Fourth Volume of Report in 2016 Russian Hacking Endorses IC’s Conclusions

In a report that largely vindicates the Intelligence Community’s (IC) assessment of the 2016 election, a Senate committee continues with its investigation of Russian hacking with a heavily redacted fourth volume. The Republican-led committee rebuts the President’s assertions the IC was wrong and biased.  

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released the fourth of five planned volumes, detailing Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. This volume, titled “Review of the Intelligence Community Assessment,” assessed the classified version of the Intelligence Community’s (IC) review and conclusions regarding Russian efforts to aid President Donald Trump’s campaign and to harm former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency. In this assessment, the Committee found “unprecedented Russian interference” well-described, analyzed, and investigated by the IC. However, much of the report is redacted, and according to Committee Member, Senator Angus King (I-ME), this was done to protect the sources and methods the IC used.

An unclassified version of “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” was released in mid-2017 that was heavily criticized by the President, the White House, and a number of Republicans. Additionally, the House Intelligence Committee, led by then Chair and Trump ally Devin Nunes (R-CA), found that the IC assessment was plagued by “significant intelligence tradecraft failings.”

Given that the majority of Russian interference was executed in cyberspace, often through social media, it remains to be seen whether these reports will spur proposals to change laws regulating cybersecurity or U.S. intelligence activities. Moreover, like so many issues, the response to COVID-19 will likely overshadow this report and any potential impact it may have otherwise had.

While the White House has largely been silent on this volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, the subject of Russia’s activities during the 2016 election remains touchy at the White House, suggesting efforts to reform how the U.S. responds to this sort of hacking will remain at the agency-level with heads of key entities using authorities they currently possess. This opens the possibility that agencies and private sector entities will not receive new latitude to fight off disinformation campaigns likely to be waged by more than just Russia as North Korea, China, and Iran are often identified as those nations most able to interfer in this year’s election.

The Committee’s previous three volumes are: “Volume I: Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure,” “Volume II: Russia’s Use of Social Media,” and “Volume III: U.S. Government Response to Russian Activities.”

As threshold matters, the Committee found

  • [S]pecific intelligence as well as open source assessments support the assessment that President Putin approved and directed aspects of this influence campaign.
  • Further, a body of reporting, to include different intelligence disciplines, open source reporting on Russian leadership policy preferences, and Russian media content, showed that Moscow sought to denigrate then-candidate Clinton.
  • ICA presents information from public Russian leadership commentary, Russian state media reports, and specific intelligence reporting to support the assessment that Putin and the Russian Government demonstrated a preference for candidate Trump.

The Senate Intelligence Committee made the following findings:

1. The Committee found the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) presents a coherent and well-constructed intelligence basis for the case of unprecedented Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. On the analytic lines of the ICA, the Committee concludes that all [REDACTED] lines are supported with all-source intelligence, although with varying substantiation. The Committee did not discover any significant analytic tradecraft issues in the preparation or final presentation of the ICA.

The ICA reflects proper analytic tradecraft despite being tasked and completed within a compressed time frame. The compact timeframe was a contributing factor for not conducting formal analysis of competing hypotheses.

The differing confidence levels on one analytic judgment are justified and properly represented. Those in disagreement all stated that they had the opportunity to express differing points of view. The decision regarding the presentation of differing confidence levels was the responsibility of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan and the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Admiral Michael Rogers, both of whom independently expressed to the Committee that they reached the final wording openly and with sufficient exchanges of views.

Multiple intelligence disciplines are used and identified throughout the ICA. Where the Committee noted concerns about the use of specific sources, in no case did the Committee conclude any analytic line was compromised as a result.

In all the interviews of those who drafted and prepared the ICA, the Committee heard consistently that analysts were under no politically motivated pressure to reach specific conclusions. All analysts expressed that they were free to debate, object to content, and assess confidence levels, as is normal and proper for the analytic process.

2. The Committee found that the agencies responsible for the !CA-CIA, NSA, and FBI, under the aegis of ODNI-met the primary tasking as directed by President Obama, which was to assemble a product that reflected the intelligence available to the Intelligence Community (IC) regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.

3. The Committee found that the ICA provides a proper representation of the intelligence collected by CIA, NSA, and FBI on Russian interference in 2016, and this body of evidence supports the substance and judgments of the ICA.

[REDACTED] Regarding FBI, the ICA states, in its “Scope and Sourcing” introduction, that “[w]e also do not include information from ongoing investigations.” [REDACTED] The Committee found that the information provided by Christopher Steele to FBI was not used in the body of the ICA or to support any of its analytic judgments. However, a summary of this material was included in Annex A as a compromise to FBI’s insistence that the information was responsive to the presidential tasking.

4. The Committee found the ICA makes a clear argument that the manner and aggressiveness of the Russian interference was historically unprecedented. However, the ICA and its sources do not provide a substantial representation of Russian interference in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, as the Committee understands was part of the President’s original tasking.

5. [REDACTED]The Committee found that the ICA did not provide a set of policy on how to respond to future Russian active measures, which was part of the tasking the President conveyed to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper. The ICA did include, in the compartmented version, an unclassified section independently produced by DHS, FBI, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “DHS/FBI/NIST Recommendations: Options to Protect and Defend US Election Infrastructure and US Political Parties.”

The absence of policy recommendations was deliberate, due to the well-established norm that the IC provides insight and warning to policy makers, but does not itself make policy.

6. The Committee found the ICA would benefit from a more comprehensive presentation of how Russian propaganda-as generated by Russia’s multiple state-owned platforms-was used to complement the full Russian influence campaign.

Open source collection is a long-standing discipline for CIA and other elements of the IC, and open source reporting is used throughout the ICA to support specific analytic assertions. However, open source reporting on RT and Sputnik’s coverage of WikiLeaks releases of Democratic National Committee (DNC) information would have strengthened the ICA’s examination of Russia’s use of propaganda. On this point, the Committee finds that Annex [REDACTED] of the ICA-“Open Source Center Analysis: Russia: Kremlin’s TV Seeks to Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in US,” published December 12, 2012-should have been updated to provide a summary of Kremlin propaganda in 2016, thereby making a more relevant contribution to the ICA. An update to this assessment was not produced by the Open Source Enterprise until after the publication of the ICA.

7. [REDACTED] The role of social media has been a significant focus by the Committee and is discussed in a separate volume of this report.

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