Updated 1002 GMT (1802 HKT) August 13, 2021
Washington (CNN)The Biden administration is receiving regular intelligence reports indicating Russian efforts to interfere in US elections are evolving and ongoing, current and former officials say, and in fact, never stopped, despite President Joe Biden’s warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the summer and a new round of sanctions imposed in the spring.
Biden made deliberate mention of Russia’s operations two weeks ago when he revealed in public remarks to the intelligence community that that he had received fresh intelligence about “what Russia’s doing already about the 2022 election and misinformation” in his daily intelligence briefing that day.
“It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” Biden said at the time.
One of the people familiar with the matter confirmed that there have been recent intelligence reports about what the Russians are up to, particularly their efforts to sow disinformation on social media and weaponize US media outlets for propaganda purposes. There are some indications that Moscow is now attempting to capitalize on the debate raging inside the US over vaccines and masking, other sources told CNN.
Sources closely tracking Russian activity say that Moscow’s tactics are evolving and are more sophisticated than their early 2016 efforts, which included easy-to-trace efforts like buying Facebook ads. They also emphasize that elections are not Moscow’s only target.
“There’s definitely a spike in activity around elections — they do take an interest in down-ballot races — but the activity is sustained,” said Emily Harding, who was the deputy staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee until this spring. “It never really stopped, and we should not be linking our attention or efforts to the election cycle, because they’re not.”
In April the Treasury Department sanctioned a total of 32 Russian groups and individuals, including Russian intelligence services, in retaliation for what the US intelligence community has charged was a deliberate scheme to influence the 2020 presidential election by spreading false information about Biden during his campaign against then President Donald Trump.
In June, during his summit with Putin in Geneva, Biden warned Putin to rein in his country’s malicious cyber activities, including ransomware attacks and interference in US politics. But given the new reports, it’s clear the message didn’t stick — at least not yet. Biden following the summit sought to temper expectations.
“We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters,” Biden said at the time. “We’ll find out whether we have a cybersecurity arrangement that begins to bring some order.”
Bill Evanina, who was the senior intelligence official in charge of briefing the presidential candidates on threats to the 2020 election, said the Russians “will ignore” the message Biden sent at the summit “like they’ve ignored every message for the last couple decades.”
“I don’t think anyone in the Biden administration or Congress believes that Putin will change any of his behaviors because we asked him to,” added Evanina, who left after the election and is now CEO of The Evanina Group advisory firm.
“Securing our elections is fundamental to our democracy,” a National Security Council spokesman told CNN in a statement. “We constantly monitor for threats, including foreign efforts to influence or interfere in our democratic processes, and work closely with state and local election officials to protect our elections.”
‘A State of Perpetual Conflict’
Russia’s strategic and military leaders incorporate information warfare tactics in both wartime and peacetime, according to a 2020 report from the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement — a doctrine that “speak[s] to Russia’s strategic formulation that it is in a state of perpetual conflict with its perceived adversaries.”
But while Russia’s overall strategy may remain the same, Evanina said, their “tactics change consistently.” One big reason for that, he noted, is that Russia’s intelligence services are in competition with each other, so are “constantly looking for opportunities to impress the boss with new and creative ways to sow discord here and cause chaos in our democracy.”
Rather than simply attempting to engineer the victory of a particular candidate — as Moscow famously tried to do in both 2016 and 2020 with then-candidate Trump — the Russian intelligence services’ broader strategy is to focus on widening the social chasms between Americans by amplifying existing extremist voices on both sides of the political divide, Harding, Evanina and others said.
The intelligence community earlier this year released a report concluding that the Russian government interfered in the 2020 election with a disinformation push that sought to denigrate President Joe Biden’s campaign and support Trump. The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found Russia used “proxies linked to Russian intelligence” to push unsubstantiated claims about Biden.
“The same outlets that were pushing election propaganda and disinformation are still doing that, and principally with respect to the insurrection at the moment,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Putin is siding with those in the insurrection, and they will continue to push on behalf of GOP and against Biden.”
In the summer of 2020, Russian operatives used online forums to spread extremist viewpoints about Black Lives Matter and, simultaneously, about the police. And more recently, Moscow has sought to exploit the vaccine debate.
The Global Engagement Center began warning last year that Russia was using fringe websites to capitalize on vaccine hesitancy in the United States by promoting conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus vaccine. Facebook on Wednesday announced that it has removed hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts largely run out of Russia that were spreading vaccine conspiracy theories to “audiences primarily in India, Latin America and, to a much lesser extent, the United States,” according to a report published by the social media company.
“It’s not like they’re picking a side,” Harding said. “They’re sitting on both sides and yelling from edges.”
What about China and Iran?
The intelligence community has publicly warned that China and Iran have also sought to meddle in US politics, but one source familiar with the intelligence said that, so far, there have been no indications that either nation is actively targeting the 2022 midterms.
In any event, both nations approach influence operations in the United States differently than Russia, multiple sources said.
China “has been intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China on such issues as religious freedom and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong,” the intelligence community warned in a public threat assessment released earlier this spring.
But Beijing’s efforts are more “overt,” the source familiar with the intelligence said, like lobbying US businesses and politicians or publishing their own political narrative on state-run media.
Those messages, theoretically, could eventually wind up percolating through the American social media digestive system and potentially have an influence on public opinion. But “Chinese intelligence aren’t that great at social manipulation” and haven’t focused on it, Evanina said. “Russia owns that space.”