Russian hacking goes far beyond 2016 pro-Trump effort

As the Senate Intelligence Committee begins the public phase of its investigation, experts warn of the sweeping scope of Russian hacking and disinformation efforts to advance foreign policy objectives. Cites prominent lawmakers Rubio and Ryan as recent targets.

coons leahy rubio
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

As the Senate Intelligence Committee held its first public hearings examining Russian hacking yesterday, lawmakers received a stark warning that the intrusions have been far broader in scope than the intelligence community's finding that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) seemed to confirm as much when he announced that former aides to his presidential campaign, had been targeted by an apparent cyberattack emanating from a Russian IP address last July and again just this Wednesday.

Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that his organization in the past week had detected Russian involvement in a social media campaign aimed at discrediting House Speaker Paul Ryan (D-Wis.).

Earlier in the day, before Rubio made the disclosure about his own team getting hack, he framed the issue with a rhetorical question.

"Aren't we in the midst of a blitzkrieg, for lack of a better term, of informational warfare conducted by Russian trolls under the command of Vladimir Putin designed to sew instability [and] pit us against each other as Americans?" Rubio said.

Parallel hacking investigations

The Senate hearing comes a week-and-a-half after FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, searching for evidence of collusion between anyone associated with the Trump campaign and the hacking operation.

The House and Senate intelligence committees are also conducting independent investigations, though senators pledged to avoid the partisan infighting that seems to have overtaken the House panel's probe. Multiple Democrats and at least one Republican have called for the chairman of the House committee, California Republican Devin Nunes, to recuse himself from the Russian investigation, or to resign his chairmanship altogether. Criticism of Nunes' handling of the probe intensified after word surfaced that Nunes had made a secretive trip to the White House to discuss the investigation. Nunes has resisted the calls to step down.

"The vice chairman and I realize that if we politicize this process our efforts will likely fail," said Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chair of the Senate committee.

Many of the witnesses that appeared before committee throughout the day shared their view that Russian hackers are working to advance the broad goals of destabilizing and undermining the United States, the European Union and NATO. So just as the intelligence community issued a consensus report in January concluding that Russia had intervened in the U.S. election with a clear preference for Trump over Clinton, Kremlin-backed operatives have similarly been meddling in the political affairs of a host of European countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, Russian experts told members of the committee.

Watts explained that the hackers are pragmatic rather than ideological, working to gin up support for politicians seen as favorable to Russian priorities, and in turn undermine those viewed as hostile to the Russian agenda.

"It's used right now against people on both sides of the aisle," Watts said.

In the context of the 2016 campaign, witnesses at the intelligence committee hearings uniformly agreed that Russia had played a significant role through a remarkably wide-scale and sophisticated campaign of research, targeted hacking and disinformation.

"They're doing very specific spearphishes to very specific people," said Kevin Mandia, CEO of the security firm FireEye.

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