Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference is providing current and former U.S. intelligence officials with a sense of vindication, affirming many of the conclusions they drew following the 2016 election.
At the same time, however, some suggest the report released on Thursday by the Justice Department should serve as a warning that Moscow’s efforts to degrade and undermine American democracy, already extraordinarily successful, continue unabated.
Specifically, these former intelligence and national security officials warn the evidence in the special counsel report shows Russia was able to find and exploit U.S. citizens who were willing to go along with Moscow’s means, described as “sweeping and systematic,” to achieve their desired results.
“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the Mueller report said, adding that President Donald Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Yet even as both sides pursued the shared goal, investigators “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government,” the report stated. “The evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”
Still, some former officials Thursday seized upon the report’s confirmation of the U.S. intelligence community’s initial findings.
The January 2017 unclassified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, issued in the aftermath of the presidential election, concluded Russia aimed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence agencies wrote at the time, adding, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”
The assessment, though, has been attacked repeatedly by Trump.
In November 2017, Trump slammed former Director of National IntelligenceJames Clapper and Former CIA Director John Brennan as “political hacks,” while deferring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
Trump again deferred to Putin following their July 2018 summit in Helsinki.
“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said at a joint news conference.”President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Already, the U.S. has taken action, indicting members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin, as well as charges against 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking into Democratic Party computers.
Some former officials worry nonetheless that without a more forceful U.S. response, Russia or other adversaries will seek to get away with such behavior again.
“Those in America who cheered foreign intelligence attacks on our democratic processes, particularly for their own gain, should pay a price,” Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told VOA.
But if they do, it will not be in a U.S. court of law. The Mueller report concluded despite numerous contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, and evidence that campaign members “deleted relevant communications,” the evidence, “was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government.”
As frustrating as that may be for some former officials, experts like Frederic Lemieux, a professor of applied intelligence at Georgetown University, warn it was to be expected.
“The report is a traditional criminal investigation,” Lemieux said. “We’re certainly not seeing the counterintelligence investigation.”
“I am mostly certain that there are several intercepts that exist that have been made on Russian targets and those Russian targets were talking about Trump and his associates,” he said. “You don’t see anything what they were reporting back to Russia when we know those individuals are important enough to be under surveillance 24-7.”
Hints of that type of information, which could reveal sources or methods, or harm ongoing intelligence operations, may be contained in parts of the report that have been redacted. But Lemieux said it is just as likely they were not included at all, as many counterintelligence investigations rarely produce the type of “damning evidence” needed for a criminal conviction.
“It’s probably there [in the counterintelligence investigation] that maybe not collusion but maybe a sense of being compromised might emerge,” he said.
Other factors, as well, have complicated U.S. efforts to hold individuals accountable for working with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Among them, according to intelligence officials, has been the quality of the Kremlin’s spycraft, which left many Americans in the dark.
“Some IRA employees, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated electronically with individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the Mueller report said. “The investigation did not identify evidence that any US persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”
U.S. media outlets and numerous “high-profile” individuals were also taken in by the IRA.
At other times, Russia seemed to proactively play-off of the Trump campaign, such as in July 2017 when then-candidate Trump said he sarcastically challenged Russia to find tens of thousands of missing emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” the Mueller report said.
Despite such findings, some former officials say the Mueller report shows the U.S. intelligence community is not blameless.
“One of the lessons should be, we were pretty sloppy with our counterintelligence and our ability to counter stuff that was going on over the internet,” said Steve Bucci, an assistant to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research group in Washington.
“We need to be more sophisticated about that aspect of it, at least more cognizant of it, and at least gin up our counterintelligence efforts a little bit around people that are involved in campaigns to make sure they don’t get caught up in this sort of thing and, regardless of their intent, that they don’t get tricked into doing stuff that’s counter to the general interests of the United States of America as far as us having fair and free elections,” he said.
That opportunity likely will be coming.
Intelligence and Homeland Security officials have warned that Russia tried to meddle again in the recent 2018 midterm elections, with at least one Russian national connected to the IRA charged as a result.
And some analysts suggest Moscow is saving its best and newest tricks for the next U.S. presidential election in 2020.
Large swaths of redacted information in the Mueller report’s accounts of Russia’s IRA and “Project Lakhta,” would seem to back that up.