The Biden-ordered report was consistent with a 2017 report released by the Obama administration that found no evidence Russia interfered in the 2016 election. In fact, the terms “interference” or “interfere” are found nowhere in the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, which was subtitled “Russia’s Influence Campaign Targeting the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” The ICA assessed that Moscow’s goal was to “influence U.S. public opinion” ahead of the 2016 election. The word “influence” is mentioned more than 50 times in the report.
J. Michael Waller, a national security analyst and instructor at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, said Russia’s influence operations targeting the 2016 campaign were “comparatively tame” next to its attempts to influence previous elections, noting that Moscow has tried to meddle in “almost every American presidential election since 1924.”
But this hasn’t stopped politicians, investigators and the media from exaggerating Russia’s 2016 intrusive propaganda efforts and making the American public think it had somehow directly interfered with the election process and results. Polls have shown that almost half of Americans believed the Kremlin tampered with the 2016 election and even “stole the election for Trump.” By perpetuating this myth, some critics warn, Biden is aiding Moscow’s objective of sowing voter distrust in the U.S. electoral system and democratic process.
“The Biden team is painting the Russian spy apparatus to be all-powerful in subverting American democracy, while undermining American citizens’ confidence in their own institutions,” Waller said.
Biden’s misleading language in his address to Congress followed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen contradicting the language her agency used in announcing sanctions against the Russian government for its “attempts to influence U.S. elections.” In an April 15 press release, Yellen went beyond that finding to claim “today’s actions highlight how multiple Russian officials, proxies and intelligence agencies coordinated to interfere with recent U.S. elections” (emphasis added). The Treasury Department did not reply to requests for comment.
Some former intelligence officials say the president and his party continue to use the Russian “interference” trope for political reasons to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency and the broader “America First” movement.
“They’re still sore Trump won in 2016 and still won’t accept his win as legitimate,” said Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and chief of staff for former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton. “They don’t care about the facts.”
Experts do point out, however, that if Vladimir Putin’s regime didn’t actually interfere with U.S. elections, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Christopher Hull, a senior fellow at the Washington-based group Americans for Intelligence Reform, said that while it’s not accurate to claim Russia interfered in recent elections, U.S. intelligence did find that Russian-tied actors tried to hack state infrastructure and networks used to manage some election functions. But it also found that they did not materially affect the integrity of voter data, the ability to vote, the tabulation of votes, or the timely transmission of election results.
“Too many Democrats have decided that ‘Russian interference’ is now a handy way to accuse political opponents of treason and investigate them for it,” Hull said, referring to the controversial Trump-Russia “collusion” probe the FBI launched with help from the CIA. That investigation is now itself the subject of a criminal investigation led by Special Counsel John Durham. (Durham secured a conviction earlier this year of a senior FBI attorney who pleaded guilty to falsifying evidence used to obtain a warrant to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser. The hard-nosed prosecutor recently expanded the scope of his investigation to include “private third parties” and added investigators and staff, according to people familiar with the probe.)
Hull said that U.S. intelligence has been “politicized and weaponized” since 2016, and he fears it will only get worse in the absence of serious reforms. “The Russia narrative has grown too valuable to abandon,” he said, “and will be trotted out whenever it comes in handy.”
Thousands of ‘Interference’ Stories
Others worry that propagating false dogma about Russia interfering in American elections risks further inflaming tensions between two nuclear powers — who could otherwise be allies on a number of fronts, including counterterrorism — at a time when China’s hegemonic ambitions grow more threatening.
“Tensions are unnecessarily higher now — even more dangerous because of Putin’s gravitation toward communist China, to which the Biden team has raised few objections,” noted Waller, a self-described “Russia hawk.”
In addition, Biden cited election interference to justify a new round of sanctions and other punishments. “With regard to Russia, I made very clear to President Putin that while we don’t seek escalation, their actions have consequences,” Biden said in his prime-time speech to Congress. “I responded in a direct and proportionate way to Russia’s interference in our elections.”
Biden was echoing the misleading language long invoked by journalists and pundits. Since mid-2016, the phrase “Russian interference in the election” has appeared 8,885 times in news articles and TV news broadcasts, as well as speeches and congressional testimony, archived by Nexis.
Major media outlets have also exaggerated the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence reports they’ve cited. Last August, for example, the New York Times mischaracterized a U.S. intelligence report. Under the headline, “Russia Continues Interfering in Election to Help Trump, U.S. Intelligence Says,” the Times claimed that the Kremlin was trying to interfere in the 2020 race in a repeat of 2016. Actually, the intelligence report it cited merely judged that some “actors” linked to the Russian government were trying to influence Trump voters through social media propaganda. At the same time, the same intelligence report downplayed the chances of actual election interference: “[I]t would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.”
Even official investigative documents have mistakenly referred to the Russian election activities as interference, leaving the impression they had the effect of blocking or obstructing the election process.
In May 2017, then-acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s original “scope letter” outlining Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation used the misnomer, calling for “a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign.”
In turn, Mueller incorrectly titled his 2019 final report “Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Mueller not only found no election interference, but no evidence the Trump campaign or any individuals associated with it conspired with Russia.
“Members of Trump’s team were sloppy and stupid concerning Russia, but not coopted,” Waller said, summing up the findings.
Mueller did, however, indict several Russians and Russian entities for crimes associated with running a “trolling” operation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter allegedly to steer the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Last year, however, the government quietly dropped charges against the main defendant — Russian-based Concord Management and Consulting LLC — which Mueller had accused of bankrolling the operation.
“We were prepared for trial and intended to win,” said Eric Dubelier, the lead Washington lawyer who represented Concord. In an interview, Dubelier contended the case “was a publicity stunt so Mueller could show he was doing something about Russians.”
After a federal judge ordered prosecutors to spell out their bill of particulars for trial, including identifying the Russian-paid social media ads they claim violated the law, it was revealed that the entire so-called “Russian influence operation” cost less than $5,000, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars hyped by the media. Ultimately the online ad campaign added up to just $2,930, according to court documents. The small sums cast fresh doubt on the extent of alleged influence the Russians could have had in swaying votes ahead of the election.
Although the indictment portrayed the Russian firms as executing a treacherous campaign of “information warfare” to support Trump, it turned out that some of the operations were run against Trump and in favor of Hillary Clinton. Still others aided Democratic presidential challenger Bernie Sanders.
In its recently released report on Russian activities during the 2016 election, the Senate Intelligence Committee followed suit in using the hyperbolic term “interference” to describe the allegations of meddling. The five-volume report was published under the rubric “Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election.”
In an April 2020 press release, the Senate panel described what Russia did as “aggressive interference,” and claimed its bipartisan report found the Obama-ordered 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment “correctly found the Russians interfered in our 2016 election,” when in truth the ICA found no such thing.
Missing from the Senate report was the revelation that a federal interagency group created during the 2016 election by the State Department and FBI — known as the Russian Malign Influence Group — found no evidence of Russian interference in the election. Stephen Laycock, the Eurasian section chief of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, testified last year that allegations of Russian interference in the election did not even come up during the group’s discussions. During his recently declassified closed-door testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Laycock made it clear that the issue he and other counterintelligence officials discussed was “the allegation of Russian influence,” not interference.
Via Real Clear Investigations