The debate over Russian influence operations in the U.S. presidential election will enter a dramatic new phase next week when the intelligence community releases a public version of its report on the matter. An unclassified version of the one delivered to the Obama administration, the report will touch not just on the now-famous stolen emails published by Wikileaks, but also on the broader role of Russian propaganda, fake news, and disinformation in the runup to the Nov. 8 election.
“This is actually part of a multi-faceted campaign that the Russians mounted,” James Clapper, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Clapper told lawmakers that Putin-backed actors were already carrying out similar activities in Europe in the runup to elections later this year.
The theme of fake news came up again and again at the hearing, which was Congress’ first public inquiry into the matter. When asked if Russia was continuing to use disinformation, masquerading as alternative journalism, Clapper answered matter-of-factly, “Yes.”
At the hearing, intelligence community professionals and senators of both parties all agreed that state-backed actors did indeed steal email from Hillary Clinton and John Podesta and that it was linked to a broad campaign to destabilize the election. This remarkable consensus set lawmakers and the IC against the President-elect, who has repeatedly said he does not believe that Russia meddled in the election he won. But Clapper and his cohorts dodged the opportunity to quantify what actual impact the published emails had on the election's outcome. They emphasized that the efforts did not extend to actual vote changing or disenfranchisement.
Clapper said next week’s report will also touch on the “multiple” motivations of the Russian actors.
More importantly, he said that his confidence had grown in the intelligence community’s fall 2016 statement naming Putin-backed actors as the email thieves: “We stand actually more resolutely on the strength of that statement that we made on the 7th of October.”
Reuters later reported that members of the intelligence community had acquired new information after the election that had strengthened their certainty.
Panel members offered expressions of support and gratitude to Clapper and the intelligence community in general, hours after Donald Trump took to Twitter to make comments that many took as “disparaging” toward the IC. (He has since attempted to walk back the remarks.)
Clapper is set to retire later in January. On Thursday, multiple news outlets reported that he would be succeeded by retired U.S. senator and Army veteran Dan Coats. In 2014, Russia barred Coats from entering the country in retaliation for his support of sanctions for its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.