Two high-profile Republican members of Congress may have been targets of Russian social-media campaigns to discredit them as recently as this past week, an expert in Kremlin influence-peddling told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
“This past week we observed social-media accounts discrediting U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan,” Clint Watts told the committee in a rare open hearing that leaders billed as a “primer” on Russian influence-peddling.
Watts, an expert in terrorism forecasting and Russian influence operations from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also said he believes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “anecdotally suffered” from online Russian campaigns against him during his presidential bid.
Ryan’s office was not aware of an effort against him, according to a spokeswoman. Rubio said later Thursday that his campaign staff had been “targeted” twice “from an unknown location in Russia,” once in July 2016 and again at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday. Both attempts were unsuccessful, he added, without providing further details.
The revelations widen the scope of politicians who have become the subject of Russian-backed hacking operations and online smear campaigns, allegedly a central part of a Kremlin strategy to spread propaganda in the United States and undermine its democratic institutions.
Watts and others who spoke to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday are not involved in ongoing probes of Russia’s alleged efforts to sway the 2016 elections and possible campaign links to the Kremlin. They argued that such meddling is only one example of what Russia plans to do with the arsenal of hacking and influence tools it has been building for years.
“Russians could not do this if they started in 2016,” said Roy Godson, an expert in Soviet and Russian “active measures” — tools of political warfare used to influence world events — and emeritus professor of government at Georgetown University. “For many, many decades we did not take this stuff very seriously, and they were able to take enormous advantage.”
Experts noted several deficiencies in U.S. defenses against Russian cyberattacks, including the lack of a cybersecurity policy, poor defense coordination between the public and private sector, and almost no reliable government system to shoot down false propaganda when it arises.
They stressed that there was a false sense of complacency in government, with information technology expert Thomas Rid of King’s College London highlighting a close and surprising example: The security chips on congressional staffers’ identification badges, he said, are fake.
The badge “doesn’t actually have a proper chip. It has a picture of a chip,” Rid said. “It’s only to prevent chip envy. That tells you there’s a serious IT security problem.”
Experts stressed Russia has no political allies in the United States and will, as Watts put it, attack or discredit “people on both sides of the aisle . . . solely based on what they want to achieve in their own landscape, whatever the Russian foreign policy objectives are. They win because they play both sides.”
He also said that President Trump’s actions in particular — such as calling attention to conspiracy theories and tweeting about them — are helping Russian propaganda succeed in the United States.
“Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measure at times against his opponents,” Watts said, citing the president’s history of making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, Barack Obama’s birthplace and a “rigged” election.
At peak times, he added, fake accounts swarm-tweet conspiracy theories at the president in the hope he will cite them, lending them credibility and strengthening Russia’s ability to sow more discord in the United States.
“Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country . . . whether it be do I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my Twitter feed, we’re going to have a big problem,” Watts said.
The testimony came a day after the committee’s chairman and vice chairman, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side in a rare news briefing to offer an update on the status of their investigation.
They did so as the House Intelligence Committee’s probe has effectively ground to halt, with Democratic members accusing the Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), of undermining the investigation by working on Trump’s behalf.
Experts suggested that Congress has no time to sort out its political differences before addressing the Russian threat. They warned that Russia, having successfully deployed an Internet army to affect an American election, will probably look for future political targets and exploit new technologies to sow more discord in the electoral process and more distrust among citizens of the country’s democratic institutions.
“Somewhere in their cache right now there’s tremendous amounts of information laying around they can weaponize against other Americans,” Watts warned.
The witnesses said Russia’s “active measures” date at least to 2009, when fake, Russian-owned social-media accounts began popping up online. Those accounts — meant to look as if they belong to Americans, pictures and all — amount to an easily deployable influence army critical to spreading Russian propaganda, the witnesses argued.
In 2014, they began to work on “influence campaigns” more intently, and by 2015 they had “tied hacking and influence together at the same time,” Watts said, specifically referring to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the later release of that information publicly.
In just March and April of 2016, Rid added, Russians targeted at least 109 full-time Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, as well as several DNC staffers.
Experts said they have no way of knowing which attacks were carried out by automatic “bots” and which were not, imploring lawmakers to seek more detailed data from social-media companies.
They also urged lawmakers to think about ways Russia could exploit new technologies, drawing particular attention to virtual reality, the simulated worlds in which people can interact through a headset or helmet with people and places that seem real but aren’t.
“Anybody who could set up the reality is going to have a very decided advantage in politics and other areas,” Godson said.
The experts encouraged investigators to follow the trail of Russian money, through oligarchs, and to “follow the trail of dead Russians,” Watts said, referring to a string of prominent Russians who have recently died or been killed, to find clues about how Russian money is laundered.
Finally, they warned that the intelligence community has to change its way of thinking and focus on what is going on in public arenas such as social media as much as they do on closed secure transactions, since the spread of propaganda is such a critical part of Russia’s campaign.
“Most of this influence came online. They essentially duplicated an old active-measure system without setting foot in the United States,” Watts said. “When it comes to open source, we miss what’s right in front of our nose.”