In 2016, Russia launched the latest volley in a cyber cold war that spread cracks through the bedrock foundation of American democracy. In addition to influencing potentially millions of Americans, Russia's activities led to an almost two-year special counsel investigation into our newly seated president that reached its climax in the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report Thursday. Russia created a tectonic widening of the political divide — a divide that has only increased in the wake of Mueller's conclusion that the president did not coordinate with Russia to influence the election.
As a cybersecurity analyst and former intelligence operative, I've been speaking out about Russia's ongoing campaign to undermine our democracy with cyberattacks, and I'm concerned at what the reaction has been. A growing number of people have sent me vitriolic messages, primarily on social media, claiming that the Russia attacks were a hoax.
Perhaps they think that if they acknowledge Russian interference in our election, they'll somehow betray their allegiance to our president. But Russian attacks are not a hoax. President Donald Trump's Attorney General William Barr stated that clearly in his press conference Thursday.
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Letting partisanship get in the way of acknowledging this fact is dangerous. Russia sought to undermine our election system the same way they've spread disinformation since the Cold War. They didn't need help from the Trump campaign to do so in 2016. And they won't need it in 2020, either.
Recent attacks echo Cold War strategy
The 2016 attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign were a modern take on an old Soviet tactic: to influence and undermine elections and the political process of rival nations. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union pioneered desinformatsiya practices that spread disinformation in order to shape American political decisions. These active measure (aktivinyye meropriatia) included: manipulation of the media; use of front organizations to sway public opinion; kidnappings; and funds, training, and support to terrorist organizations. In 1980, the CIA estimated that the Soviets spent a conservative $3 billion per year pursuing active measures.
The 1980s saw a number of audacious — and highly successful — disinformation campaigns. One involved spreading rumors of CIA and FBI involvement in President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Another seeded foreign newspapers with articles — purportedly written by American scientists — claiming that AIDS was the result of the Pentagon's experiments to develop biological weapons. During the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, KGB spies in Washington, D.C., sent fake letters from the Ku Klux Klan threatening athletes from African countries, an active measure many believe was a response to President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow games.
Russia has never stopped interfering
After the Soviet Union fell, America celebrated the end of the Cold War, but Russia never hit the pause button on these manipulations. In October 2018, the Justice Department indicted seven Russian intelligence officers for launching cyberattacks against international anti-doping agencies and individual athletes. The attacks compromised personal medical information of 250 athletes from approximately 30 countries including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. Russian spies doctored many of these medical records to make it look like innocent athletes had used banned substances. They then laundered these fake stories to legitimate reporters though cutout social media accounts. Russia's goal? To undermine the integrity of the Olympics and to seek revenge for the ban on Russian athletes after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In the last handful of years, Russia has used cyber warfare to attack key infrastructure in the Ukraine, spread propaganda in Syria, and interfere with the campaign of then-candidate, now French President Emmanuel Macron. Russia has become expert in blending covert intelligence operations with outreach through state and private media, using paid social media troll farms and official news stories to establish false narratives that democratic election systems are being compromised at best and corrupted at worst. In 2020, those tactics will be aimed squarely at the American presidential election. And as we’ve wasted time pointing fingers across the aisle, Russia’s cyberattackers have been sharpening their knives.
Eric O'Neill, a former FBI counter-intelligence operative, is the author of "Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyberspy." Follow him on Twitter: @eoneill.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russian interference, confirmed by the Mueller report, has been going on since Cold War