Bipartisan Senate report reaffirms intelligence findings that Russia meddled in 2016 elections

The Intelligence Community was correct in its assessment of Russian meddling in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, a bipartisan report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday concluded.

The report, which is the fourth of an expected five volumes to emerge from the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, digs into the Intelligence Community’s Assessment (ICA) of Russian active measures used to sway the election. 

The assessment, made public in early 2017 shortly before President Obama left office, concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” and that there was a “clear preference” for now-President Trump to win the election on the part of the Russians.  

The committee concluded that the ICA “presents a coherent and well-constructed intelligence basis for the case of unprecedented Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” and that all analysts involved in compiling the ICA were under no pressure to come to a specific conclusion. 

One critique of the ICA was that it could have benefited from “a more comprehensive presentation of how Russian propaganda … was used” as part of the overall influence campaign. 

The panel also concluded that information provided to analysts by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent who compiled opposition research against Trump, was not used to reach any conclusions in the ICA. 

Committee leaders warned that Russian interference in the 2016 elections could easily happen again during the presidential elections later this year, an issue that government officials and experts have increasingly warned may be a problem. 

“One of the ICA’s most important conclusions was that Russia’s aggressive interference efforts should be considered ‘the new normal,’ ” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement. “That warning has been borne out by the events of the last three years, as Russia and its imitators increasingly use information warfare to sow societal chaos and discord.” 

He noted that “with the 2020 presidential election approaching, it’s more important than ever that we remain vigilant against the threat of interference from hostile foreign actors.”

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.), a key cybersecurity advocate on Capitol Hill, was more blunt in his assessment of the dangers to elections this year.  

“The ICA correctly found the Russians interfered in our 2016 election to hurt Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and help the candidacy of Donald Trump,” Warner said in a statement. “Our review of the highly classified ICA and underlying intelligence found that this and other conclusions were well-supported. There is certainly no reason to doubt that the Russians’ success in 2016 is leading them to try again in 2020, and we must not be caught unprepared.” 

Their warnings echoed those of former special counsel Robert Mueller, who testified to Congress last year that Russian agents were attempting to interfere in the 2020 elections “as we sit here.” 

Mueller concluded in his report that Russian agents interfered in the run-up to the 2016 elections in order to favor Trump, using both a sweeping disinformation campaign and cyberattacks on state election infrastructure and Democratic campaign groups to do so.  

More recently, reports emerged that intelligence community officials told the House Intelligence Committee during a classified briefing that there was evidence Russia was already interfering in the 2020 elections. Officials also told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in February that Russians were trying to help boost his presidential campaign, an issue Sanders called an “ugly thing.”

The report published Tuesday, the majority of which was heavily redacted, included two pages of views from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the committee. Wyden, who has pushed hard for election reforms, warned that Russian interference was made easier by U.S. shortcomings. 

“The actions of our adversaries challenge our intelligence capabilities,” Wyden wrote. “In this case, in which audits are inadequate, state and local election officials lack the expertise and resources to identify sophisticated cyber-attacks, and DHS lacks comprehensive, nation-wide information, the harm is partly self-inflicted.” 

The report is the fourth to be published, following three others slowly rolled out by the committee beginning last year on Russian efforts to target election infrastructure in 2016, the use of social media to sway the presidential election, and evaluating the U.S. government response to the interference efforts.  

A fifth report, not yet released, will address the committee’s counterintelligence findings around Russian interference in 2016.  

The investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee is seen as a rare bipartisan project on this issue, which has grown increasingly heated over the past few years. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Russian agents meddled in 2016, a view Trump initially backed up during a 2018 joint press conference with Putin. 

The House Intelligence Committee also investigated the interference, but Republicans and Democrats clashed on the findings.

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Mark Warner Richard Burr Robert Mueller Ron Wyden Vladimir Putin
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