Mueller warned about Russian 2020 interference. What happened in 2016
WASHINGTON — Social-media posts spread discord and lies to more than 100 million people. Sophisticated hackers stole a candidate’s email and political strategy, then revealed them to the world.
These were among the tactics the Russian government and firms tied to the Kremlin used to in what federal investigators determined was a “sweeping and systematic” effort to undermine Americans’ confidence in their democracy and help Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.
The man who ran that probe, Robert Mueller, sounded an alarm this week that Russia shows little sign of stopping.
“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller said during testimony before a pair of House committees on Wednesday. “They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
Investigators found that Russian operatives hacked their way into local voter registration systems, too. They did not appear to have tried to tamper with vote tallies, but instead mounted an extensive campaign to sway Americans’ opinions of politicians and the U.S. political system.
The efforts resulted in indictments against Russian computer hackers and internet trolls. But Mueller and other officials have warned that the interference documented in 2016 seems likely to be repeated in 2020.
“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election became a rare point of agreement among political factions in Washington, though Trump himself has sometimes appeared to cast doubt on whether it was real. The FBI, CIA and National Security Agency concluded in a rare public assessment in early 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” and that he did so in part to help elect Trump.
Mueller, who led the FBI in the aftermath of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that every American should be concerned.
“Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
In November 2017, a Facebook representative told Congress that 470 Russian-controlled accounts collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017. The posts reached as many as 126 million people, Facebook estimated.
Russian-controlled Facebook groups included “United Muslims of America” with 300,000 followers, “Don’t Shoot Us” with 250,000 followers and “Being Patriotic” with 200,000 followers and “Secured Borders” with 130,000 followers.
Instagram identified another 170 accounts with 120,000 posts.
In January 2018, Twitter announced that it identified 3,814 Russian-controlled accounts that generated more than 10 million tweets. The platform notified 1.4 million people they may have been in contact with them.
The accounts often portrayed themselves as representing grassroots groups dealing with immigration, the Tea Party or Black Lives Matter. For example, the Russian account @TEN_GOP purported to be connected to the Tennessee Republican Party.
The Russian group behind the Facebook accounts, called the Internet Research Agency, also bought 3,500 ads on the platform for about $100,000 for groups such as “Being Patriotic,” “Stop All Invaders,” and “Secured Borders.”
The firm has ties to the Kremlin, and is one of the groups Mueller’s office indicted over its efforts to meddle in the election.
One Russian-sponsored Facebook ad March 18, 2016, depicted Clinton with a caption that said: “If one day God lets this liar enter the White House as president – that day would be a real national tragedy.” Another ad April 6, 2016, called for a “flashmob” to “take a photo with #HillaryClintonForPrison2016.”
Russia’s military intelligence service, known as GRU, began in March 2016 sending “spearphishing” emails and probing the online security of Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic political organizations.
The military hackers eventually stole tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, then passed them to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which posted them online at opportune moments.
The hackers also got access to the computers of state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of elections to steal voter data stored on those computers. Investigators found no signs that they tried to tamper with those lists or vote-counting.
“Even though there’s no evidence that the Russians changed the tally of the 2016 election, I think they exceeded their wildest expectations in terms of interfering with the 2016 election,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I think all of us are very interested in what we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again in 2020.”
Charges of foreign interference
In February 2018, the Justice Department announced indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three companies connected to the social-media interference. They were accused of interfering with the political system in what was called “information warfare against the United States.”
The stated goal was to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” according to the indictment.
In July 2018, the department announced indictments of 12 Russian nationals for the computer hacking under the aliases DCLeaks and Gufficer 2.0. The GRU officers engaged in a sustained effort to hack into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign, according to the indictment.
“That was not a hoax,” Mueller said during his testimony on Wednesday. The indictments “were substantial in their scope” and if anything “underplayed to a certain extent that aspect of our investigation that has and would have long-term damage to the United States that we need to move quickly to address.”
Did the meddling matter?
Despite thorough investigation of the interference, the government hasn’t quantified how much it might have affected the election. Trump and others made frequent references to the hacked Democratic emails on the campaign trail, and some appeared at politically opportune moments for his campaign. But federal agencies can’t say whether it worked.
A January 2017 report from the intelligence community – the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency – analyzed meddling in the election but didn’t try to quantify whether it affected the results.
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” the report said. “The U.S. Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or U.S. public opinion.”
A report prepared in December 2018 for the Senate Intelligence Committee analyzed the social-media posts for volume and content, but couldn’t determine their impact on the election.
“This data set does not include enough information to make a strong assessment about the extent to which the IRA operation had a significant influence on the election,” the report said.
Mueller, too, declined to say Wednesday whether the meddling swayed voters.
But he said it was important for intelligence agencies to work together to combat the threat.
“We spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report understanding that it would be our living message to those who come after us but it also is a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years,” Mueller said.
More about Russian interference in the 2016 election:
A mountain of evidence points in one direction: Russia sought to sway the 2016 US election
Mueller report: What will it say about the Trump campaign and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election?