What’s behind Russia’s effort to influence the U.S. election
The leaders of the U.S. government, including the President and his top national-security advisers, face an unprecedented dilemma. Since the spring, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have seen mounting evidence of an active Russian influence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election. It is very unlikely the Russians could sway the actual vote count, because our election infrastructure is decentralized and voting machines are not accessible from the Internet. But they can sow disruption and instability up to, and on, Election Day, more than a dozen senior U.S. officials tell TIME, undermining faith in the result and in democracy itself.
The question, debated at multiple meetings at the White House, is how aggressively to respond to the Russian operation. Publicly naming and shaming the Russians and describing what the intelligence community knows about their activities would help Americans understand and respond prudently to any disruptions that might take place between now and the close of the polls. Senior Justice Department officials have argued in favor of calling out the Russians, and that position has been echoed forcefully outside of government by lawmakers and former top national-security officials from both political parties.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The President and several of his closest national-security advisers are concerned about the danger of a confrontation in the new and ungoverned world of cyberspace, and they argue that while the U.S. has powerful offensive and defensive capabilities there, an escalating confrontation carries significant risks. National Security Council officials warn that our critical infrastructure–including the electricity grid, transportation sector and energy networks–is vulnerable to first strikes; others say attacks on private companies, stock exchanges and the media could affect the economy. Senior intelligence officials even worry about Russia exposing U.S. espionage operations in retaliation. And while U.S. officials have “high confidence” that Russia is behind what they describe as a major influence operation, senior U.S. officials tell TIME, their evidence would not yet stand up in court.
And so with five weeks to go, the White House is, for now, letting events unfold. On one side, U.S. law-enforcement agencies are scrambling to uncover the extent of the Russian operation, counter it and harden the country’s election infrastructure. On the other, a murky network of Russian hackers and their associates is stepping up the pace of leaks of stolen documents designed to affect public opinion and give the impression that the election is vulnerable, including emails from the computers of the
Democratic National Committee (DNC). Meanwhile, the FBI alerted all 50 states to the danger in mid-August, and the states have delivered evidence of a “significant” number of new intrusions into their election systems that the bureau and their colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security “are still trying to understand,” a department official tells TIME.
All of which makes Donald Trump’s repeated insertion of himself into the U.S.-Russia story all the more startling. Trump has praised Putin during the campaign, and at the first presidential debate, on Sept. 26, he said it wasn’t clear the Russians were behind the DNC hack. But the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that Russian intelligence services were in fact responsible, multiple intelligence and national security officials tell TIME. Trump was informed of that assessment during a recent classified intelligence briefing, a U.S. official familiar with the matter tells TIME. “I do not comment on information I receive in intelligence briefings, however, nobody knows with definitive certainty that this was in fact Russia,” Trump told TIME in a statement. “It may be, but it may also be China, another country or individual.”
Russia’s interference in the U.S. election is an extraordinary escalation of an already worrying trend. Over the past 2½ years, Russia has executed a westward march of election meddling through cyberspace, starting in the states of the former Soviet Union and moving toward the North Atlantic. “On a regular basis they try to influence elections in Europe,” President Obama told NBC News on July 26. With Russia establishing beachheads in the U.S. at least since April, officials worry that in the final weeks of the campaign the Russian cybercapability could be used to fiddle with voter rolls, election-reporting systems and the media, resulting in confusion that could cast a shadow over both the next President and the democratic process.