This post has been updated.
The Senate Intelligence Committee held a rare public hearing on Thursday, a first look at its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The hearing, broken up into several sessions, began Thursday morning with a panel of academics brought in to explain Russia's history of trying to influence politics in other countries. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman, made it clear that they want to be thorough, starting with an understanding of how Russia interferes in other countries' affairs and why.
On Thursday afternoon, the committee brought in a panel of cybersecurity experts, including Gen. Keith Alexander, who was head of the National Security Agency from 2005 to 2014. The experts are expected to discuss the techniques Russia uses to influence other countries and their politics over the Internet.
Here's what we have learned from the hearing so far:
1. Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign was the target of hacks – as recently as yesterday
Rubio revealed on Thursday afternoon that hackers from an “unknown location within Russia” targeted his campaign staffers just after he announced his bid for reelection to the Senate in July, 2016. He went on to say that another hacking attempt was made just yesterday.
2. The Senate Intelligence Committee wants to avoid the partisanship we have seen from the House Intelligence Committee.
Burr and Warner both made it clear that they're working together and that they want to avoid letting politics creep in.
“We're all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary,” Burr said in his opening statement, “and we must engage in a whole-of-government approach to combat Russian active measures.”
It's notable that that statement is coming from Burr, a Republican, given that the Trump administration has spent months arguing that although Russia may have tried to interfere in the election, that interference didn't have much of an effect on the results.
“We simply must — and we will — get this right,” Warner said. “The chairman and I agree it is vitally important that we do this as a credible, bipartisan and transparent manner as possible. As was said yesterday at our press conference, Chairman Burr and I trust each other.”
That's markedly different from the scene on the House side. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to recuse himself from the investigation earlier this week.
The Senate committee leaders also pointed out that, although Russia appears to have favored President Trump as a candidate, its overall strategy is more about destabilization than promoting one political party over another.
“Candidly, while it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another,” Warner said, “and, consequently, should be a concern for all of us.”
3. Russia has a history of meddling in other countries' affairs.
Roy Godson, an emeritus Georgetown University professor and an expert on American intelligence, was the first witness at Thursday's hearing. He discussed Russia's “long history” of meddling in other countries' affairs.
“They actually believe, whatever we think about it, that this gives them the possibility of achieving influence well beyond their economic and social status and conditions in their country,” Godson asserted. “For many, many decades, we did not take this subject seriously, and they were able to take enormous advantage.”
Godson explained that Russia is reusing old techniques to influence the American media and voters. “The Soviets and their Russian successors take the view that they can fight above their weight” and influence countries in the “20th and 21st centuries,” he said.
4. Some Russian interference techniques are easier to spot than others.
Each of the academic experts at Thursday’s hearing stressed that Russia uses a combination of covert and overt techniques to influence other countries. And Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment, said the overt techniques are the ones to which we should really be paying attention.
“It is the totality of Russian efforts in plain sight — to mislead, to misinform, to exaggerate — that is more convincing than any cyber evidence. RT, Internet trolls, fake news and so on, are an integral part of Russian foreign policy today,” Rumer said.
It’s hard to compare those overt techniques to the covert ones, since we don’t know exactly what they are. But we can take a guess, given what we do know about how the 2016 election played out.
Burr and Warner cited several instances of hacking into political email servers. That makes it likely that those same hackers also looked to steal other information — documents and data — from other servers within the U.S. government and at political organizations.
Godson did say, though, that there’s little evidence that Russia employs systematic efforts to change vote tallies at voting machines.
5. This isn’t just about the United States and Russia.
Rumer pointed out that Russia gets a lot of payoff from its efforts to interfere with the United States. First, it’s a distraction from our own politics: American lawmakers are spending a lot of time discussing, investigating and taking positions on this issue. Second, it damages U.S. leadership around the world. And third, he said, is what’s called the “demonstration effect.”
“The Kremlin can do this to the world’s sole remaining global superpower,” he said. “Imagine how other countries see it.”
Rumer added that he expects to see Russia turn its attention to the upcoming French and German elections.
6. Russia has a lot of resources devoted to cyberespionage.
Russia doesn't just have a lot of resources devoted to cyberespionage; it follows pretty consistent patterns, too.
Kevin Mandia, chief executive of cyber-intrusion experts FireEye, detailed how a group of suspected Russian hackers, designated “APT28,” follows a formula.
“All of the breaches that we attribute to APT28 in the last two years involve the theft of internal data, as well as the leaking of this data — potentially APT28 or some other arm of the organization — into the public,” he said. Mandia went on to describe how this particular group of hackers has created more than 500 pieces of “malware,” or covert software that's used to break into computer networks and steal data.
7. The hackers know they're being watched.
Mandia described how, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, suspected Russian hackers would cease their activities as soon as they knew they had been detected — but now, and for the last few years, similar groups have simply continued their activities, even if they know they're being watched.
“For some reason, in August of 2014, we were responding to a breach of a government organization,” Mandia said, “and during our response, our front-line responders said, 'They know we're there. They know we're observing them, and they're still doing their activities.' ”
Perhaps, Mandia said, the hackers weren't worried about being caught because their activities, and the scope of their activities, were easily noticeable by foreign governments anyway.