Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sushil Aron: How US intel report on elections will affect Trump, Putin and the world

In December, President Barack Obama ordered an intelligence assessment of Russia’s suspected role in influencing the US presidential election. He wanted it done before he left office. The office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has submitted its report, which was drafted and coordinated with the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency (NSA). The DNI released a declassified version of the report to the public after briefing Donald Trump on January 6.

The assessment will generate heated debate in Washington and exert greater pressure on Trump to rethink his keenness on developing friendly ties with Russia.

The report: The DNI concluded that President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency”.

The report avoids assessing if Russia’s role swung the election in Trump’s favour but says “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump”. It says the interference in the election was the most recent expression of Moscow’s desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order and that “these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”

Moscow’s influence campaign was “multi-faceted”; it blended “covert intelligence operations — such as cyber activity — with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’”. To this end, Russian intelligence agencies allegedly conducted cyber operations against US political parties, primary campaigns, think-tanks and lobbying groups. Material collected from the Democratic National Committee was relayed to and WikiLeaks, which duly published it at opportune moments.

The DNI report focuses a good deal on Russia’s propaganda efforts through media organisations that it funds and controls like the television channel RT, formerly Russia Today. It says RT and “quasi-government trolls” provided increasingly favourable coverage to Trump while being critical of Clinton. The DNI offers detail on RT’s programming that is often critical of US democracy and its government and argues that the channel has significant reach worldwide. It mentions reports that RT is the most-watched foreign news channel in the UK. RT’s videos on YouTube received more than 800 million views during 2005-2012, far exceeding BBC and Al Jazeera English. It has more YouTube subscribers than its competitors, although its number of Twitter followers and Facebook engagement lags some way behind CNN. RT claims it is surpassing Al Jazeera in viewership in New York and Washington DC and that reaches 550 million people worldwide and 85 million in the US (NB: it does not release its US audience data).

The report takes RT seriously because it considers the latter a vital piece of Russia’s strategy and it believes that Moscow “will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes”. In other words, this form of subversion – a combination of cyberattacks and information campaigns – “will” be deployed in democracies elsewhere.

Implications: The DNI report that was fast-tracked by Obama, serves several purposes:
It exerts a lot more public pressure on Trump to reconsider his approach to Russia.. read more