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.
The hackers chose their targets carefully, such as Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and in some cases succeeded simply because of lax security hygiene.
"Had John Podesta had two-factor authentication the last month of the campaign would have looked very different," Mandia said.
Hacking social media with fake news
Watts described an elaborate and coordinated campaign that through a mix of human and computer-driven activity published and promoted fake news stories, propelling that content to the top trending lists on popular social media platforms thanks in part to armies of bots with profiles carefully crafted to match a target demographic, such as middle-class voters in a swing state like Wisconsin.
As those stories began to go viral on social media, ideologically driven news sites would pick them up, and sometimes mainstream news outlets would address them, as well, Watts said. As stories of nonexistent terrorist attacks, unfounded claims of voter fraud and other fictions built a critical mass, many internet users accepted them as legitimate news stories.
The Russian effort to skew the election, a digital update of a longstanding espionage and disruption strategy known as "active measures," succeeded in part because the winning candidate was all-too-eager to amplify some of the spurious claims, according to Watts.
"Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents," he said. "He's made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama's not a citizen, that, you know, Congressman Cruz is not a citizen. Part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same lines."
But those efforts, while at the time executed in service of electing Trump, could just as easily swing the other way, depending on where the Russian interests lie.
"They might go after a Republican person in this room tomorrow and then they'll switch. It's solely based on what they want to achieve in their own landscape, whatever the Russian foreign policy objectives are," Watts said. "Let's say president Trump wins and turns against [Russia]. They will turn on President Trump as well. They win because they play both sides."
A Consumer Reports for fake news?
He suggested that Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites could band together to form a sort of rating system to help consumers understand the quality of information found on various sites. He proposed that the internet community could adopt the model of Consumer Reports, offering easy-to-understand rankings that would help users determine which news sites are credible.
In the meantime, the Russian interference in the election raises crucial diplomatic and foreign-policy questions, according to Gen. Keith Alexander (Ret.), the former director of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, who now serves as president and CEO of IronNet.
Alexander called for a "quiet engagement" with Russia on the subject of the 2016 hacking, with U.S. diplomats confronting their counterparts with evidence of the interference, while also calling on lawmakers to advance a broader cyber doctrine that would establish protocols for responding to attacks from foreign nation-states.
"If there were a massive attack, we'd have to go back and get authority to act, where if it were missiles coming in we already have rules of engagement, so I think we need to step that up as well," Alexander said.