“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party. I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides.”
— Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in remarks at the Aspen Security Forum, July 19, 2018
These comments from the Homeland Security secretary appear to be in conflict with the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to favor President Trump.
The “attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure” that Nielsen mentioned were one aspect of a broader Russian campaign that also included hacking servers, stealing documents and spreading propaganda, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Nielsen steered clear of questioning whether the email intrusions and propaganda were meant to help Trump. But there’s no evidence, she said, that efforts to breach the U.S. election infrastructure were meant to favor one political party over another.
The U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment of Russian interference in the presidential election doesn’t make the same distinctions Nielsen is drawing. Let’s take a look.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has filed an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers working for a military agency known as the GRU, alleging that they hacked into the servers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Documents stolen from those servers were strategically timed for release to interfere in the 2016 election, Mueller alleged.
Two of the 12 Russian officers, Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev and Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, gained access to state or local election systems in the United States, according to the indictment. Mueller alleged they “conspired with each other and with persons, known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities responsible for the administration of 2016 U.S. elections, such as state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections.” Their goal was to “steal voter data and other information stored on those computers,” the indictment says.
In one instance, the GRU officers “hacked the website of a state board of elections” in the United States “and stole information related to approximately 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers,” the indictment alleges. The Illinois Board of Elections believes it was the target of this cyberattack, which was discovered in July 2016.
The indictment also says Russian officials “hacked into the computers of a U.S. vendor … that supplied software used to verify voter registration information for the 2016 U.S. elections.” They sent more than 100 phishing emails to “organizations and personnel involved in administering elections in numerous Florida counties,” using Word documents that displayed the hacked vendor’s logo. The Intercept reported that the business described in the indictment is a match with an e-voting vendor based in Florida that denies it was hacked.
The Mueller indictment doesn’t say that the GRU officers were working to help Trump’s chances, but it doesn’t foreclose that possibility, either. The U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment says Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a broad interference campaign that included email intrusions, propaganda efforts and breaches of the U.S. electoral system. Reading the intelligence assessment in full, it’s clear these different efforts were all part of the same campaign.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the assessment says. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
At another point, the assessment says: “The Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the US election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into US state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda. Russian intelligence collection both informed and enabled the influence campaign.”
The Russians allegedly targeted election systems in 21 U.S. states, but no vote-counting systems were affected, according to the Department of Homeland Security. “Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards,” according to the intelligence assessment. “Since early 2014, Russian intelligence has researched US electoral processes and related technology and equipment. DHS assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying.”
Russia is not alleged to have manipulated vote totals in the 2016 election, so Nielsen’s comments, in a very narrow and mathematical sense, have some merit. But she left out that widespread Russian efforts to access U.S. election systems appear to have succeeded in some cases, that Russians stole at least 500,000 U.S. voter records and that the overall Russian interference campaign was meant to favor Trump, according to Mueller and U.S. intelligence officials.
Representatives for Nielsen did not respond to our questions. Nielsen has stated repeatedly that she agrees with the U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment.
After her remarks at the Aspen Security Forum, Nielsen tweeted: “I agree with the intel’s community assessment. Full stop. Any attack on our democracy, which is what that was, whether it’s successful or unsuccessful, is unacceptable. It is an attack on our democracy. Election security is national security.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee said more evidence of “Russian attempts to infiltrate state election infrastructure” had emerged since the intelligence community’s assessment was released in January 2017. At a joint news conference with Trump in Helsinki, Putin denied that Russia interfered in the U.S. election but said he did favor Trump’s candidacy. “Yes, I wanted him to win, because he talked about the normalization of Russian-American relations,” Putin said.
The Pinocchio Test
The U.S. intelligence community’s assessment doesn’t have categories of different motivations for Russia’s email hacking and propaganda on one side, and its targeting of U.S. election systems on the other. It’s all one big plot. U.S. intelligence officials agree that the overall campaign was ordered by Putin to undermine faith in U.S. democracy, denigrate Clinton and favor Trump.
Nielsen is saying that U.S. election systems were targeted but that nothing shows it was to help one party. A full reading of the intelligence community’s assessment shows that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and that “the Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the US election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into US state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda.”
The Department of Homeland Security says vote-counting processes were not affected. That’s important to keep in mind — as is the evidence gathered by Mueller that Russian intelligence officials gained access into U.S. election systems and stole 500,000 voter records in one state. Whether or not this helped Trump directly, the bottom line is that the intelligence community’s assessment says Russia intruded into U.S. state and local electoral boards as part of an effort to give Trump an advantage. Nielsen’s comments are worth Three Pinocchios.
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