Floor Speech - Deterring and Countering the Russian Information Warfare Playbook for 2020
Mr. President, I rise today to highlight my concerns about ongoing Russian information warfare operations against the American people, including in the upcoming 2020 presidential elections, the lack of a unified strategy from the Administration to counter and deter these attacks, and steps that must be taken in the near term to be better prepared in the future. I will explain how statements by the President soliciting foreign governments to investigate political rivals for his personal benefit are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that reinforces Russian disinformation narratives and has implications for our national security and the integrity of our democracy.
It has been almost three years since Russia interfered in our democracy during the 2016 presidential election with hybrid warfare and malign influence operations. These hybrid warfare tactics, including information warfare which I will focus on today, are not simply opportunistic “meddling” by Russia. Russia’s purpose is to further its strategic interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that, for now, Russia cannot effectively compete with the United States through conventional military means and win. Instead, Putin seeks to use tools from his hybrid warfare arsenal, to divide the United States from our allies and partners in the West and weaken our institutions and open societies from within. By weakening our democracy, Putin can strengthen Russia’s perceived standing globally and bolster his autocratic grip on power at home.
Similar to the other tools in its hybrid arsenal, Russia has been developing its information warfare playbook over time, enhancing both the technical and psychological aspects of these information operations in capability, sophistication, and boldness. Lessons learned from previous information warfare campaigns culminated in the attacks the Kremlin unleashed against the United States during the 2016 Presidential election. The 2016 information warfare campaign, according to our Intelligence Community “demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.” Special Counsel Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election confirmed these assessments and detailed how the Kremlin used information warfare operations among other hybrid warfare tactics in a “sweeping and systematic fashion.” The recently released Volume 2 of the bipartisan investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. election affirms both the Intelligence Community’s Assessment from January 2017 and the Special Counsel’s investigation. The Committee concluded that “Russia’s targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated and ongoing information warfare campaign…”
From these assessments and reports, we have been able to reveal aspects of the Kremlin’s playbook. And in the 2018 midterm elections, the government took steps in coordination with the social media companies to disrupt Kremlin and Kremlin-linked information warfare operations. But, as a nation, we have never undertaken a collective examination, as we did after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to understand what happened and how we should reorganize ourselves, our government, and our society to prevent it from ever happening again.
And to make matters worse, the findings of the Special Counsel’s report, a detailed accounting of how Kremlin and Kremlin-linked actors attacked our democracy, have been obfuscated with partisan spin by President Trump and his allies. This absence of a comprehensive nonpartisan assessment and the President’s lack of seriousness has implications for our national security as we prepare for the 2020 elections.
Equally troubling, the President has consciously or unconsciously embraced themes peddled as part of Russian information warfare operations on the campaign trail and while serving as President, including comments over the summer that our elections are rigged and that there were illegal votes cast in so-called “blue” states. And not only does the President give the impression that he is unbothered by this interference in 2016, he appears to be openly asking for help in 2020 and willing to leverage the power of his office to get that assistance. You only have to look as far as his phone conversation with the Ukrainian President where he asked for a favor in return for the delivery of defensive weapons to counter Russian aggression. Or, the President publicly inviting China to start an investigation into the Biden family, moments after he discussed trade talks with Beijing and threatened that, quote, “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.” He told the world as much in a June interview with ABC News, when he said that he doesn’t see anything wrong with taking help for his political campaign including from a foreign adversary. He is broadcasting to the world that he is willing to throw the interests of the United States overboard, if it means helping with his reelection prospects. These statements also have the intended or unintended effect of furthering Russian disinformation campaigns—including that our democracy is corrupt or fraudulent. These incidents and others that I will discuss today are part of a troubling pattern of behavior and must be called out for what they are: wrong.
The President’s troubling behavior coupled with his inability or unwillingness to lead an effective policy to counter and deter this type of malign foreign influence is to the peril of our national security and the integrity of our democracy. We cannot allow this course to continue uncorrected.
In order to further understand these dynamics and what to do to counter them, I want to highlight three aspects of the Russian information warfare playbook that we can anticipate will be deployed in 2020. The first aspect is supporting candidates likely to advance Kremlin strategic interests; the second aspect is undermining the credibility of the elections; and the third aspect is the recruiting of local surrogates to, wittingly or unwittingly, advance the Kremlin’s agenda. For each aspect, I will also explain how the Trump campaign, wittingly or not, embraced that tactic. I will then offer four recommendations for near term steps to defend ourselves from foreign adversaries who seek to interfere with our fundamental institutions.
Russian Playbook Tactic 1: Support candidates of choice to advance Kremlin interests
A central objective of Russian election interference efforts is supporting candidates that advance Kremlin strategic interests. For the 2016 presidential election, Russia assessed that a Trump presidency would advance their interests, and Kremlin and Kremlin-linked actors deployed information warfare and malign influence campaigns to aid then-candidate Trump. The Intelligence Community unanimously assessed in January 2017, “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, “to denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” And the recent report by the Senate Intelligence Committee arrived at the even stronger conclusion that the Kremlin linked troll organization’s, “social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then candidate Trump, and to the detriment of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.”
Similarly, the Special Counsel’s report confirmed that Russian operations aimed to bolster their favored candidate, concluding, “[t]he Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome.” The report described in detail how Russia’s two main information warfare operations—the manipulation of social media and the hacking and dissemination of stolen information—“favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
With regard to the manipulation of social media, the February 2018 indictment by the Special Counsel of the Kremlin-linked troll organization, commonly known as the Internet Research Agency, provided additional evidence of how operations aimed to bolster specific candidates. The indictment showed Kremlin-linked trolls were instructed to, quote, “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
The other main Russian information warfare effort was carried out by the Russian Military Intelligence Units or GRU, which stole private information and disseminated it including on social media to damage Hillary Clinton. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report confirmed this tactic, assessing: “Information acquired by the Committee from intelligence oversight, social media companies, the Special Counsel’s investigative findings and research by the commercial cybersecurity companies all reflect the Russian government’s use of the GRU to carry out another vector of attack on the 2016 election: the dissemination of hacked materials.”
One of the ways that the GRU was able to amplify its ability to disseminate the hacked materials was by collaborating with WikiLeaks. The Special Counsel’s report found, “[i]n order to expand its interference in the 2016 presidential election, the GRU units transferred many of the documents they stole from the [Democratic National Committee or] DNC and the chairman of the Clinton campaign to WikiLeaks.” It must be noted that the Special Counsel, as well as our Intelligence Community, have established that the organization WikiLeaks was not just acting as an unwitting stooge for the Russians. WikiLeaks had a role in the amplification of these information warfare operations. The Special Counsel’s indictment from July of 2018 stated that GRU officers, posing as the fake persona Guccifer 2.0 “discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases” with WikiLeaks, “to heighten their impact on the 2016 Presidential election.” The Special Counsel’s report further described how “as reports attributing the DNC and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or] DCCC hacks to the Russian Government emerged, WikiLeaks and [WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange made several public statements designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing.” The weaponization of this information stolen by the GRU units through WikiLeaks— was an important aspect of the Kremlin’s support to then candidate Trump and heightened the impact of these operations against our elections.
And the Special Counsel’s report detailed a third line of effort to advance Russia’s preferred candidate. The information warfare campaigns were conducted in coordination with outreach to the Trump Campaign from Kremlin and Kremlin-linked individuals. These overtures included “offers of assistance to the [Trump] Campaign.”
In contrast, the Special Counsel’s office found no parallel efforts of assistance directed towards Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and in fact found the opposite. With regards to the manipulation of social media by Kremlin-linked trolls, the Special Counsel’s report stated, “by February 2016 internal [Internet Research Agency] documents referred to support for the Trump Campaign and opposition to candidate Clinton,” and further states that “throughout 2016 the [Internet Research Agency] accounts published an increasing number of materials supporting the Trump Campaign and opposing the Clinton Campaign.” The Special Counsel’s February 2018 indictment of the Internet Research Agency described additional evidence of efforts to oppose the Clinton campaign including information warfare campaigns across social media platforms designed to peel off certain groups that are traditionally identified as reliable Democratic Party voters. The indictment stated, “In or around the latter half of 2016, [the Internet Research Agency] began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third party presidential candidate.” The recent Senate Intelligence Committee report also affirmed this finding, concluding that no single group was targeted more than African Americans. Let me emphasize again that this Senate report was a bipartisan effort.
President Putin all but confirmed support for the Trump campaign while standing next to the President in July of 2018 at the Helsinki Summit. When asked by the press if he wanted Trump to win the election and whether he directed any Kremlin officials to help with these efforts, Putin replied: “Yes I did, because he talked about bringing the US. Russia relationship back to normal.” I think in this instance—and I think it is rare— we should take Putin’s word for it.
Trump Campaign’s Embrace of Tactic 1: Support to Candidates that Advance Kremlin Strategic Interests
Equally disturbing, the Special Counsel provided significant evidence that President Trump and his associates embraced, encouraged, and applauded Russian support. The Special Counsel’s report definitively concludes that Russia saw its interests as aligned with and served by a Trump presidency; that a central purpose of the Russian interference operations was helping the Trump campaign; and that the Trump campaign anticipated benefitting from the fruits of that foreign election interference.
The Special Counsel’s report detailed evidence showing how Trump embraced Russian information warfare campaigns that sought to help him and damage his opponent. The evidence is overwhelming that the Trump campaign encouraged this interference in the presidential campaign even as it became increasingly apparent that Russia was behind these attacks on our democracy.
One example of embracing Kremlin and Kremlin-linked help is Trump campaign associates including the President’s son, son-in law, and then campaign chairman meeting with Russian agents in the hopes of gaining dirt on Secretary Clinton. The email to set up the meeting to Donald Trump Jr., held the Kremlin’s intentions, plain as day. The offer was, and I quote, “to provide the Trump Campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be useful to your father…” as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. embraced this offer and responded that “if it's what you say I love it.” I think that response from the President’s son speaks for itself.
Yet another example of this behavior was the Trump campaign’s promotion of WikiLeaks’s releases of information stolen by GRU. The Special Counsel’s investigation showed that, quote, “[t]he presidential campaign showed interest in the WikiLeaks releases of documents and welcomed their potential damage to candidate Clinton.”
On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers” were behind the hacking of the DNC and DCC. So, it was likely that as of mid-June of 2016 the Trump campaign had a good idea that the stolen information distributed by WikiLeaks about the DNC was stolen by Russia. The Mueller report described, “…by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.” By October 7, the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement naming the WikiLeaks disclosures as “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” to influence public opinion and were “intended to interfere with the US election process.” If not prior to the release of that joint statement, certainly by that point, the President and his campaign should have known better. Instead, they appear willing to embrace these Russian information warfare campaigns aimed at damaging their opponent.
The Special Counsel’s January indictment of long time Trump associate Roger Stone further details how Trump associates sought information about WikiLeaks releases of stolen materials intended to damage Secretary Clinton. That indictment stated, “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and… other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton campaign.” That indictment also showed that on October 7, 2016—a half hour after the joint statement by DHS and ODNI that WikiLeaks was part of Russia’s operation to interfere in the U.S. Presidential elections— WikiLeaks disseminated the first set of emails stolen from Clinton Chairman John Podesta. In response to those releases, quote, “an associate of the high-ranking Trump campaign official sent a text message to Stone that read ‘well done.’” Trump campaign associates applauded the actions by WikiLeaks, which Trump’s then CIA director later labeled “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.” Instead of calling the FBI, the campaign celebrated. In the last month of the campaign alone, the President publicly boasted of his love of WikiLeaks at least 124 times.
And embracing WikiLeaks is not the only example of the President’s problematic embrace of Russian information warfare operations. The President appears to have welcomed the GRU’s hacking operation, and its intention to damage his opponent’s candidacy. On July 27, 2016, Trump announced publicly during a press conference, “Russia if you are listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will be rewarded mightily by our press.” And the Special Counsel’s report confirmed that the GRU tried to assist Trump with those efforts, finding, “within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office.”
This call for Russia to hack his political opponent and find her so-called deleted emails was not an isolated remark, or sarcasm, as the President likes to say. The Special Counsel’s report detailed that during the same period, “Trump asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted emails. Michael Flynn…recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.” Further, as described in the Special Counsel’s report, one of the people General Flynn contacted to obtain Secretary Clinton’s alleged deleted emails, claimed that he had organized meetings with parties who he believed, quote, “had ties and affiliations with Russia,” though the Special Counsel’s investigation was not able to establish that Flynn’s contacts interacted with kremlin-linked hackers. As Brookings Institution senior fellow Benjamin Wittes laid out in April, Trump “...not only called publicly on the Russians to deliver the goods on his opponent but he also privately ordered his campaign to seek the material out…knowing…that Russia would or might be the source.”
As I mentioned earlier, the Special Counsel was not able to find sufficient evidence to prove that the Trump campaign’s embracing of Kremlin or Kremlin-linked operations constituted a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. But clearly, the Special Counsel established a breadth of episodes where Trump embraced Russian operations in support of the campaign. Maybe those acts don’t meet a criminal standard, but there are significant implications for this behavior. For instance, is it okay for a candidate to get elected President, or elected to any other public office, by capitalizing on information stolen by a foreign adversary? Will that be acceptable the next time around? Will foreign campaigns targeting our elections be accepted as normal from now on? The actions of President Trump indicate, unfortunately, that it is acceptable, and even welcome, and that is to the detriment of our national security and integrity of our democracy.
Russian Playbook Tactic 2: Attack the Legitimacy of the Election Process
I would like now to highlight a second aspect of the Kremlin’s playbook, operations to denigrate the legitimacy of U.S. elections and democratic processes in general. The January 2017 Intelligence Community assessment found that one of the main objectives of the Kremlin-ordered election interference campaign was to undermine the American public’s faith in our electoral system. The Intelligence Community assessed in January 2017: “when it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency, the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy…including by impugning the fairness of the election.” The Intelligence Community’s assessment further stated, “Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory.”
The Special Counsel’s work confirmed the Intelligence Community’s assessment. The Mueller report showed significant evidence of how the Kremlin-linked troll organization, the Internet Research Agency, deployed information operations around the theme that the election was rigged, fraudulent, or otherwise corrupt. The Special Counsel’s indictment of Internet Research Agency officials from February 2018 stated, “Starting in or around the summer of 2016 [the Kremlin-linked troll organization] also began to promote allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic Party through their fictitious U.S. personas and groups on social media.” The Kremlin-linked troll organization purchased advertisements on Facebook to further promote allegations of vote rigging including ads promoting a Facebook post that charged, “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus.” Other examples include posts that voter fraud allegations were being investigated in North Carolina on the Internet Research Agency’s fraudulent Twitter account @TEN_GOP which claimed to be the Tennessee Republican Party. Just days before the election, the agency used the same fraudulent Twitter handle to push the message: “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.”
Trump Campaign’s Embrace of Tactic 2: Attack the Legitimacy of the Election Process
Consciously or unconsciously, President Trump also embraced this tactic from the Russian information warfare playbook and ran with it. According to a New York Times compilation, Trump tweeted at least 28 times during the 2016 presidential campaign that the election, the electoral process, or certain early voting procedures were rigged, fraudulent, and corrupt. Let me give you a few examples. On August 1, 2016, Trump told a rally in Ohio, “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.” On September 6, 2016, he stated, “the only way I can lose in my opinion… is if cheating goes on… go down to certain areas and study [to] make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.” Multiple press reports indicate that Trump’s campaign website invited supporters to serve as “Trump election observers”…to help him “stop crooked Hillary from rigging the election.” At the final debate on October 19, 2016, Trump indicated that he would not necessarily accept the results of the election, instead saying he would “look at it at that time,” alleging “millions of people” on the voter rolls “shouldn’t be registered to vote.” At an Ohio rally the next day, Trump alleged that Secretary Clinton “is a candidate who is truly capable of anything, including voter fraud.” On October 21, 2016, Trump told a rally in Pennsylvania, “Remember folks, it’s a rigged system. That’s why you’ve got to get out and vote, you’ve got to watch. Because this system is totally rigged.” In these instances and others, Trump furthered the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign by embracing and promoting the themes that our democratic system was rigged. As New Yorker journalist Jonathan Blitzer observed at that time, “Trump has taken… [the voter fraud] concept to the extreme: trying to delegitimize a national election even while campaigning for the presidency.”
It’s wildly irresponsible to push conspiracy theories that threaten the integrity of our democratic system without any evidence. It is wrong when a candidate for president pushes conspiracy theories that advance a central theme of the Russian information warfare campaign that our electoral system is “rigged” and aids key strategic objectives of the Kremlin. These tactics also undermine the American public’s faith in our electoral system and strengthens Putin’s position in the strategic competition between the United States and Russia. This is unpatriotic and cannot be accepted as part of our democracy and open society. The mere idea that our entire election system would be attacked by the Russians to delegitimize it, and then to have those efforts echoed by the President does a huge disservice to the American public. If the American public does not faith in the integrity of our electoral system, then we have profoundly lost a fundamental principle of our government that thousands of Americans have defended over years and years of effort. They can’t be denigrated. The denigration that we saw was outrageous.
Russian Playbook Tactic 3: Recruitment of Local Surrogates to Advance Kremlin Interests
These two aspects of the Kremlin’s playbook are supported by a third aspect—the recruitment and exploitation of local surrogates. This process was described in an amicus brief from December 2017 filed against President Trump by former national security officials—including Director of National Intelligence Clapper; CIA and NSA Director Hayden; CIA Director Brennan; and acting CIA Director Morell. The brief stated, “The Russian Government continues to use local actors in a number of ways,” including “to get closer to a target (especially one who would be hesitant to offer assistance to Russian operatives directly), or manipulate a target to suit their needs. They use these agents to probe individual targets to see if they might be open to relationships or blackmail. And they recruit individuals within a country to help them understand how to appeal to U.S. populations and target and shape the contours of disinformation campaigns.” The recent Senate Intelligence Committee report affirmed these tactics explaining, “Russian backed trolls pushing disinformation have also sought to connect with and potentially coopt individuals to take action in the real world.”
The Special Counsel’s report described how the Kremlin and Kremlin-linked actors deployed these tactics in the United States to interfere in the 2016 including, “as early as 2014, the [Internet Research Agency] instructed its employees to target U.S. persons to advance its operational goals. Initially, recruitment focused on U.S. persons who could amplify content posted by the [Internet Research Agency].” However, the activities that the Kremlin-troll agency—wittingly or unwittingly, used Americans for—grew over time to include assistance with organizing pro-Trump rallies and demonstrations. The Special Counsel’s related indictment of the Internet Research Agency officials stated by late August 2016, the Internet Research Agency had an internal list “of over 100 real U.S. persons contacted through [Internet Research Agency] controlled false U.S. persona accounts and tracked to monitor recruitment efforts and requests.” These efforts to exploit local surrogates included two different types of interactions with the Trump campaign according to the Special Counsel—reposting Kremlin-linked troll content from social media and requests for assistance with organizing political rallies.
Trump Campaign’s Embrace of Tactic 3: Recruitment of Local Surrogates to Advance Kremlin Interests
This aspect of the Kremlin playbook—recruitment and exploitation of local surrogates—was also embraced, consciously or unconsciously, by the President and his inner circle. The Special Counsel’s report detailed how Trump’s family and campaign associates re-Tweeted Kremlin-linked troll organization posts, amplifying a foreign adversary’s information warfare campaign against our presidential election. The Special Counsel found, “Posts from the…[Internet Research Agency] controlled Twitter account @TEN_GOP were cited or retweeted by multiple Trump Campaign officials and surrogates, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, and Michael T. Flynn.” The posts these campaign surrogates cited or retweeted included two other aspects of the information warfare campaign, accusations to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign and allegations of voter fraud.
With regards to this act as well, the Special Counsel did not conclude there was enough evidence to establish that the embrace and amplification of these information warfare operations was willful coordination by the Trump Campaign amounting to a criminal conspiracy. It may well be that the President and the people around him didn’t know that @Ten_GOP wasn’t the Tennessee Republican party but was, in fact, Russian trolls thousands of miles away, fraudulently pumping disinformation into our system. However, it still shows a willingness to embrace for partisan advantage baseless, unsubstantiated allegations from unknown sources threatening the very fabric of our democracy— claims we now know were ginned up by a foreign adversary. It may not be criminal, but it is incredibly reckless and wrong. It is not the standard of conduct we should demand from someone seeking political office and the public trust that goes with that office. And again, this is part of a troubling pattern of behavior by the President.
Equally important, the election of a President who consciously or unconsciously embraces the tactics of foreign disinformation operations has implications for our national security, and that of our allies and partners. As Benjamin Wittes assessed, that the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll organization, “was able to…get Trump figures—including Trump himself—to engage with and promote social-media content that was part of a hostile power’s covert efforts to influence the American electorate...shows a troubling degree of vulnerability on the part of the U.S. political system to outside influence campaigns.”
The continuing escalation of Russian information warfare operations since the 2016 election
We can anticipate that these aspects of the playbook will continue and escalate in sophistication and scale in 2020. The 2016 election was not just a one-off operation for the Kremlin. As then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned Russia’s malign activities “are persistent, they are pervasive and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy.” FBI Director Christopher Wray also emphasized similar concerns during his spring speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, stating, the threat from Russian foreign malign influence, “is not just an election cycle threat; it’s pretty much a 365 days-a-year threat.” Director Wray further warned, “our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game.” The Intelligence Community assessed in January 2017 that the campaign against us represented a “new normal” in Russian influence efforts in which “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its campaign aimed at the U.S. Presidential election to future influence efforts in the US and worldwide.” The recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report concluded that information warfare attacks in 2016, “represent only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.” And Director Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee in July, that Russian interference, “wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here.”
This interference has only increased in sophistication as the Russians used lessons learned from tactics developed in the Kremlin playbook in 2016. We saw Kremlin and Kremlin-linked actors deploy information warfare campaigns designed to advance their preferred candidates in the 2018 elections. An October 2018 Department of Justice indictment from the Eastern District of Virginia detailed information warfare operations in 2017 and 2018 by the Internet Research Agency leveraged to promote candidates aligned with President Trump and to denigrate candidates opposed to him, including anti-Trump Republicans. These operations demonstrated a high level of precision and specificity in messaging for the Agency’s employees to deploy, including references to relevant news articles and topical items of the day to optimally promote Russia’s candidates and causes of choice.
For example, the indictment cited how managers of the Internet Research Agency provided employees a news article titled "Civil War if Trump Taken Down,” and instructed them to use their fraudulent personas to, “Name those who oppose the President and those who impede his efforts to implement his pre-election promises.” One of the targets of these efforts were anti-Trump Republicans. The trolling instructions included detailed talking points to deploy over social media platforms including, quote: “focus on the fact that the Anti-Trump Republicans: a) drag their feet with regard to financing the construction of the border wall; b) are not lowering taxes; c) slander Trump and harm his reputation (bring up McCain); d) do not want to cancel Obamacare; e) are not in a hurry to adopt laws that oppose the refugees coming from Middle Eastern countries entering this country…”
This information warfare operation was designed to support the President and detailed a sophisticated campaign deployed against an unwitting American public by trolls pretending to be fellow citizens. As national security journalist Natasha Bertrand wrote in the Atlantic about the 2018 information warfare campaigns detailed in Eastern District’s indictment, “[t]he messaging strategy mimicked the overheated rhetoric…that [the Internet Research Agency] employed to considerable effect during the Presidential election. The partisan—and at times hateful—comments so artfully mimicked the daily back and forth on social media that they seemed to be those of real Americans.” She also observed how these messages supported the President noting, “[a]t times, the messaging copied President Trump’s bombast almost verbatim,” and “the echo chamber between Trump’s election rhetoric and that of the Russia trolls was striking.”
And the Russian information operations were not limited only to supporting President Trump. The Eastern District of Virginia indictment also showed how the Kremlin-linked troll organization worked to advance the Republican challengers of several Congressional races through a fraudulent Twitter account called “‘@CovfefeNationUS’” which encouraged readers to contribute to a political action committee seeking to defeat incumbent Democratic Senators and Representatives in the 2018 midterm election. These operations demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the American political system.
We also saw evidence from the 2018 midterms of a second tactic from the Kremlin’s playbook that I discussed earlier, attacking the legitimacy of the election, which is a fundamental attack on the democracy of this country—the ethic that holds us together. Here too, the operation had evolved in sophistication. The same indictment from the Eastern District of Virginia described information warfare operations that worked to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. election, with specific messages for its employees to disseminate. One example from the indictment was instructions for the Russian Internet Research Agency’s employees to cite specific online articles on voter fraud. The Kremlin-linked trolls were told to state in deployed messages: “…Remind that the majority of ‘blue states’ have no voter IDs, which suggests that large scale falsifications are bound to be happening there…the Democrats in the coming election will surely attempt to falsify the results.” The indictment also detailed how these information warfare campaigns were deployed across multiple platforms including being pushed out using multiple, fraudulent Twitter accounts to reinforce and amplify their messages.
Finally, we saw the continuation of a third aspect of the Russian playbook, the recruitment of local surrogates to advance Kremlin interests with the 2018 elections. As the Eastern Virginia’s indictment states, between March 2016 and around July 2017, “while concealing its true identity, location, and purpose, the [Kremlin-linked troll organization] used the false U.S. persona ‘Helen Christopherson’ to contact individuals and groups in the United States to promote protests, rallies, and marches, including by funding advertising, flyers, and rally supplies.” The indictment further details how the Kremlin-linked troll organization used a different fake persona, “while concealing its true identity, location, and purpose, to solicit at least one person presumed to be located in the United States to assist with…social media activities.” These efforts to recruit surrogates included posting on and managing content on a fraudulent Facebook page created specially to further a Russian information warfare campaign. As we have been warned, these operations will continue to look more American and the Kremlin and Kremlin-linked agents will continue to try to recruit people in the United States to advance Russia’s hybrid operations.
Implications for the 2020 elections
Many of the President’s national security officials have warned that we could see heightened Russian information warfare attacks and other foreign influence operations in the 2020 elections. Even before the 2018 midterm elections, Christopher Krebs, Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director warned, “The midterm is…just the warm up, or the exhibition game…The big game, we think, for adversaries is probably 2020.” FBI Director Wray echoed that assessment, stating this Spring that the “2018 elections were seen as “a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020” and that the FBI anticipates the 2020 “threat being even more challenging.” Former Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in late January that, “Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits—such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data—in a more targeted fashion to influence US policy, actions, and elections.”
There are several examples which further demonstrate how these efforts have become more sophisticated and pervasive. In 2016, Russia disseminated what turned out to authentic stolen information. However, just a few months later during the French Presidential elections, Kremlin and Kremlin-linked actors disseminated a mix of real and fake information about then Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, to damage him and bolster their preferred candidate Marine Le Pen. So next time, foreign adversaries may use a mixture of real and fake information as part of their influence operations. We already saw a multi-country, multi-language information warfare campaign uncovered by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab that made use of, “fake accounts, forged documents and dozens of online platforms to spread stories that attacked western interests and unity.”
It may also be harder to discern what’s real and what’s fake, because it is more likely to look like it’s coming from regular Americans who are concerned about an issue. In February 2018, Russia expert Heather Conley warned in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, that Russian information warfare campaigns in 2018 and 2020 will adapt and “look more American, [and] it will look less Russian.”
In addition, new technologies including the use of artificial intelligence and “deep fake” recordings that seem real but are actually doctored or entirely fabricated will add an additional layer of complexity and make it easier for us to fall for these operations. As then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee in late January, “Adversaries and strategic competitors probably will attempt to use deep fakes or similar machine-learning technologies to create convincing but false image, audio, and video files to augment influence campaigns directed against the United States and our allies and partners.”
No Presidential Strategy to Counter Russia
Despite these assessments by our senior national security officials and our Intelligence Community, the voluminous evidence in the Special Counsel’s indictments and report, additional indictments from the Department of Justice, and bipartisan reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the President appears unwilling or unable to recognize the urgency of this national security threat or the need to immediately implement a comprehensive strategy to counter and deter Russian hybrid warfare. Instead of alerting Americans to the threat, the President continues to ignore the analysis of his own intelligence agencies. Instead of leading efforts to deter foreign adversaries, the President with the whole world watching at the July 2019 G20 Osaka summit, treated election interference as a joke, signaling to Putin that he would not hold Russia accountable.
And this doesn’t only apply to past Russian interference in the 2016 election. The President’s blind-spot when it comes to Russian election interference is harming our ability to counter future interference. The New York Times reported in April that former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was told not to bring up the issue of expected Russian interference in the 2020 election with the President. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below [the President’s] level.”
The President’s unwillingness accept Russian interference, and his public statements inviting other countries to interfere in future elections, has created real impediments to formulating a whole-of-government and whole-of-society strategy to counter and deter Russia or others from attacking our elections. Despite almost three years having passed since the 2016 election, the White House has not led efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy to counter foreign election interference. While, as I mentioned, individual U.S. departments and agencies took steps to disrupt Russia in the 2018 midterm elections, no wholesale strategy to deter and counter these operations appears to have been implemented for 2020. And don’t just take my word for it. Then-European Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti, who was on the front lines deterring Russia, testified this spring to the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. efforts to counter Russian influence operations still lacked “effective unification across the interagency.” Equally troubling was his assessment that the United States has yet to develop “a multi-faceted strategy to counter Russia.” When FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in May before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, he could not identify a lead person who was designated to coordinate these efforts. This is despite a provision included in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the President to designate an NSC official in charge of coordinating the U.S. Government response to malign foreign influence operations.” To date, no such coordinator has been named. Moreover, the Cyber Security Coordinator at the NSC was dismissed over a year and a half ago and that position remains unfilled. So, at the highest levels, we don’t have anyone in charge.
Near Term Policy Recommendations
What additional steps can we take right now to protect the American people against interference campaigns by the Russians and other foreign adversaries, campaigns we know are coming ahead of the 2020 elections? In the near term, I believe we must immediately adopt several measures that would provide additional tools to detect these information warfare operations and help reduce the American people’s vulnerability to them. We have no time to waste.
First, we must designate the Secretary of Homeland Security, with the concurrence of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI Director, with responsibility for increasing public vigilance and reassuring the American people about the legitimacy and validity of our elections. This group of senior officials should be organized to detect foreign interference in our political process and expose malign behavior including on social media. In the run up to the election, this group must issue monthly public reports, with a classified annex if necessary, showing top trends in malign influence campaigns from countries identified as posing the greatest threats. They also must provide a public assessment as to whether these countries are engaged in interference in our election 90 days prior to Election Day and again 30 days out. Making such an assessment a requirement and including a delivery date will help inoculate these assessments from questions about political bias.
And even after election day, we need to make sure this group is poised to affirm the legitimacy of the democratic process. No less than 3 days after the election, they must also make an assessment to the maximum extent possible, whether foreign interference was detected. To further protect the group from accusations of political bias, the spot assessment could be backed up by a neutral, non-partisan panel, which would review and certify the government’s assessment in short order, such as within two weeks.
These types of public assessments are not unprecedented. As I mentioned earlier, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security made an announcement about Russian influence operations ahead of the 2016 election. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security made a public statement about foreign influence. And the President issued an Executive Order regarding election interference ahead of the 2018 midterms, which requires a 45-day report after the election assessing attacks from foreign adversaries. But these sporadic statements are not enough to reassure the American people and a report 45 days after the election is much too long to wait. The public must know that this group is going to keep us informed in real time and issue warnings regarding the threats.
Much of this idea was endorsed as a recommendation in the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report which called for the executive branch to stand up a task force to continually monitor and assess the use of social media platforms by foreign countries for “democratic interference,” that among other things would “periodically advise Congress and the public on its findings.”
Second, we need a better understanding of how the Kremlin and other foreign adversaries are deploying disinformation and foreign influence operations across social media platforms. Right now, we are dependent on social media companies to take down inauthentic accounts engaged in malign influence activities. These companies have stepped up their efforts to identify and counter these activities, something they failed to do in the 2016 election. But ultimately they are for-profit enterprises and the government’s visibility on and understanding of trends and indicators of foreign activity on these platforms is limited. We cannot solely rely on the social media companies to look after the public good and protect our national security.
One way to increase transparency and help the American people understand the changing threat picture across social media platforms would be greater support for independent research, with the participation of the social media companies and independent third-party researchers, to compile information and analyze trends relevant to foreign information operations. Such research would allow trusted independent researchers and academics to gain insight into cross-platform trends and provide analysis of indicators of foreign influence activities to the public. This mechanism could also provide an important tool for informing our Government’s response to foreign influence and disinformation operations ahead of the 2020 elections. This concept also has bipartisan support from the Senate Intelligence Committee which includes a similar recommendation in their recent report.
We have proof that this concept works and is vital to national security. General Paul Nakasone, Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, publicly testified to both the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees that two analyses of Kremlin-linked influence operations across social media platforms done by independent researchers at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s behest were in his words “a very, very helpful” window into the adversary’s operations ahead of the 2018 midterms. As our adversaries continue to evolve and adopt their techniques, we need to re-double our efforts to understand what to expect in the next campaign.
Third, we must reinforce the prohibition on candidates and campaigns accepting offers of help from foreign adversaries interfering in our political process to advance their strategic interests. The Trump campaign’s series of foreign contacts in the 2016 election and the President’s continued statements to solicit and show his willingness to accept assistance from foreign governments make it clear that Congress must act to prevent future interference efforts. That is why I am a cosponsor of S. 1562, the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act—or FIRE Act—introduced by Senator Warner. The FIRE Act would require all campaign officials to report, within one week, any contacts with foreign nationals attempting to make campaign donations or otherwise collaborate with the campaign to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC would in turn have to notify the FBI within one week. It is in all of our interest to ensure that we can defend against foreign attacks on our democratic institutions and reporting these kinds of contacts to the appropriate authorities is our first line of defense. I am disappointed that my Republican colleagues have blocked Senator Warner’s attempt to pass the FIRE Act, even after many of them insisted that politicians should report to the FBI any contacts or offers of help by a foreign government.
Fourth, we should build upon the passage in the Senate of S. 1328, the Defending Elections against Trolls from Enemy Regimes Act. This bipartisan legislation, by Senators Durbin and Graham, was a step in the right direction by making improper interference in U.S. elections a violation of immigration law and violators both deportable and ineligible for a visa to enter the United States. Additional targeted sanctions should be considered on Russia to deter future election interference with our allies and partners.
These are some immediate steps we can take as the Russian playbook for the 2020 election crystalizes, but we can already see a familiar pattern beginning to emerge. Just yesterday, Facebook announced it took down 50 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. I have spoken about it consistently throughout my comments this evening. Just yesterday, they took down 50 accounts. These Kremlin-linked trolls posed as real Americans, including from swing states. They deployed information operations on social media to praise President Trump and Senator Sanders and attack Vice President Biden and Senators Warren and Harris—repeating tactics from 2016 and 2018. Facebook’s head of cybersecurity stated in conjunction with the announcement that we can guarantee: “bad guys are going to keep trying to do this.” This is just one more confirmation that Russia is deploying aspects of the same playbook in 2020.
This time, we know these information warfare campaigns are coming, and in fact, have already begun. We need to build off what we have learned and what we anticipate coming next. We should be ensuring that we have structures in place to counter foreign election interference. And importantly, we must work together and with private partners to expose more of these operations and continue to help the American people understand them. We can speak the truth about how Russia is exploiting our democracy and open society to deploy its malign influence playbook, so that the public is not caught unaware of these sophisticated foreign tactics and attempts to manipulate the social media environment.
We also cannot continue to let these moments pass without speaking up about the tenets of our democracy and what it stands for. Russia exploited vulnerabilities in our society and their tactics were encouraged and amplified by a candidate who was seeking the highest office in the land. That candidate, now President, appears to see no reason to change his behavior for the future and instead has doubled down. Congress, as a body, and we, as a country, must speak out and say this is not acceptable. It is not acceptable for candidates for political office, those seeking to hold a position of public trust, to seek to engage with our adversaries or foreign authoritarian regimes to advance their political campaigns. It is not acceptable to meet with foreign agents about getting stolen information on your opponents, information acquired by foreign espionage. It is not acceptable to promote materials stolen by foreign adversaries. It is not acceptable to abuse the power of the presidency to advance your personal political interests to the determinant of the county. It is not acceptable to promote propaganda and disinformation campaigns that work to delegitimize our democracy. This is a violation of the public trust that is inherent in any political office and which any candidate for public office must uphold to be worthy of the American people’s support.
It is critical that we unite in a bipartisan manner to take immediate action to counter these threats. The integrity of our electoral system is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s an American issue. As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."