Mueller report warning: Russia won in 2016 by making Americans question our democracy

James S. Robbins
Though Russian efforts in the 2016 election leaned mostly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton, the real interests being served were those of the Kremlin.

While clearing President Donald Trump of collusion charges, special counsel Robert Mueller's report also details Moscow's “sweeping and systematic” political warfare against the American electoral system during the 2016 election cycle. And the story it tells should be a warning for future elections as well.

Russia's malign actions during the 2016 election are described in Sections II and III of the report, much of which was already publicly known from previous investigations and news media accounts. The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), an organization funded by Russian oligarch and an associate close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, conducted an “active measures” campaign through social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, among others) starting as early as 2014. The IRA created phony accounts and spread disinformation using "botnets" and other methods, seeking to exploit and exacerbate the raw edges of controversial issues such as race and immigration.

This information reached tens of millions of people over the course of several years, directly through social media and indirectly through election reporting in numerous legitimate media outlets. IRA's activities resulted in criminal charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, which explains the numerous “harm to ongoing matter” redactions in that section of the report. 

Facebook and Instagram ads linked to Russia during the 2016 election.

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Hacking operations were conducted by Russian military intelligence (GRU), which targeted "organizations, employees and volunteers" supporting the Clinton campaign, most notably the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and John Podesta. The products of these efforts were released through fronts such as “Guccifer 2.0” and “DCLeaks,” as well as through WikiLeaks. 

The report details GRU’s spearphishing techniques to collect network access credentials and insert malware, most of which is drawn from the 2018 Netyksho indictment. GRU also used the techniques to target the U.S. election infrastructure, including state boards of elections, secretaries of state and county governments. For example, in July 2016, GRU systematically scanned the election websites of over two dozen states for vulnerabilities. The Mueller investigation deferred to FBI, Department of Homeland Security and state investigations whether these efforts had any impact.

Moscow exploited our vulnerabilities

It is certainly nothing new for Moscow to wage political warfare on the United States. This activity goes back to the days of the Comintern in the 1920s, and particularly intensified during the Cold War. Propaganda, disinformation, front groups and agents of influence have long been part of Russia’s tool kit for disrupting the domestic politics of its major geostrategic competitor, as well as other countries.

The Mueller report and other investigations into Russian meddling show that Moscow remains committed to using every means at its disposal to sow discord in American politics. These efforts continued into the 2018 midterm elections, and we can assume that there will be a prominent effort to generate chaos during the 2020 election cycle. Advances in technology and the increasingly networked nature of government present new opportunities for malign actors (Russian or otherwise) to attempt to disrupt American elections and politics generally. Deep fake videos, for example, have already been identified as potential election threats. And the activities of GRU targeting the election infrastructure should serve as a warning to proponents of electronic voting, voting by email, or other vulnerable means to network the voting franchise. Paper ballots are still the gold standard for the integrity of the system.

Russia won in the 2016 election

There is also a danger of domestic actors using foreign interference as a cover for the same type of activity. The WikiLeaks Vault 7 release of CIA hacking tools included methods to spoof the origin of a hack to make it look like it came from a foreign sourceDemocrat operatives used the same techniques as the IRA in a potentially illegal campaign to influence the 2017 special Senate election in Alabama. And of course the most successful influence operation in the 2016 election may have been the Russian-sourced Steele dossier, which is at the center of the controversy over FBI spying on the Trump campaign. 

It is important to understand that even though efforts of IRA and GRU in 2016 were mostly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton, the real interests being served were those of the Kremlin. And from Moscow’s point of view these operations have been very successful.

Russian political warfare seeks not so much to rig individual elections as to achieve lasting and destabilizing psychological effects. Russia sought not to determine the outcome of the 2016 race, but to make Americans question the legitimacy of our system of government. The growing chaos in the political sphere shows that this psychological effect has taken hold with a vengeance. To the extent that certain segments of our society and media are now hard-wired to believe every outlandish conspiracy theory, to cry “treason” at the drop of a tweet, or to have no faith in the validity of the actions of an elected American government, Moscow can claim mission accomplished.

James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past," has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mueller report warning: Russia won in 2016 by making Americans question our democracy