Nation & World

Inside the hacked U.S. election

long read

An analyst on Russian security issues explains how the U.S. probe likely played out, and where it may yet lead

U.S. intelligence agencies have found that the Russian government directed the hacking of Democratic Party email systems during the presidential election to boost the Republican campaign effort, a finding that has alarmed many foreign policy analysts, especially in light of strained relations between the two powerful nations.

It is still unclear whether the reported intrusion affected the outcome of the 2016 election in any way. But President Obama last Friday ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to deliver a comprehensive report on its probe before he leaves office next month. Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) urged that the resulting report be made public. Together with a handful of Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), they also have called for a congressional investigation into the alleged security breach.

But President-elect Donald Trump quickly ridiculed the assessment and questioned the judgment and credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies. For months, he has repeatedly challenged the notion that Russia could be the source of stolen Democratic emails published by WikiLeaks and other online outlets.

Kevin Ryan, a retired Army brigadier general and director of the Belfer Center’s Defense and Intelligence Projects at Harvard Kennedy School, analyzes U.S.-Russia security relations, military intelligence, and missile defense capabilities. Ryan was a defense attaché to Russia and a senior regional director for Slavic states in the Secretary of Defense’s office, among other senior roles.

Ryan spoke with the Gazette about Russia’s alleged involvement in the U.S. election, the brewing friction between the incoming president and intelligence community, and the implications that those contentious issues have for U.S.-Russia relations.

GAZETTE: Former CIA chief and Belfer Center senior fellow Michael Morell called the reported Russian intrusion “the political equivalent of 9/11.” Should this event be viewed as something like an act of war?

RYAN: No, because it doesn’t even come close to threatening the existence of the United States. The idea that foreign governments would want to support friendly candidates during an election is ancient. It’s as old as history. And the United States itself openly, and with some resources, supports candidates in some countries that it thinks would benefit United States interests and goals around the world. So another country like Russia trying to interfere in our election process is not unheard-of. I’m not trying to make the case that it’s O.K., or that it’s equivalent to what we did, say, in helping candidates and parties in Ukraine and Georgia with the “color revolutions.” But the idea that another country would be interested in getting a friendly candidate to be elected is not unusual. It’s an interference which we should not condone and which we should try to prevent and which we should respond to, but I don’t see it as an act of war.

GAZETTE: When you hear terms like “high confidence” and “consensus” used to describe the assessment that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, how do you interpret that language? What thresholds of certainty need to be reached for the intelligence community to state something like this to Congress?

RYAN: The important thing to note is that it’s more than just a possibility, but less than a certainty — I think that’s what they mean. It means, for example, that the director of national intelligence [James R. Clapper] believes that the Russian government directed the compromise of emails in order to influence or in order to interfere with the election process. He said that in a public statement that he issued with [the Department of Homeland Security]. I guess we’re not going to get the direct evidence for that unless President Obama’s study, which he’s commissioned, decides to release some version of that evidence.

GAZETTE: Do you think the agencies have disclosed all they know, or are they holding some information back in order to maximize their strategic options?

RYAN: My guess is that the classified report by the CIA to the congressional leaders includes all the information that is pertinent to this question. But I also imagine that the reports that we’re getting in the [news]papers are somewhat less than the full version. If you note that in The Washington Post, they say that “a senior U.S. official who spoke with others about the report said the following thing, that CIA assessed the Russians were trying to support Trump.” So you don’t have the CIA saying it. You don’t have one of the congressmen who got the briefing saying it. You’ve got somebody else who claims he or she spoke with others who saw the report. So that’s one filter right there. That person’s words, I don’t think they’re reliable quotes from the assessment. And then you have to add the filter of The Washington Post, whatever their journalists or editors … [do to make] changes that are just normal, not nefarious, just normal editing of an article, some people can read that article and come away with a different opinion. So I think the congressmen got all the details, but we didn’t, and we have two filters that we have to go through.

GAZETTE: What’s the nature of the apparent disagreement between the FBI and the CIA on whether the Republican National Committee servers were hacked or not? Does one agency have better technical expertise, or is this a result of their different approaches to cyber investigations and perhaps their longstanding rivalry?

RYAN: This is built into the system. You have two separate rooms full of analysts and people working on information they’ve collected and shared with each other. One team comes up with this wording and this analysis, and another team comes up with something else. This happens all the time. The CIA’s assessment that was given to Congress, if The Washington Post article was accurate, was not a fully coordinated assessment. In other words, not all of the 17 intelligence agencies chopped on it and said “Yes, we see it this way.” So let’s assume that one of the 17 that didn’t was the FBI, and it’s probably because of the wording. I think they are probably much closer in understanding than we are led to believe in some of the press reports. The differences between the two are probably not significant. You have, I think, a minor but nuanced difference between two intelligence agencies. It’s then being exaggerated or blown up by political people who are reading about this in the paper. So it’s blown up by the press, it’s blown up by the people who read it, it’s blown up by the people who are using the information.

GAZETTE: In hindsight, was it smart for the Obama administration to hold back from taking greater action in the run-up to the election?

RYAN: I think what they did was they didn’t elect to not come forward with something. What they did was they assessed the report, and they felt the interference of the Russian hackers or whoever, they felt that it was not changing the outcome of the election, or that it did not change the outcome of the election, or was not going to change the outcome of the election. So the Obama administration made that assessment and then therefore felt they had the latitude to wait to talk about this, for a lot of reasons. I don’t second-guess that decision. I think they’re right. I don’t think the effort by the hackers, at the behest of the Russian government, I don’t think it made the difference in Trump being elected president. I think this is a serious breach of protocol, a serious breach of our own systems, it’s a serious cyber breach, and we shouldn’t be taking it lying down. We should’ve already done something very public or made a much stronger reaction to this, but it’s not an act of war, and we should not be going to Def Con 3.

GAZETTE: Do you expect the U.S. will retaliate and, if so, how and when?

RYAN: I don’t know if we’ll retaliate because President Obama has done a lot of great things, but he has not been very consistent in following through on his red lines and threats. So I don’t know if the U.S. will retaliate. And if this all doesn’t get retaliated before the Jan. 20 inaugural, I have no idea what the Trump administration will do with it. They may just ignore it, or they may take it up with the Russians, I don’t know. It’s a very serious problem that we do not have in place the mechanism to identify the culprits and develop a response or a reaction that can be known and appreciated by the public. This is a result of the combination of a lot of factors, such as the high classification of cyber attacks and cyber defense, and the classification of reports that come out of the intelligence community. We haven’t really worked through those things as a country yet in order to be able to show the American people, “Here’s what happened and here’s what we’ve done about it.”

GAZETTE: How do you think the intelligence agencies are reacting to a breach on their watch and to Trump’s dismissal of the idea that Russia could be involved because their intelligence is not credible?

RYAN: The first thing I think is that these are grown men and women and that their feelings are not easily hurt. The idea that Trump’s tweet or his comments about the intelligence community — that these are the same guys who didn’t figure out the Iraq weapons of mass destruction — they take it on as a criticism. They don’t like it, I’m sure, but they’re professionals and they’ll do their job anyway. It’s unfortunate that he feels that way about the intelligence community. I think they’re much better than that. But they’re going to get an opportunity, once he’s president, to show that to him, and so will his nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, [Rep. Mike] Pompeo.

GAZETTE: Are officers upset that Russia apparently succeeded in penetrating our election?

RYAN: I don’t think people in the intelligence community think of it that way. They say to themselves, “We figured out what Russia did. We figured out who did this, who hacked the emails, who leaked them to WikiLeaks, and then how they get on to the public docket.” They look at that and they say, “We’ve figured all that out and how it happened.” That’s a big success for one part of the intelligence community. You have Cyber Command and the cyber establishment within the government, and I’m not sure that they see what the Russians did as their fault. I think they see it as a vulnerability that exists everywhere in the world. In fact, they’re undoubtedly exploiting those same kinds of vulnerabilities in Russia and other countries where they can, not in response to what happened here, but simply as a matter of course. So I don’t think they look at this as a big loss on their watch. The guys in the CIA have no responsibility for stopping hacking attacks. Their day job is to figure out what happened, and they did that.

GAZETTE: If President Trump and his top national security adviser, say Michael Flynn, do not appreciate or trust evaluations from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, what effect does that have on national security?

RYAN: If he’s ignoring intelligence reports or acting contrary to the best analysis that our Central Intelligence Agency or the director of national intelligence gives him, then that would be a serious problem. But I don’t think he’s done that yet. He’s been tweeting, but those are not policy statements, in my mind. One thing in favor of appreciating the usefulness and value of good intelligence is that Flynn used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he spent many years as an intelligence officer, so he knows what he thinks is good intelligence. Anybody inside the intelligence community will tell you there’s good and bad intelligence, and it’s a constant effort to make sure that the intelligence that’s written up and put forward is fair, balanced, and accurate. That doesn’t always happen. Maybe Flynn is going to be much more vocal, or he’s going to enable Trump to be much more vocal about skepticism about certain reports. But when an intelligence briefing is given by analysts to a bunch of intelligence people or a bunch of commanders, I can guarantee you there’s a lot of skepticism in the room, almost always. People question things immediately: “How do you know that?” “What’s your assumption?” “What’s going on?” To an outsider, it could seem like, “Wow, these people don’t really trust those guys or they don’t really think much of their work.” But it’s just the nature of trying to make sure that the story’s accurate.

GAZETTE: What steps could U.S. intelligence take to protect the nation if someone in the new administration shared intelligence, either inadvertently or deliberately, with Russia?

RYAN: It’s got to be a concern for any senior government official. [Trump is] appointing [as Secretary of State Exxon Mobil CEO Rex] Tillerson, so he’s a good example. You want to make sure that those people understand the difference between unclassified and classified material. Hillary Clinton got into trouble because of the way she handled, or allowed her staff to handle, classified material [in her private email account]. You need to have almost a bipolar mind sometimes to try and keep these things separate, and people still screw up.

GAZETTE: Some former intelligence officers say there’s a very good likelihood that Russia has been targeting and possibly “cultivating” Trump since at least 2012, when he purchased the Miss Universe pageant, and potentially years earlier. Given what you know about Russian espionage, is that a real possibility?

RYAN: First of all, Trump is not being run by the Russian FSB or SVR [security services]; he’s not the Manchurian candidate. He makes his own decisions clearly and is not responding to any guidance or direction from President [Vladimir] Putin, let alone most people in the United States. Now, do the Russian security establishment and intelligence agencies keep a book on every significant American who comes to Russia? Yes. In the old days, you could’ve gone to the FBI and gotten your FBI file. If you were somebody important and had made comments or done big things, there’s a file on you. I’m guessing that there was a file on Donald Trump somewhere in Moscow too, and it was filled with whatever they thought was important, and even the little things that they didn’t think were important at the time but might be important someday. That’s just the way they operate. They have a very manpower-intensive setup, and they collect and they collect and they collect. And then someday, when suddenly something happens that you didn’t expect, like he’s president of the United States, they go back to the file and say, “OK, what’s in here? What can we use?” But it’s almost too late to use it when he’s president of the United States. He’s already weathered his locker room talk, and he’s already weathered disparaging Gold Star families, and everything else. It’d be hard to imagine that the Russians have something more on Donald Trump than what Donald Trump has already offered.

GAZETTE: If an agency found evidence of either outright collaboration or an awareness and tolerance for Russian hacking by someone in the Trump team, what happens then? As president, could Trump effectively quash this?

RYAN: This is a great question. Congress can’t order them or the Department of Defense to do something, because that’s the commander in chief’s role, but they can take the money away for something, which is their way of imposing their preference and their will and guidance. They write the budget and give the money to the CIA. And if the CIA or somebody isn’t going to make a report to Congress because President Trump said, “No, you guys don’t have to do that,” well then Congress can say, “I guess you don’t need all this money you’re getting.” They can make life very difficult for them.

Certainly, he can make it tougher for a review to happen. But this is why we have to rely on the wisdom of the Founding Fathers who created a system of government with checks and balances. You’ve already seen some of these things in the press about people in his own party in Congress who disagree with him on Russia, on the intelligence assessments and reports, and they’re calling for investigations and things that run contrary to his expressed wishes so far. There’s a lot of checks and balances, and we’re going to find out in the next four years if that system can stand up to a Trump presidency.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.