This article was written under the assumption that the unclassified Intel briefing would be released January 9 or 10. However, the briefing was released on the 6th of January. I am still posting this article and will review my prediction against the now released Intel report in an upcoming post. I will also post a list of open-source material on this topic.
What Donald Trump will learn at his briefing on Russian Interference.
Today the Director of National Intelligence and other department heads will brief President-Elect Donald Trump on the scope of Russian hacking and interference. Although the focus of this digital interference has concerned the recent US Presidential election, Russian interference has been a reoccurring issue for Democratic nations. We do not know the extent of Trump’s awareness regarding the Russian behavior, but using open-source material, it is easy to guess what will be presented at the meeting.
For lack of a better word, modern commentators label the current Russian behavior as “Active Measures,” describing it as part of an overall strategy of “Hybrid Warfare.” Hybrid Warfare is a strategy where a nation state attacks an enemy in a way that avoids crossing the legal threshold of aggression. The term Active Measures is used by commentators to describe a specific hybrid attack. The actor, by attacking below the threshold of internationally recognized aggression, hopes such behavior will make it difficult for the victim state to retaliate.
Examples of Active Measures includes: hacking national and commercial entities, spreading disinformation, funding extreme and fringe political groups, harassing diplomats, and expanding shows of military force. Although Hybrid Warfare is critically damaging, the strategy will only use deadly force as a last result, and is distinct from the tactical use of covert operators or special operations.
All nations pursue strategies which promote the national interest. However, the use of Hybrid Warfare is more than likely to be pursued from a position of weakness. A weaker nation will use Hybrid Warfare against a stronger nation to avoid a direct conflict. Russia will continue to use this strategy against both the United States, and European Union, until Russia believes it is in real danger of retaliation or a proper response outwits the strategy.
President-Elect Trump will likely learn the Hybrid Warfare strategy, and view specific examples of Active Measures within the United States. These Active Measures are not secret, and there is enough open-source material to write a book (many of which exist). The Trump briefing will most likely highlight examples of the Hybrid Warfare strategy, and then correlate each to an Active Measure. If the briefing is comprehensive, it may illustrate Active Measures existing in Europe.
Specific Active Measures
Hacking National and Commercial Entities
The hacking of national and commercial entities will likely be the most important and comprehensive part of President-Elect Trump’s brief. This is understandable given the overwhelming controversy regarding the 2016 Presidential Election.
For years, Russian sponsored hacking has attempted to crack major national entities within the United States. This is not surprising as many countries try to hack American servers. Every year China, North Korea, Iran and countless other countries try to hack into the US Government. Private actors, including Donald Trump’s infamous 14 year-old boy, also try to hack the Government. This is not a secret. All countries with modern intelligence agencies try to hack competing nations.
Russian hacking was pointedly evident in the 2016 election, but had occurred well before the polls opened. The Intelligence Agencies will show Trump examples of phishing emails, infected disc drives, back-door entry into computers, unauthorized root privileges, and metadata pointing to a common actor. Because the Russian strategy is Hybrid Warfare, the rationale for their hacking must be viewed in this strategic sense. Hybrid Warfare attempts to weaken a stronger opponent without reaching the internationally recognized point of aggression.
Mr. Trump will take issue with the finding that Russian hacking was designed to help him win the election. And he should take issue with this finding. It will be interesting to see the final report plus the rationale behind the finding. Common sense says an election of international importance will attract world attention, and every leader will want a friendly winner. For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted Romney to win in 2012.
Here, President Putin probably did prefer Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but the hacking began long before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy. By the summer of 2016, Russian propaganda was definitely pushing for a Donald Trump win, but it is wrong to say that the Active Measures, which follow the Hybrid Warfare strategy, were only designed for Trump. Even assuming the highly unlikely possibility that Donald Trump is a Russian mole, the Active Measures were designed to weaken the United States not control the United States.
Any hacking campaign, based on the Hybrid Warfare strategy, will attempt to weaken a victim-state by diminishing faith in the state’s prominent institutions. For example, cyber operators may look for dirt and potentially embarrassing information to hurt prominent leaders. This information can be stored and collected as policy makers wait for the right moment to unleash the leak. In many instances, the information is leaked to distract the victim-state from an international crisis. In other instances the leak may come at a time of political turmoil, further eroding the public trust.
To summarize, at this point Russia has initiated the hack, collected the information, and leaked the information in an attempt to distract the victim-state and erode public trust. However this is not the end of the campaign. Russia must ensure that the leaked information is recognized and noteworthy.
Spreading the Leak and Disinformation
The Russian government has an immense number of tools at its discretion when it wants to push information. Russia is unique from other examples of state propaganda because it combines effective domestic propaganda with advanced international propaganda.
The Trump briefing will likely include information about Russian propaganda. DNI Chief Clapper testified that the Trump briefing and public report would range the entire gambit of Russian Active Measures. Part of the strategy includes spreading leaks and disinformation to weaken the victim-state. Disinformation, fabricated or exaggerated, causes distrust within the populous and adds stress to the national foundation.
Although Russia is not the only country which uses state-sponsored propaganda, they are the best at reaching a global audience. The state-sponsored Russia Today network, and Sputnik News network, allows the Kremlin to push a story or narrative worldwide within seconds. The Kremlin also pays entities (called “trolls”) to spread stories through social media, creating massive numbers of fake accounts. This massive propaganda machine creates a symbiotic relationship.
A common Active Measures campaign which leaks information, and or disinformation, will follow three stages. First, the Kremlin gathers leaked information or creates disinformation. Second, the Kremlin pushes the leak or disinformation through social media. Third, Kremlin-sponsored news organizations report the leak, and/or disinformation, from social media as credible information.
It is important to note that Russia Today and Sputnik provide many legitimate programs. Furthermore, just because many of the programs are critical of the European Union and United States does not mean that it is disinformation. On the contrary, it is because these entities normally provide correctly sourced information that it is so powerful when Moscow wants to publish propaganda.
Funding Extreme and Fringe Political Groups
At this point the Trump briefing will likely segue into Russian support for extreme political groups. This transition will occur because the disinformation campaign and the funding of extreme political groups work together as a team.
Russia supports extreme political groups for the same reason it pays for trolls and news organizations. Russia wants to protect it’s interest internationally, and weaken those states it views as a danger to that interest. Furthermore, Russian support for extreme political groups is not always monetary. Instead, a release of leak and/or disinformation may support a political entity. In some instances the leak will embolden a political base or reinforce a political argument. A leak may provide evidence for a political accusation. Disinformation might reinforce the deep fears of a political party and their electorate. Disinformation is fuel to the fire of conspiracy theory.
The 2016 election highlights many of the Active Measures discussed above. The leaked emails fueled complaints of favoritism within the Democratic Party. This leak likely depressed supporters of Bernie Sanders, and reinforced fears of Clintonian corruption. The leaks also illustrated the way such information can help a favored political entity. Donald Trump ate the bait, and used the leaks to further attack the Clinton campaign.
Although the United States has so far avoided the use of Russian money to support political entities, this might be due to the two-party system. Europe will continue to face a greater threat from this type of Active Measure.
Donald Trump will likely learn about Hybrid Warfare during his intelligence briefing. It will be interesting to see how Trump reacts once he is President. Will Trump do nothing in the hope that Russian Active Measures continue to support Trump? Trump should not count on this continued support. As said above, Hybrid Warfare is designed to weaken the United States, not support Donald Trump. It will also be interesting to see how Trump responds to Russian interference in Europe. The European Union continues to come under fire from this Hybrid Warfare campaign. How will Hybrid Warfare effect the French and German election? Further articles will discuss both the future impact and possible countermeasures.
Lastly, it must be noted that both the United States and the European Union are in danger of permanently damaging their relationship with Russia. Russia is following a strategy to promote its national interest. Every state in the world follows a strategy which promotes the health of their nation. Many of the Russian Active Measures are harmless, like bait just waiting for a bite. It is the reaction of the victim-state which results in harm. If the West is unhappy with the Russian narrative then they should do a better job with their own messaging.