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Russia’s interference operations aren’t over. What’s at risk for U.S. democracy?

As foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election continues to be scrutinized by several federal investigations, some say that Russia is still mounting intelligence operations in the U.S. Hari Sreenivasan gets two perspectives from Laura Rosenberger of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and former CIA official John Sipher.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is currently the subject of several investigations. But is Russia still mounting operations in the United States?

    According to former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and former Congressman Mike Rogers, the answer is yes. They write in a Washington Post op-ed that Russia's information operations in the United States continued after the election, and they continue to this day.

    We get two perspectives on this.

    Laura Rosenberger directs the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a program of the German Marshall Fund that tracks Russian influence operations. A foreign policy adviser to the most recent Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Laura also served in the State Department during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

    John Sipher is a 28-year veteran of the CIA who was based in Moscow in the 1990s. He subsequently oversaw operations against Russian intelligence services. He's now with the consulting firm CrossLead.

    Laura, let me start with you.

    You have built tools to start tracking these different accounts. What have you found?

  • LAURA ROSENBERGER:

    Yes, we have built a tool that is actually tracking a network of Russian-linked Twitter accounts that are pushing divisive content.

    What we see is that a lot of what the messaging is that these accounts are pushing is really about trying to turn Americans against one another, playing on existing divisions in our society, but trying to pull us to extremes. So it's playing on racial divisions, political divisions, issues like immigration that are politically hot, and really trying to undermine the fabric of our democracy by pulling us apart at the seams.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There is a narrative, before we go further, that is going to say that this is all fake. The administration is going to look at you and say, hey, you were a supporter of Hillary Clinton, this is just a part of a grand conspiracy to weaponize the intelligence information against the legitimacy of the president.

  • LAURA ROSENBERGER:

    What we see is actually a lot of the content that is being pushed has absolutely nothing to do with the president, with any particular political party.

    We see — in fact, there was a Washington Post article today that talked about a fake persona that the Russians have apparently created that is actually trying to push content on the left and is really trying to insinuate themselves on that side of the political spectrum.

    This is not an issue about party. The intelligence community assessment was unanimous in its conclusion about Russian operations. And I think it's really important that we think about this in terms of how it's actually trying to attack our democracy and really is about, you know — could be turned against any politician at any point in time when the Russians deem, you know, that it's useful for them to attack that person.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    John Sipher, Laura starting hinting at this at the end here. What do the Russians gain by doing this?

  • JOHN SIPHER:

    Well, I think part of the problem is that we tend to look at this through solely a domestic lens.

    The Trump administration looks at it as some sort of attack against them. But, frankly, those of us who have been following the Russians for a long time realize that they're the ones that are inconsistent here. Their goal all along has been to harm the United States and to sow divisions between the United States and its allies, sow confusion, and hurt democracy.

    So, they have been consistent in what they have been trying to do. I think there was a lot of opportunism for a lot of — a variety of reasons of why things came together in 2016 in the election that made us think it was about Clinton vs. Trump.

    But, in fact, it's about hurting the United States. So it's not surprising at all that they continue to go and continue to do these things. And it's also not surprising because there's been nothing to push back against them to make them stop doing this. It's successful for them. It's an asymmetric form of warfare that is cheap and easy, and it's a zero-sum game for them. Anything that hurts them helps them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Laura, give me some examples that are not political of how the Russians have been engaged in the conversation in the United States.

  • LAURA ROSENBERGER:

    So, folks may remember — in fact, it's still ongoing — the debate about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games.

    And, of course, what the players were protesting, are protesting, who are kneeling is about police violence against African-Americans, often unarmed African-American men.

    What we have seen is, when there was this debate that erupted around those protests and whether it was appropriate, this is a real debate that was happening in American society. These are real issues that Americans are contending with.

    But these networks that we track actually jumped on that, sought to amplify the debate around it, but I think most importantly actually injected very hateful, extreme, sometimes conspiratorial content into the conversation, you're trying to use the opportunity of people who were heated and emotional about an issue, were following other content of other people who were watching these debates happen, agreeing with people who agree with their underlying political views.

    But then these networks, these information operations were injecting this extreme content into this conversation, really again trying to pull people at the seams or sow further division.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, John Sipher, what happens there?

    Are we just talking about somebody actively trying to rip apart our fabric of society? Does this cast America or American democracy or free speech in some sort of negative light to the rest of the world?

  • JOHN SIPHER:

    Well, in fact, it does.

    A good active measures campaign is what this covert propaganda, what the Russians call this, is something they have been doing for decades, is not about creating these things out of whole cloth, but finding weaknesses, finding fissures in society and stoking them and going in there and pushing this.

    So a lot of this is about our problems, our hyper-partisan nature, and our dysfunction. And the only way we're going to be able to solve these kind of things is look at them as a national security issue, not as a domestic political issue, work with allies in Europe who have been facing this for a much longer time and have had more success with this, working with some of the tech companies in a more proactive way.

    I think the Snowden revelations a few years ago severed some of that relationship. And we need to rebuild those things back here. And then we need to think about learning more about cyber-deterrence and defense.

    It's something that we have been fighting with for a long time and never really come to terms with how to deal with those issues.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    John, staying with you for a second, didn't the Obama administration, as part of the handoff, kind of an 11th-hour tactic, say, here are a number of the things that the CIA can do, take offensive measures, here are the things that you can do, handed it off to the Trump administration, right?

  • JOHN SIPHER:

    Yes, that's my understanding.

    And there's been some good reporting from The Washington Post and others on this. I think there was a lot of hand-wringing. And, frankly, it's understandable. These are very hard issues.

    Fighting covert propaganda with your own covert propaganda or cyber-tools is an issue we haven't had to deal with and don't really know what the ramifications are. How does that play back upon us?

    But so far, the Obama administration and the Trump administration have not found a way to make it clear to Mr. Putin that there is a price to pay for this. And so as long as there's not a price to pay for him, something that threatens something that he cares about, it's going to continue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes.

  • JOHN SIPHER:

    So, this is a domestic issue, a national security issue that this administration is going to have to deal with for years to come.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, John Sipher, Laura Rosenberger, thank you both.

  • LAURA ROSENBERGER:

    Thank you.

  • JOHN SIPHER:

    Thank you.

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