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Russian think tank planned to influence the U.S. election, new documents reveal

April 20, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
A Russian government-controlled think tank had outlined plans on how to swing the 2016 U.S. election toward Donald Trump, according to a Reuters report Thursday. New documents reveal a strategy of using social media to bolster Mr. Trump and undermine faith in America’s electoral system. William Brangham learns more from former CIA officer John Sipher and Ned Parker of Reuters.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: There is news in the Russia file. New documents reveal plans for Russia to influence the U.S. presidential election.

William Brangham has that report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Reuters reported today that a think tank controlled by the Russian government outlined detailed plans how to swing the 2016 U.S. election toward Donald Trump.

In two different papers, the think tank said Russia should use social media and Russian-backed media to bolster Trump and to undermine faith in America’s electoral system.

For more on these developments, I’m joined now by Ned Parker — he’s one of the reporters who broke the story — and by John Sipher. He served 28 years in the CIA’s clandestine service, stationed in Russia and Eastern Europe. He’s now with the consulting firm CrossLead.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Ned Parker, I would like to start with you.

Can you tell us a little bit more? What is it that you found? What did you report today?

NED PARKER, Reuters: Right.

Well, we found are that there are two documents drafted by an in-house policy shop for the Kremlin that reports back to President Vladimir Putin. And this organization is also headed by former foreign intelligence service officers.

This organization called the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies drafted two reports last year, one in June and one in October. The first in June talked about, how do you influence the U.S. electorate through a media and social media campaign to overturn the policies of then-President Obama and promote — persuade the U.S. public to chose a new U.S. administration that would promote policies beneficial to both Russia and the United States?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, Ned, just staying with you for a second, is this evidence, is this in line with what U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russians did, in fact, do during the election?

NED PARKER: Right.

I think that’s the significance of these documents. They came in after the election. The second document, which is from October, talked about how Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election, so it made sense to change tack in terms of propaganda, and rather than work for her defeat and a new administration under Donald Trump, instead, they should push for a weak Clinton administration, and to bring question about the integrity of the U.S. electoral process through different media and social media information packets.

Now, getting these two documents after the election, it sort of crystallized what the U.S. already knew about motive and intent, including the hacking, for instance, which there was forensics all over the place linking the hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign to Russia’s military intelligence.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Sipher, you worked in Russia. You worked against the Russians and with the Russians. Does this then conform to your understanding of how they operate?

JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Officer: Well, certainly, it does. And this institute was actually an internal part of the SVR, the former KGB.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is not some separate think tank, like we would think of in the U.S.?

JOHN SIPHER: No, it was an internal sort of analytical unit, which then separated and tied itself to the presidential administration, headed by longtime-serving KGB officers. In fact, the head of it now was in fact the head of the SVR, which is their external intelligence service.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is this the kind of evidence, John Sipher, that gave U.S. intelligence agencies the confidence to say, we think Russia did meddle in the election?

JOHN SIPHER: I think this is another piece in that puzzle certainly. I don’t think it’s a big surprise. President Putin hardly needed this group to tell him by June of 2016 that he should start trying to influence the election or to, you know, find a candidate that was pro-Russian, when we already by that time, all of us sort of knew that.

However, I think the — I do think this is part and parcel of a longer effort that we see now in Europe. So, the Russians are now trying to influence elections in Germany and Russia and in Bulgaria. And, in fact, Mr. Reshetnikov, who ran this institute, is tied to possible efforts to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister in Montenegro. And that may be, in fact, why he lost his job in January.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ned Parker, in these two documents, as you have discovered them, was there any mention of WikiLeaks or the computer hacking that intelligence agencies also believe the Russians were involved in?

NED PARKER: No, there is no mention of WikiLeaks or the hacking, but I think you have to see these as they were described to myself and my colleagues, John Walcott and Jon Landay. They were described as part and parcel of a campaign.

So, the Kremlin is a very top-down, authoritarian culture. So when these documents passed around, they only reinforced what everyone knew to do. So, when you actually started to see the WikiLeaks dumps happening, the Russian-affiliated media outlets, like U.S. — like Russia Today and Sputnik and the troll factories outside of St. Petersburg that pump news out on Twitter and other outlets on the Internet, they were able to amplify the voice and the reach of the hacked, stolen materials from the Clinton campaign and DNC.

So, they reinforced each other.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Sipher, is it really that easy for the Russian government to say, you three news agencies, start pumping out stories that are anti-Clinton or pro-Trump? Is that — does it work that obviously?

JOHN SIPHER: It’s funny because, in my time in government, especially in the last years, we often talked about an all-of-government approach, so, if we’re going into Afghanistan, all of our agencies and institutes had to work together.

We have never been quite as good at it as the Russians, because that’s a centralized state. And the intelligence services, from which Mr. Putin came, were the central sword and shield of the government. And, therefore, yes, they do a very good job of a coordinated approach to use diplomatic, intelligence, military and political power as one.

So, I’m not surprised at all by this.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ned, you heard John mention earlier that the concern obviously is that the Russians, they did it to us back in 2016. We have elections coming up in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Did the intelligence officials that you talked with for this reporting, did they give you any sense that they believe that the Russians are going to be involved in those elections as well?

NED PARKER: I think that’s sort of — it’s an open secret. Right?

You look at France, and Marine Le Pen makes no secret of her affection for Russia. So, I think that’s seen as part and parcel for the course.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Sipher, one last question before you go.

I understanding there is — there’s also reporting about a mole hunt that is going on within the CIA right now. From your time in the CIA, what can you tell us about that?

JOHN SIPHER: Yes, that’s unfortunate.

Any organization or enterprise has to worry about the insider threat and this type of thing happening, to include the CIA. In my time in government, I have seen, and we have caught spies, like Aldrich Ames and Hanssen at the FBI.

Almost always in that case, it is an intelligence source of ours that lead us to find out who that person is. So, I wish them the best of luck in figuring this out, and hopefully they can find out who it is before too long, certainly.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, John Sipher, Ned Parker of Reuters, thank you both very much for being here.

JOHN SIPHER: Thanks.

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