What are “active measures?”
The Russian government launched a broad influence campaign against the United States starting in 2014. Intelligence professionals call it the latest examples of “active measures,” secret tools of statecraft that have been used for centuries. They included many interlocking elements:
- Russian operatives visited the United States to conduct reconnaissance in several states and cities across the country.
- Cyberattacks reportedly targeted more than 500 people or institutions, including the Democratic National Committee, former secretary of state Colin Powell, top military commanders and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, John Podesta. Much of that information was later released publicly to embarrass the victims via WikiLeaks or another website, DCLeaks, which was set up by Russian intelligence.
- Cyberattacks probed state election systems and their vendors. A number of states were targeted for covert exploration. Officials say that no votes were changed, but those details remain unclear.
- Russian operatives used fake or deceptive accounts on social media to amplify controversy in the United States, pitting American users against each other and even organizing some real-world events from afar.
- Russian operatives may have forged documents or other secret material in an attempt to confuse FBI or other intelligence officials at levels only they could see.
- Russian operatives may have attempted to build contacts with American political organizations in order to wield their domestic influence toward their own common aims.
- Russian operatives made several overtures to Donald Trump’s campaign, offering dirt on Clinton or high-level meetings with Russian leaders. Contacts continued after Election Day with key top Trump aides. President Trump and his advisers then and today have denied any conspiracy with the attackers of the election.
Why did the Russians do this?
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely had several reasons for ordering the campaign, intelligence officials say. He was angry at what he viewed as American interference in Ukraine, in Russia’s front yard, under former President Barack Obama. He bore a longstanding personal animus against Clinton from her tenure as secretary of state and possibly out of fear about her policies toward Russia if she had been elected.
Putin probably also wanted simply to sow chaos and undermine faith in democracy across the West — Russia also has attacked other elections in Western Europe — and exacerbate political divisions that already were becoming inflamed. In the case of 2016, the U.S. intelligence community also says Putin wanted to help Trump get elected.
How do we know?
Russia’s support for Trump was open — Putin spoke about it as did government-controlled or aligned sources. Plus the U.S. intelligence community reportedly had a human source close to Putin that confirmed his instructions to interfere in the election.
There also is likely a wealth of signals intelligence, including intercepted communications between Russian officials or between Russians and others. Part of that underpinned an indictment brought by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russians and three Russian companies charged with the social media agitation. Other open evidence includes a leaked report by the National Security Agency that documented a cyberattack on an elections vendor by Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU.
Could it happen again?
It never stopped, say the heads of the top U.S. intelligence agencies. Russian cyberattacks continue and Russia also keeps using social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, to turn up the volume on political controversy within the United States. And the creation of what could be provocative fraudulent materials could also still be underway.