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Putin ordered election hacking, report says

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Press Service/Sputnik via AP

WASHINGTON — An assessment by the top American intelligence agencies has concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign” that aimed to damage the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and help pave the way for Putin’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump.

The 25-page report — which was called “a declassified version of a highly classified assessment” — is bound to prolong the intense debate between the president-elect and the intelligence agencies that are beginning to advise him. The review was ordered last month by President Obama and released on Friday afternoon, just hours after Trump was briefed by intelligence officials.

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“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the report read. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

The report was strikingly detailed and contained conclusions that were more sweeping and delivered with more confidence than most had expected on a topic that has gripped Washington for weeks.

It said that the assault from Russia on American democracy was unprecedented, going far beyond typical espionage efforts in “a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort.”

The report follows weeks of debate around Russian involvement in the election, and suspicions that the foreign government was behind a sophisticated hacking of the Democratic National Committee as well as the e-mail account of John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s campaign.

The unclassified report — which was created jointly by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA — contains its conclusions, but it does not provide the underlying sources for how it reached those conclusions. Those sources are still considered classified.

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The agencies concluded in their report that Russia, in launching the disinformation campaign, wanted to help Trump and hurt Clinton. (On that particular finding, the report says, the CIA and FBI have “high confidence,” while the NSA has “moderate confidence.”)

The most likely motivation for discrediting Clinton, the agencies wrote, was retribution from Putin himself.

“He has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him,” the agencies wrote.

The Russian government saw Trump as a way to reset the relationship with the United States and build a coalition to fight the Islamic State.

In a conclusion that could raise further questions about Trump’s business conflicts of interest — as well as the ties that Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, has with Putin — the agencies said that Putin saw Trump’s business background as beneficial.

“Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

The report also found that Moscow’s approach evolved during the election. When it appeared that Clinton was likely to win, the report says, the Russian influence campaign turned toward undermining her future presidency. During these periods, the effort “focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the election.”

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On Friday, Trump emerged from a briefing with intelligence officials — his first face to face encounter with them since he began disparaging them in the weeks after the election — and issued remarks that inched toward an acknowledgment that Russia could have been behind the hacks.

He conceded that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups, and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses, and organizations.”

But Trump was also adamant that “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” he said. “There were attempts to hack the Republican National Committee, but the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.”

Trump said that he would appoint a team to give him a plan on cybersecurity within 90 days of taking office.

“The methods, tools, and tactics we use to keep America safe should not be a public discussion that will benefit those who seek to do us harm,” he said. “Two weeks from today I will take the oath of office, and America’s safety and security will be my number one priority.”

Friday night, the president-elect tweeted “Gross negligence by the Democratic Natoinal Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!”

The intelligence report did not explicitly address the most politically charged question of whether the Russian actions affected the US election. While making it clear that the intent was to influence public discussion, the report generally avoids getting into how successful the campaign was in influencing the outcome.

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The report notes that both political parties were targets, for example. While concluding that there was a public information campaign on Russia’s part, the intelligence community does not attempt to answer whether that had an impact on the decisions that voters made in the voting booth.

The report says that there is no evidence of tampering with voting machines, for example. Russia gained access to “elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards,” the report says, but the systems that were “targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.”

The report made clear just how much the topic of Russia’s involvement in the US election will continue to consume the debate in Washington.

The intelligence community concluded that Russia is planning to build upon its success, in the United States and worldwide.

“We assess Russian intelligence services will continue to develop capabilities to provide Putin with options to use against the United States, judging from past practice and current efforts,” the report reads.

In fact, the report says, immediately after Election Day, Russian intelligence began targeting US government employees and individuals associated with US think tanks and NGOs in national security, defense, and foreign policy fields.

“This campaign could provide material for future influence efforts as well as foreign intelligence collection on the incoming administration’s goals and plans,” according to the report.

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Senator John McCain has been crafting legislation to impose more sanctions on Russia, but it is unclear whether Trump would support such measures — or whether McCain could secure a veto-proof majority. But there is increasing concern among Republicans about the Russian interference, and some befuddlement about the response of the incoming president.

“Russia has a track record of working against our interests, and they clearly tried to meddle in our political system,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “I strongly condemn any outside interference in our elections, which we must work to prevent moving forward.”

“We must also be clear that there is no evidence that there was any interference in the voting or balloting process,” he added. “We cannot allow partisans to exploit this report in an attempt to delegitimize the president-elect’s victory. Donald Trump won this election fair and square because he heard the voices of Americans who felt forgotten.”

ICA_2017_01 by Steve on Scribd


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.