DNI Report Concludes Russian Intelligence Conducted Cyber-Operations Against US Election; Evidence Remains Circumstantial

By Alexandra V. Dzero, Associate Sanctions and Illicit Trade (Alexandra.dzero@kcl.ac.uk).
On 6 January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released the official report on alleged Russian “activities and intentions” regarding the 2016 US elections. The report assesses an “influence campaign” by the Kremlin, whose aim was to undermine the US public’s faith in the electoral process and help Trump’s election chances through a blend of covert intelligence activity, such as cyber‑attacks, and overt pro-Trump propaganda.

The US security agencies strongly believe that Russia conducted cyber operations against targets associated with both parties in the US 2016 election. With high confidence, the DNI assesses that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) used proxy individuals and websites (such as WikiLeaks) to release data obtained in cyber-attacks, although it does not attribute the attacks which gained the information to the GRU. The report notes that Russian actors did not target or compromise vote tallying.  No further clarity is given as to what types of cyber operations were conducted and to what end. Given the classified nature of the report, and of cyber‑security generally, it may very well be that the sanitised report simply cannot detail key evidence and only provides circumstantial evidence in that regard.

The remainder of the report broadly analyses pro-Kremlin media, although the conclusions which are drawn show a surprising lack of critical depth. A heavy focus is placed on RT as a “messaging tool” to “undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest”. RT’s Kremlin financing and pro-Russia stance is widely known. The report does not identify RT’s readership and consumption in either Russia or the US, making the effectiveness of its propaganda unknown. Regardless, RT’s pro-Trump coverage and reports critical to US foreign policy, environmental laws and electoral process are neither illegal nor of particular note, especially when produced by a well‑known pro-Kremlin media. Critically, how RT’s messaging affected the election process remains unclear in the report.

President-elect Trump will maintain his stance that friendlier relations with Russia are important until his inauguration. However, as president, the report’s findings will continue to cause tensions among the Republican Party and serve calls for Congressional hearings. As previously stated, it is unclear whether Trump could reset relations with Russia even if he wanted to. It remains unclear whether the US will maintain or ease its Russia sanctions regime in 2017.

The DNI Report can be found here:

https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf