What we know about Russian meddling and Putin’s playbook

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia attempted to sway the U.S. election through DNC email hacking and an influence campaign. But to what degree were President Trump’s campaign advisers in contact with Russians? And what made Americans susceptible to influence? William Brangham examines what we know with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker and former CIA official John Sipher.

Read the Full Transcript


    Now more on Russian and U.S. actions that led us to this moment.

    That's the subject of a lengthy article in this week's New Yorker magazine, and to William Brangham.


    So, what is known, and not known, about Russia's involvement in our recent election?

    I'm joined now by Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker and one of the author's of "Active Measures," a deep look into Russia's actions. That's in the latest edition of the magazine. And I'm also joined by John Sipher. He spent 28 years in the CIA's clandestine service, including assignments in Russia and Eastern Europe. He's now at a consulting company called CrossLead.

    Welcome to you both.

    So, Evan Osnos, really a wonderful primer in The New Yorker that you wrote and several of your colleagues. Can you just bring us up to speed. What do we know, what don't we know about Russia's involvement in the election?

  • EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker:

    Sure. Yes.

    This stories, which was a collaboration with David Remnick and Josh Yaffa in Moscow, was an attempt to say, let's clarify exactly what we have learned, because this is an extraordinary moment.

    We now know that three things happened. The first thing is that, as you know, the DNC was hacked. John Podesta's e-mail was hacked. That's the one Americans I think know the most about.

    The second thing is that we also know that there was an influence campaign, an attempt to really change what it is that people believed about the candidates.

    The director of national intelligence has said that this occurred. It's not a — fake news is a term that's now become politicized in its own way. But from the intelligence community's perspective, this is a known fact.

    And then the third piece — is this the one that I think we're at the stage now of trying to learn more about — is whether or not and to what degree there were contacts between Russian representatives and elements perhaps of Trump's campaign, his advisers or his associates. And that's really where the center of gravity is moving in the investigation.


    John Sipher, you spent a quarter-century in the CIA.

    Do all of those allegations against the Russians and their involvement, does this all ring true to you?

  • JOHN SIPHER, Former CIA Officer:

    Oh, absolutely.

    Russians have been doing this for decades, if not hundreds of years. This is what they do. What's interesting about this is what fertile soil it took place on, the fact that these type of things, some of it quite sloppy and open, actually caused the problems they did for us.


    Do you mean fertile soil here in the United States?


    I do. I do.

    The fact that they were able to break in and steal DNC e-mails and take advantage of that, I'm surprised at the effect that had. I think it's unusual that you had a campaign that was able to use that and spin that up and deal with the Russian service here.

    What I find interesting is that there is a lot of concern that the Trump campaign was saying they didn't have improper contact with Russians during the campaign. And my question would be, what is proper contact?

    Did they have contacts with Germans, Indians, Japanese? Why with Russians? Why would a campaign in the United States need to have any contact with Russians?


    There could be innocent explanations, if members to have the Trump campaign or his entourage were talking with Russians. Couldn't there be innocent explanations for those?


    Well, I think that's the reason why we need now a robust, independent and thorough investigation.

    We decided as an institution that we needed to understand this as best we could. We interviewed dozens of people. We spent months on this. And I consider it the very beginning of chapter one.

    We are now in a position where the legislative branch, the executive branch has the ability to go out and say, well, what was the full universe of contacts, what were the nature of those contacts, and were they serving the American public, and do we know everything we can?

    Because, look, we did that for 9/11. We established a bipartisan, independent commission composed of five Republicans and five Democrats. And, as a result, we know a huge amount about what happened. We don't know that yet about this event.

    And I think we are really at the stage where we're trying to decide, what are the right investigative tools and who is going to do it?


    John, let's just say that the evidence bears out that the Russians really were trying to put their thumb on the scale here. What were their ambitions, in your sense? What would they be trying to do here?


    This is not much of a surprise. Vladimir Putin's interests have always been to divide the United States from Europe.

    He has a zero sum view of working with the United States. So anything that causes chaos or creates problems here is a win for him. We see the same thing happening now in France, Germany, the Balkans. He's even working with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    So, this is the kind of thing they do. Their goal is to essentially create fissures in our alliances. Anything that creates chaos and tries to provide some sort of moral equivalence between his regime and the West, he likes to say that, oh, this is no different than you guys messing around~ in Libya and Egypt and Syria and those type of things.


    One of the things, the surprise for me in the course of this work was to discover, in effect, that the United States was susceptible to this kind of operation.

    I spoke to people who used to work on this in the State Department who said, a couple of years ago, we were worried that Moldova, for instance, would be vulnerable to this kind of interference.


    Little, teeny Moldova.




    And so, in a sense, the agents behind this operation — and that's really what this was — it was an intelligence operation — discovered that our politics were so divided, people were already open to a highly kind of propagandistic form of political communication, that we were a prime target, in effect, a soft target for this kind of influence operation.


    One of the things I was struck by in your article is that you wrote, towards the end of your piece, where you described how some of the intelligence agents think that this was more of an improvisation on behalf of the Russians, not a sort of strategic campaign.

    Can you explain the distinction there?


    Well, speaking broadly about sort of the impression that people have who are focused on this issue, is that there's one way to think of it.

    If you look at this dossier of unverified claims that was submitted earlier to the FBI and was then presented to the president, one of the claims in there was that this was a longstanding, five-, six-, seven-year operation to cultivate Donald Trump.

    I think, at the moment, what you find is that more people who are focused on this issue are inclined to believe that this was an improvisation that was changing. There were elements that were brought in at different points, meaning it may have started as a hacking operation. It may have started as an intelligence — it may have started as an influence operation.

    But the idea that this started six, seven years ago, with a discrete, fully formed plan with a clear objective is hard to defend at this point. And I think that's one of the reasons why we need to learn more, because we don't know exactly when and how it started.


    Why would the Russians have been interested in Donald Trump back then? Because, then, he was a reality TV star. He had no intention, seemingly, of running for office.


    I don't know that they did. I don't think we have that information, if they were particularly interested in him.

    They certainly do collect on any American of interest who visits Russia. The notion that they would have videotapes in hotel rooms or follow people around or try to collect compromising information on people, this is what they do.


    John, how does what we're seeing today compare to what the Soviets used to do back in the USSR?


    What they're doing now is very similar to what they did before. They just have new tools.

    They have Mr. Snowden, who gives them a lot of information about the kind of things we have and where to attack. And they have some really talented computer programmers and hackers there in Russia that…


    And the Internet more broadly.


    Right. Exactly. Exactly.


    All right, Evan Osnos, John Sipher, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Glad to be here.

Listen to this Segment