behind a number of
“highly coordinated campaigns” to deceive the American public,
journalist Adrian Chen
found when researching Russian troll factories in St.
Petersburg in 2015.
It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,”
that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War.
The disinformation campaigns are only one “active measure” tool
used by Russian intelligence to “sow discord among,” and within,
nations perceived as hostile to Russia.
From his interviews with former trolls employed by Russia, Chen
gathered that the point of their jobs “was to weave propaganda
seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of
an everyday person.
“Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest
trolling operation in history,” Chen wrote. “And its target is
nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic
In a telling case study of how widespread and pervasive fake news
was during the election,
Oxford University researchers found that nearly half of the
news Michigan voters were exposed to on Twitter leading up to
Election Day was fake. They found that the proportion of
“professional to junk news” was “roughly one-to-one,” and that
“fully 46.5% of all content presented as news” about politics and
the election fell under “the definition of propaganda” when
unverified WikiLeaks content and Russian-origin news stories were
As many as 39 state-election systems targeted
In January, President-elect Trump issued
a statement after he was briefed on the intelligence
community’s classified report on Russia’s election interference.
“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people
are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure
of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations
including the Democrat [sic] National Committee, there was
absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the
fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting
As it turns out, that was not entirely true.
reported in June that election systems in as many as 39
states could have been attacked, though voting tallies are not
believed to have been altered or manipulated in any way.
“In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders
tried to delete or alter voter data,” Bloomberg said. “The
hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on
Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign
The report was bolstered by a leaked NSA document published by
The Intercept earlier this month detailing how hackers connected
to Russian military intelligence had attempted to breach US
voting systems days before the election.
were floored by the document and said it was the clearest
evidence so far that Russia interfered in the election.
Department of Homeland Security official Jeanette Manfra
confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 21 that
Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states’ election systems in
2016, successfully exploiting a small number of networks and
stealing voter registration data. Time reported on Thursday that
the hackers successfully altered voter information in at least
one election database and stole thousands of voter records
containing private information like Social Security numbers.
The exposure of that data has left upcoming elections vulnerable
to manipulation. Virginia and New Jersey will hold gubernatorial
elections later this year, and all 435 seats in the House and 33
of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested in the 2018
Putin has consistently denied the Kremlin had anything to do with
the hacking or disinformation campaigns waged in 2016 to bolster
Trump and hurt Clinton. But he acknowledged
a potential Russian role for the first time earlier this
month when he said that “patriotically minded” Russian citizens
might have taken it upon themselves “to fight against those who
say bad things about Russia.”