Economic Lessons

Takeaways From the Senate Committee Report on Russian Interference

Posted By Ira Gorelick

Ira Gorelick is a Teacher and Student of Economics and has published numerous classes on Communication and Economics.
August 19, 2020

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Takeaways From the Senate Committee Report on Russian Interference
Ira Gorelick
August 19, 2020

Takeaways From the Senate Committee Report on Russian Interference

Senators divided along party lines about whether to conclude that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin’s election sabotage operations.

Democrats and Republicans could not agree on whether the facts they uncovered about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election added up to coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

For more than three years, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee investigated Russia’s operations to influence the 2016 election. The fifth and final volume of its report on the inquiry, released on Tuesday, runs for nearly 1,000 pages and is likely to stand as the definitive bipartisan government examination of Moscow’s interference. The report revealed new details about Russian links to the Trump campaign in 2016 and offered broad warnings for future elections.

A Republican appendix to the report:

“After more than three years of investigation by this Committee, we can now say with no doubt, there was no collusion.”

A Democratic appendix:

“The committee’s bipartisan report unambiguously shows that members of the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian efforts to get Trump elected. … Paul Manafort, while he was chairman of the Trump campaign, was secretly communicating with a Russian intelligence officer with whom he discussed campaign strategy and repeatedly shared internal campaign polling data. … This is what collusion looks like.”

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, found insufficient evidence to accuse anyone associated with the Trump campaign of engaging in a criminal conspiracy with Russian intelligence officials conducting interference operations. But Mr. Mueller left unanswered the murkier question of what constitutes cooperation or collusion outside the context of a criminal violation. While the Senate report established broad bipartisan agreement about what happened in 2016, Democrats and Republicans could not agree whether those facts added up to collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

“On numerous occasions over the course of his time of the Trump Campaign, Manafort sought to secretly share internal campaign information with Kilimnik. … Manafort briefed Kilimnik on sensitive campaign polling data and the campaign’s strategy for beating Hillary Clinton.”

The report concluded that Konstantin V. Kilimnik, a longtime associate of the onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, was a Russian intelligence officer who may have been connected to Russia’s efforts to steal emails from the Democratic National Committee and make them public. The men had a long and close relationship. During the campaign, Mr. Manafort had Mr. Kilimnik convey messages to Russian oligarchs and then gave him some of the most important political intelligence that the Trump campaign had, including internal polling data. That would have allowed Russia to understand the Trump campaign’s strategy, where it was focusing resources and which groups it was trying to win over — all valuable information for a foreign adversary about the potential next American administration.

“Steele’s reputation as a productive F.B.I. confidential human source and [redacted] led to the F.B.I. treating the memos as credible before they were corroborated, and F.B.I.’s vetting process for Steele himself was not sufficiently rigorous or thorough.”

The report dwelled extensively on the so-called Steele dossier, a compendium of largely unverified and sometimes salacious rumors about Trump-Russia ties gathered by Christopher Steele, a British former intelligence agent. The F.B.I. used his information as part of a wiretap application. The committee report portrayed the dossier as shoddy and said that F.B.I. officials had an exaggerated understanding of Mr. Steele’s previous assistance to the bureau; a later internal assessment found that Mr. Steele’s previous reporting had been only “minimally corroborated.” The report also argued that the F.B.I. should have done more to raise alarms at a higher level of the Democratic National Committee after initially alerting a lower-level party aide about possible intrusion on its servers by Russian hackers.

The Senate examined whether Russia had ‘kompromat’ on Trump.

“The committee sought, in a limited way, to understand the Russian government’s collection of such information, not only because of the threat of a potential foreign influence operation, but also to explore the possibility of a misinformation operation targeting the integrity of the U.S. political process.”

The allegation, first raised by Mr. Steele in his dossier, that Russia had compromising tapes of Donald J. Trump has never been proved. The Senate committee did not use Mr. Steele’s work as part of its investigation, but the report discussed other accusations that Russia may have known about personal relationships that Mr. Trump had with women, including an alleged tape of Mr. Trump and women in an elevator in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. While the committee collected testimony on the supposedly compromising material, or “kompromat” in Russian, “it did not establish that the Russian government collected kompromat on Trump, nor did it establish that the Russian government attempted to blackmail Trump or anyone associated with his campaign with such information,” the report said.

“The committee found that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin engaged in a multiyear influence campaign and intelligence-gathering effort targeting the N.R.A., the Republican Party and conservative U.S. political organizations for the benefit of the Russian government. Their goal was to develop and use back-channel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia’s advantage and to the detriment of the United States.”

The report underscored Russia’s yearslong efforts to influence Republican politicians and conservative leaders to try to shape American foreign policy to Moscow’s advantage. One Russian banker and official with Kremlin ties, Alexander Torshin, tried to meet with Sarah Palin as far back as 2009, when she was the governor of Alaska. He later worked with Ms. Butina, the founder of a Russian gun rights organization who pleaded guilty in 2018 to acting as a foreign agent, to use the National Rifle Association as a gateway to meet important Republicans. The pair turned their attention to Mr. Trump only after he had won several significant primaries in 2016. The committee found that Ms. Butina and her associates had told the campaign that they wanted to establish a communications back channel between the United States and Russia, outside of normal diplomatic channels. Trump campaign associates did not notify national security officials about those overtures.

“While there were several problems with the F.B.I.’s FISA renewals for Page, the committee assesses that Page’s previous ties to Russian intelligence officers, coupled with his Russian travel, justified the F.B.I.’s initial concerns about Page.”

The scrutiny of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, as part of the Trump-Russia investigation has taken on political significance because an inspector general uncovered errors and omissions in applications to wiretap him under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. While finding that he played an insignificant role in the Trump campaign, the report concluded that the Russians may have thought he was more important than he was. The committee also expressed frustration at Mr. Page’s evasiveness, saying that he was unable to account for his time during visits to Moscow and altered documents, and that his “responses to basic questions were meandering, avoidant and involved several long diversions.” Both parties concluded that despite the later problems with the wiretap applications, the F.B.I. was justified in having counterintelligence concerns about him.

“The committee notes that using forensic images of compromised systems is standard protocol in cyber investigations, because it removes the chance that information on the compromised systems could be altered or deleted by mistake. … Ultimately, the F.B.I. got what it needed, including the forensic images from CrowdStrike.”

The president and his supporters have stoked conspiracy theories that the Russians were not responsible for hacking Democratic emails after all. They have suggested that there was something nefarious about the fact that the Democratic National Committee, working with the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, provided the F.B.I. with forensic images — an exact duplicate of the digital information — from its hacked server rather than the original device. The bipartisan report endorsed computer experts’ view that forensic images were a standard and correct approach.

“Campaigns should notify F.B.I. of all foreign offers of assistance, and all staff should be made aware of this expectation. In order to not encourage, or amplify foreign influence efforts, campaigns should reject the use of foreign origin material especially if it has potentially been obtained through the violation of U.S. law.”

The Senate report concluded with recommendations aimed at pushing American intelligence agencies and campaigns to look for nontraditional ways that foreign powers will try to influence elections. Committee members said that the experience of 2016 showed that campaigns must be required to report foreign offers of assistance, but efforts to pass such a law have so far failed. More broadly, committee members said more needed to be done to make the public aware that they could be targeted by foreign intelligence services as well, particularly as unwitting consumers of propaganda. But to bolster the resilience of the public, lawmakers said, the intelligence community must become quicker about sharing what it knows about threats.

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