I am in the process of reading the entire redacted Special Counsel Office’s (SCO) Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference1 in the 2016 Presidential Election (Report). I will break my analysis into three successive parts: part one follows below and focuses on Russia’s attack on the 2016 Election and related unanswered questions; next month, part two will analyze the conspiracy section of the Report; and, in July, part three will focus on the obstruction of justice section of the Report. This analysis does not attempt to summarize the entire Report or every detail contained therein. Rather, read in its entirety, this analysis seeks to provide a broad overview of the Report’s key findings and how those findings fit into the larger picture of current threats and events.
THE EMERGING THEME OF TRUMP: PROMISES MADE, PROMISES BROKEN
A recurring theme has emerged from the candidacy and presidency of Donald J. Trump (Trump), namely: Promises Made, Promises Broken.2 For but a few examples, candidate Trump promised to not only provide Americans with better healthcare plans at lower prices but also protect, if not expand, current coverage of pre-existing conditions. Yet, President Trump has failed to offer any improved or enhanced healthcare plans; moreover, he has repeatedly sought to undermine, weaken, and vacate the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, including those sections protecting coverage for the millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans. Candidate Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” Yet, President Trump has arguably run the most corrupt and self-dealing administration in modern United States (U.S.) history. Candidate Trump promised that America would be respected again in the world. Yet, President Trump has weakened decades-old alliances, withdrawn the U.S. from key arms control agreements, repeatedly failed to stand up against human rights abuses across the world, embraced despots, and withdrawn the U.S. from key international agreements—all of which have served to weaken America’s global standing. Candidate Trump promised to improve the lives of Hispanics, African-Americans, and other minorities and asked what they had to lose by voting for him. President Trump then promptly issued the Muslim Ban, adopted heartless immigrant family separation and child detention policies, referred to several African countries as “shi*hole” or “shi*house” countries, and said there were “very fine people” amongst the white supremacists who marched August 11-12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Candidate Trump promised to keep America safe. Yet, President Trump has denied that human activity contributes to climate change, rolled back regulations that promote clean water and air, gutted leadership at the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Defense, and most relevant to this paper, refused to even acknowledge—let alone defend against—not only Russia’s attacks on the 2016 Election but also its ongoing attacks against future U.S. elections. The remainder of this paper will focus on this last broken promise.
SCO FINDING 1: RUSSIA ATTACKED THE 2016 ELECTION
While the Report leaves many questions unanswered or unresolved, it makes at least one fact crystal clear: Russia attacked the 2016 Election. Indeed, on page 1 of the Report, the SCO unambiguously states “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”3 The Report then details how Russia conducted a multi-pronged attack against the 2016 Election.
First, a Russian entity called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) conducted a social media campaign4 from 2014 through the 2016 Election. Initially, the IRA operated social media accounts and group pages “designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.”5 By February 2016, however, the IRA’s operations changed to directly support candidate Trump and oppose candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton (Clinton) for President.6 As detailed in the Report, throughout 2016, the IRA’s social media accounts published an increasing number of materials supporting Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign (Trump Campaign) and opposing Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign (Clinton Campaign); the IRA also organized multiple pro-Trump events and rallies.7 By the time of the 2016 Election, the IRA had the ability to reach an estimated 126 million8 U.S. persons through its various social media accounts.9
Second, in early 2016, the Russian intelligence service known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU) opened up a new operation to support the Trump Campaign and hurt the Clinton Campaign by: (1) hacking the servers and/or personal e-mail accounts of many Democratic entities and individuals; (2) publicly and strategically releasing the hacked materials most likely to damage the Clinton Campaign; and, (3) targeting individuals and entities (such as state boards of elections, secretaries of state, county governments, election-related hardware and software companies, and people who worked for these entities10) involved in the administration of U.S. elections.11
Specifically, “[i]n March 2016, the GRU began hacking the email accounts of Clinton Campaign volunteers and employees, including campaign chairman John Podesta” (Podesta).12 In April 2016, the GRU then “hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).”13 In total, the GRU “stole hundreds of thousands of documents from the compromised email accounts and networks.”14 Moreover, on July 27, 2016—just a few hours after candidate Trump said “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] e-mails that are missing . . .”—the GRU targeted Clinton’s personal office for the first time.15 Indeed, after candidate Trump’s public request for Russia to find Clinton’s private e-mails, “the GRU created and sent malicious links to 15 e-mail accounts” with a domain related in some way to Clinton.16
The GRU not only stole hundreds of thousands of e-mails and documents from the DNC, DCCC, and the personal e-mail accounts of members of the Clinton Campaign but also facilitated their public release and dissemination with the goal of helping the Trump Campaign and hurting the Clinton Campaign.17 The GRU released the stolen materials through two fictitious online personas it created—“DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0”—and later through WikiLeaks.18 The DCLeaks website remained operational from April 2016 through March 2017.19 This site published thousands of stolen documents from the personal e-mail accounts of multiple people associated with the Clinton Campaign.20 From June 15, 2016 through October 18, 2016, Guccifer 2.0 posted thousands of documents that the GRU stole from the DNC and DCCC servers.21
Starting in June 2016, the GRU also used Guccifer 2.0 “to release documents directly to reporters and other interested individuals.”22 In addition, the GRU, through its DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 personas, transferred many of the documents they stole from both Podesta and the DNC to WikiLeaks.23
WikiLeaks started publishing the hacked materials in July 2016.24 On July 22, 2016—three days before the beginning of the Democratic National Convention—“WikiLeaks released over 20,000 e-mails and other documents stolen from the DNC computer networks.25 Perhaps even more strikingly, WikiLeaks began releasing the stolen Podesta e-mails on October 7, 2016—within one hour of the release of the highly inflammatory and damaging Trump “Access Hollywood” Tape.26 WikiLeaks deliberately chose to “save its best [Clinton-related] revelations for last, under the theory this allows little time for [Clinton’s] response prior to the U.S.  [E]lection.”27 Thus, between October 7, 2016 and November 7, 2016—i.e. during the final stretch of the 2016 Presidential campaign—WikiLeaks released 33 tranches of stolen e-mails and documents, including “over 50,000 documents stolen from Podesta’s personal e-mail account.”28 Ultimately, WikiLeaks appears to have successfully timed its releases of the stolen materials to maximize both their benefit to candidate Trump and damage to candidate Clinton.29
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS REGARDING RUSSIA’S ATTACK ON THE 2016 ELECTION
One of the greatest, and most important, unanswered questions regarding Russia’s attack on the 2016 Election is whether or not it materially altered the final 2016 Election results. We now know that, by the time the 2016 Election occurred, the IRA had the ability to spread its pro-Trump, anti-Clinton propaganda to approximately 126 million Americans through its social media accounts.”30 We also now know that the GRU not only stole hundreds of thousands of Democratic e-mails and documents but also strategically facilitated and timed the public dissemination of those hacked materials with the goal of helping to elect candidate Trump.31 What we do not—and likely cannot—know is the true impact this Russian activity had on the final outcome of the 2016 Election.
Several outstanding election security questions persist, however, that can and must be answered. The Report details numerous ways that Russia, through the GRU, targeted individuals and entities involved in the administration of U.S. elections.32 For a few brief examples: in June 2016, the GRU compromised the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections, gained access to a database containing information on millions of registered Illinois voters, and successfully extracted data on thousands of U.S. voters; the GRU then, over a two-day period in July 2016, scanned more than 24 states’ state and local websites for election-related vulnerabilities; and, between August and November 2016, the GRU sent spearfishing e-mails that successfully installed malware on both the network of a voting technology company “used by numerous U.S. counties to manage voter rolls,”33 as well as on the network of at least one Florida county government.34 While the SCO identified evidence of the GRU’s repeated cyber attacks on U.S. voting apparatus and infrastructure and/or persons associated with it, the SCO did not further investigate these attacks; instead, the SCO noted that the FBI and/or DHS have investigated them.35 Yet, the American public still knows very little about the extent of these intrusions, whether they materially altered the 2016 Election results, and the threat they pose to
future election security. Indeed, in a recent speech, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated “[t]he bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence [in the Report] that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence [U.S.] elections, promote social discord and undermine America.”36 Congress and the media must, therefore, further investigate and reveal to the American public the full extent of Russia’s past and ongoing election-related cyber attacks to ensure not only continued confidence in U.S. election results but also the very preservation of U.S. democracy itself.
COMING NEXT IN PART 2: THE REPORT’S CONSPIRACY SECTION UNPACKED.