Russia and the US Election: Assessing Moscow’s Actions and America’s Responses
George Beebe, former chief of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency
Paul Saunders, Executive Director, Center for the National Interest
Dimitri K. Simes, President, Center for the National Interest
Summarized and paraphrased, not verbatim:
George Beebe, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit, said that he agreed with many in the intelligence community (IC) that the declassified report on alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election via hacking operations was quite “sloppy.” Mr. Beebe, who also served previously as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, emphasized the report’s weaknesses with regards to questions of attribution, operation and intent.
Concerning attribution, according to Mr. Beebe, the forensic evidence to support the IC’s claim—that the hacking of the DNC was explicitly ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the goal of influencing the U.S. election—is not very impressive. He cited the fact that there were two intrusions into the DNC’s servers, each taking roughly the same information. According to Mr. Beebe, this is highly unusual for a centrally directed attack, as each intrusion increases the chance of detection. While acknowledging that the possibility of Russian responsibility should not be dismissed, Mr. Beebe urged that alternative explanations be considered, including the possibility that the hacking was committed by “hacktivists” or that it was a false-flag operation. Mr. Beebe asserted that publicly available forensic evidence is consistent with these hypotheses.
At the operational level, Mr. Beebe described the two hacking operations as surprisingly sloppy and “amateurish.” Mr. Beebe stated that the level of intrusion was not very high, indicating that this was not a sophisticated intelligence operation and many easily concealed indicators pointing to Russia were left behind by the hackers, including timestamps during Moscow business hours, metadata created with Cyrillic keyboards and the codename Felix Edmundovich—a clear reference to the founder of the Soviet-era secret police force. These clues pointing to the identity of the perpetrators are not typical, said Mr. Beebe, implying that the hackers were either not Russian or that they were Russians who wanted to be detected so as to send a message.
Regarding intent, Mr. Beebe offered a few explanations that differed from those in the IC report, arguing that the hacking may have been a tit-for-tat reaction in response to perceived interference by the U.S. in elections abroad. It could have been intended as simple retribution or deterrence to future U.S. involvement in foreign elections, or as an impetus to make cyber treaties with the U.S., according to Mr. Beebe. He emphasized that misunderstanding the intentions of foreign actors often fosters foreign policy disputes and that there is a need for a national discussion on the issue that candidly addresses what is driving Russian ambitions, as it will have significant implications for U.S. policy towards Russia.
Center executive director Paul Saunders addressed U.S. policy responses to the hacking and the current political climate. Mr. Saunders stated that the U.S. must ask itself what it is responding to, what it is trying to accomplish with the response and the cost/benefit of each particular response. According to Mr. Saunders, it is a fair conclusion that the hacking was perpetrated by Russia, though the intent behind the attack is not yet fully understood, as there is very little relevant information in the public domain. The first step before the U.S. reacts, according to Mr. Saunders, is a thorough investigation into the hacking incident. Mr. Saunders emphasized that this event must be placed in the context of 25 years of troubled and complex U.S.-Russia relations.
Regarding the United States’ objectives in responding to Russia, Mr. Saunders argued that the Obama administration’s puzzling response in December—expelling 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioning officials at Russian intelligence agencies and closing two Russian recreation facilities in New York and Maryland—had a very limited impact on Moscow. If the Obama administration had compelling evidence of serious Russian interference, it should have done more. If not, he said, it should have waited until the facts were clearer.
Citing the importance of a thorough and impartial investigation, Mr. Saunders stated that there is as much a danger in responding before an investigation takes place as in failing to respond adequately. The response must be proportional, urged Mr. Saunders, stating that the Obama administration had acknowledged that hacking of actual election voting machines did not take place. While the leaked information from the hacks and coverage by Russian state-owned media channel RT may have influenced U.S. public opinion, Mr. Saunders pointed out, such efforts are not uncommon in international affairs.
Regarding the political climate, Mr. Saunders said that the discourse about Russia is at its lowest level since the McCarthy era, with people running around looking for Russian sympathizers. This prevents a much-needed serious conversation about U.S.-Russia relations and poses a danger to our democracy. To illustrate the point, Mr. Saunders quoted George Washington’s farewell address: “The Nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”
There was consensus among the speakers that a serious and in-depth investigation into the hacking be undertaken by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the FBI without the process becoming political. Center president Dimitri Simes added that there should also be an honest and professional investigation into Democrats’ foreign ties as well.
Q&A Highlights (summarized and paraphrased, not verbatim):
Mr. Simes asked Mr. Saunders about his time working on democracy promotion in Russia.
Mr. Saunders observed that most Americans would argue there is a fundamental difference between trying to promote democracy and trying to undermine it, though countries on the receiving end of U.S. efforts, including Russia, may not see things that way. He added that unquestionably in 1996, when Boris Yeltsin was running for president in Russia, the U.S. government decisively put its finger on the scales in Yeltsin’s favor and many Russians profoundly resented that.
Prof. Allison asked for Mr. Beebe’s assessment of the unverified dossier of compromising materials connecting now President Donald Trump to Russia, which had reportedly been compiled by a former British intelligence officer at the behest of Mr. Trump’s political opponents and was later evaluated by the U.S. intelligence community. In particular, Prof. Allison was interested about the possible intent of those involved in making the document public. He recalled that compiling the dossier had been “paid activity” and that the document made its way to journalists and lawmakers last summer. It remained unpublished because no one could get confirmation. Finally, part of the dossier was appended to an intelligence report on links between Russia, then President-elect Trump and the U.S. election, and members of Congress were briefed on it “with the 100% predictable consequence that it would be a topic in the newspapers.”
Sen. Roberts weighed in by saying the dossier was “trash.” He recalled that during one briefing for lawmakers, presumably by intelligence officials, a question about why the dossier had been appended to the classified intelligence report met with the answer, “We just thought he [the president-elect] should know.” Sen. Roberts found the assertion ridiculous because anything like that leaks if presented in Congress, even in a classified briefing. Overall, he felt the dossier “didn’t add up, except for a political purpose.”
Mr. Beebe, in turn, raised several points. First, he pointed out that vetting something like this is very difficult. The CIA would typically begin by scrutinizing the sourcing and sub-sourcing, which is impossible in this case. The next step would be to look for verifiable facts, e.g., was someone in a particular place at a particular time? That’s more doable, though it gets one only so far in investigating the veracity of the claims. Mr. Beebe also noted a few reasons for skepticism. One is that some of the claims in the dossier reportedly come from the Russian presidential administration, which is a very hard nut to crack from an intelligence standpoint, so it was unlikely that a private individual could have gained access to reliable information. Finally, Mr. Beebe pointed out that Moscow is great at generating rumors and it’s “really easy to tap into that gossip network” and then circulate the information from there.
David Ignatius of The Washington Post referred back to the idea of investigating what Russia did and what it hoped to achieve. First, he asked the speakers to assess the adequacy of ongoing investigations, by a bipartisan group in the Senate and by intelligence agencies. Second, he asked about appropriate responses in the event that either the Department of Justice or Republicans in Congress tried to stop these investigations.
Mr. Saunders reiterated that an investigation is necessary. He added that the process could not be serious if it were political, so the intelligence community, not Congress, would likely be the best suited to carry out investigations. He advised against curtailing these, but called for fairness, saying it is not easy for some people inside the Beltway to approach the relevant questions in an objective way, which worries him.
Mr. Beebe agreed with Mr. Saunders’s assessment and added that it would make sense to broaden the investigations in two ways: (a) Russia is not the only country with the capability or motivation to “mess with our elections,” so other actors need to be considered, and we need to devote a serious effort to protecting our infrastructure and electoral systems. (b) We must think and debate seriously about Russia’s intentions toward the U.S. and the world. Otherwise, we’ll continue to experience disappointments and failures of the sort that have plagued our relations with Russia over the past two decades.
While Mr. Saunders agreed about broadening, he added that we should be narrow in one way: We should be investigating Russia’s conduct, not the impact on elections.
Mr. Simes weighed in with his opinion that it would be good to also investigate Democrats’ connections with foreign governments, citing as an example the abrupt departure of Paul Manafort as then-candidate Trump’s campaign chairman after Ukrainian prosecutors found a ledger that allegedly reflected large payments for him from Ukrainian sources. Mr. Simes said he had heard from non-opposition Ukrainian politicians that there had been some coordination between elements of the Obama administration, including the State Department, and the Ukrainian government. These elements were as pro-Hillary Clinton as the Russian government was pro-Trump. That, too, needs to be investigated.
Photo credit: Flickr photo by Christiaan Colen shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.