WASHINGTON (CN) – Russian meddling in U.S. affairs is not a temporary crisis but rather “the new normal,” experts told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday during a rare public hearing.
With nothing to stop Russia, Americans could see more interference when they go back to the polls for midterm elections in 2018, and in 2020 to elect the next president, said ranking member Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is still under investigation by the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Burr.
Warner and Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said they called today’s hearing to help the public better understand the tactics that the Kremlin uses to undermine democratic processes and institutions.
Highlighting their bipartisan effort, Burr said efforts to politicize the Russia investigation would likely fail, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, noted that Russian meddling targets both the left and the right.
Experts called to testify this morning did their best to place the Russia’s tactics within Russia’s historical context. “Active measures have been a significant weapon in the Russian and Soviet arsenal for over 100 years,” said Roy Godson, professor of government emeritus at Georgetown University.
He defined active measures as overt and covert techniques that propagate Russian ideas and political and military preferences, while undermining democratic adversaries.
In contrast to the Cole War era, Russian active measure no longer require boots on the ground in foreign countries. That could be their strength.
“These influence techniques provide their relatively weak economy and insecure political institutions with a strategic and tactical advantage to affect significant political outcomes abroad,” Godson said.
Russia, like the Soviets, have built up the infrastructure along with skilled and experienced teams to implement active measures, which have been modernized, he said.
“Some of it is effective, some just a nuisance,” he added, noting that Russia is “not 10-feet tall.”
Speaking directly to skeptics who doubt the intelligence community assessment that Russia meddled in the U.S. election to hurt Hillary Clinton, Eugene Rumer with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expressed confidence in the report’s conclusions.
“I am convinced that Russian intelligence services, their proxies, and other related actors directly intervened in our election in 2016,” he said.
Though he has not seen the classified evidence that supports the findings, Rumer said Russia’s effort is in plain sight.
That effort can be seen “in state-sponsored propaganda broadcasts on RT, in countless internet trolls, fake or distorted news spread by fake news services, in the recent Kremlin get-together of Russian president Vladimir Putin with the French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen,” Rumer said.
“The list can go on.”
Today Russia uses active measures to reassert itself on the world stage and restore balance after the economic, security and societal turmoil that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rumer said.
The narrative that the West took advantage of Russia in the 1990s underpins Russian state-sponsored propaganda under Putin, he added.
“In public and private,” Rumer said, “top Russian officials proclaim that the wars in Georgia and Ukraine were fought to prevent Western encroachment on territories vital to Russian security.”
Whether one agrees with these assessments is another matter, he said, but Russia is not economically or militarily capable of taking on the NATO alliance.
“A NATO-Russia war would be an act of mutual suicide, and the Kremlin is not ready for it,” he said. “Its campaign against the West has to be prosecuted by other means.”
Rumer testified that the crisis between Russia and the West that emerged after its annexation of Crimea is no longer a crisis.
“The U.S.-Russia relationship is fundamentally broken, and this situation should be treated as the new normal rather than an exceptional period in our relations,” he said.
Clint Watts from the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University provided more details about Russia’s tactics, having watched the rise of Russian social media operations online.
Russia has used social-media campaigns to discredit and undermine the U.S. for years with Pro-Russian entities littering Twitter and Facebook with Western-looking accounts that – often with a photo of an attractive woman – are supported by automated bots.
Social-media accounts associated with Russian active measures first appeared in 2009, Watts said.
Influence campaigns began in 2014 and were tied together with hacking for the first time in 2015 during the breach of the Democratic National Committee.
Watts said bots “game” the social-media system by flooding it with false stories that get amplified, eventually trend and then get picked up in mainstream media.
Once that happens, he said it spreads organically, like a virus.
He gave an example to illustrate his point, recounting what happened on July 30, 2016, when RT and Sputnik News simultaneously ran false stories about terrorists supposedly overruning a U.S. airbase in Incirlik, Turkey.
“Within minutes, pro-Russian social media aggregators and automated bots amplified this false news story and expanded conspiracies asserting American nuclear missiles at the base would be lost to extremists,” he said.
In the first 78 minutes after the story ran, more than 4,000 tweets emerged from active measures accounts he and his colleagues had tracked for several years, which amplified the story in unison.
The accounts used the hash tags “Nuclear, #Media, #Trump and #Benghazi, he said.
“These accounts and their messages clearly sought to convince Americans a U.S. military base was being overrun in a terrorist attack like the 2012 assault on a U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya,” he said.
As it turns out, only a small protest had gathered outside the gate of the base, and increased security on the base was in preparation for the arrival of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the next day.
Calling out mainstream media, Watts said journalists too often fall for fake news stories. If U.S. news organizations were to collectively boycott Wikileaks, Watts predicted, any “stolen” and “weaponized” information would “die on the vine,” along with Russian influence.
Regardless, the use of active measures by Russia should give every American reason for concern, Watts said.
“Right now, a foreign country – whether they realize it or not – is pitting them against their neighbor, other political parties, ramping up divisions based on things that aren’t true,” he said.
That includes undermining faith in the legislative and judicial branches.
“If Americans don’t believe that their vote counts, they’re not going to show up and participate in democracy,” Watts said.
While the U.S. can claim the world’s most superior military, Watts said the government needs to invest in people.
The Russians are winning the cyber and information wars because they have great propagandists and excellent hackers, he said.
“We on the other hand, worry a lot about who we can bring into the cyberfield because they might have smoked weed one day, or can’t pass a security clearance,” he said.
Watts encouraged the government to appeal to “millions of talented Americans out there.”
He also encouraged the FBI to examine hacks as they happen and try to figure out how stolen information will be weaponized and used for smear campaigns.
After all, Watts noted, the Russian-affiliated hackers did more than hack the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. They hacked 3,000 to 4,000 people, including Watts.
Without an organized policy and response to Russian active measures, Watts said the U.S. will remain weak and Putin will push as far as he can.