SAN FRANCISCO — President Trump can thank Vladimir Putin for his victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, a former special agent at the Federal Bureau of Investigation told the Yahoo News podcast “Bots & Ballots.”
Asked point-blank if Russian hacking and disinformation helped elect Trump to the presidency, Clint Watts, who tracked the online activities of extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group for the FBI in the run-up to the 2016 election, was resolute.
“Yes. I think just alone the hacking, particularly of the DNC and the time to release by WikiLeaks and DCLeaks and others of hacked materials offset the media narrative,” Watts, who has been an outspoken critic of the current president, told “Bots & Ballots” host Grant Burningham. “If you go back to the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape of Donald Trump, it was immediately followed by the release, within an hour I believe, of hacked emails to try and distract from that narrative, and to essentially inundate that media space with other coverage.”
Watts said the FBI took note of Russia’s disinformation campaign on social media even earlier, in 2014.
“That’s when you saw the message start to pop up that the Assad regime needs to stay in power, and the signatures didn’t look quite right,” Watts said, adding, “So when we stayed on that storm of social media accounts, they always supported a narrative that was always pro-Russian. It didn’t matter if they were talking about Syria, Ukraine or a host of different policy issues, it was always pro-Russian and they were often times in sequence sharing content from Russian state-sponsored outlets.”
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Over the course of the next year, as the U.S. presidential campaign took shape, the pro-Russian accounts began to shift their messaging.
“They began talking about different issues moving into 2015, and they would talk about a lot of social issues, particularly in the United States — Black Lives Matters protests, law enforcement standoffs — and one of the issues they talked about was Jade Helm 2015,” Watts said of the Alex Jones-promoted conspiracy theory that an annual U.S. military training exercise was really a front for the establishment of martial law.
“That was remarkable. They were essentially amplifying essentially indigenous American conspiracies in different ways, that the U.S. might declare martial law and take peoples’ weapons,” he said. “But what they were really doing was testing a new way to do warfare, information warfare, which was from their Soviet system called ‘active measures,’ which is winning through the force of politics rather than the politics of force by helping U.S. politicians who favor Russia get elected and rise to policy positions.”
For many agents in the FBI, Watts said it became clear that the biggest goal for “active measures” was advancing Trump’s presidential bid, in part by utilizing vulnerable social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
“By the time 2016 came around, it was very clear that they had four campaign messages that they wanted to push. The first one was very anti-Hillary Clinton, and that was from the beginning. The second one was very pro-Trump,” Watts said. “The third one was when the hacking kicked in, which was that Bernie Sanders got a raw deal from the DNC, and you can see that in these hacked emails. That’s really when we started to see that hacking was starting to power influence. And the last one, which was very minor, was that you still need to show up for Jill Stein. So, the equation was quite clear, it was how do we elevate Trump to the top spot and sort of suppress Clinton turnout and people wanting to support her.”
In “Messing With the Enemy,” his new book on modern cyberwarfare campaigns, Watts said that the election results in traditionally Democratic states like Michigan and Wisconsin prove just how effective the Russian campaign was. Still, Watts notes that because of incomplete social media data and notoriously inaccurate polling, that it’s “almost impossible to prove one way or another whether Russia won the election” for Trump. What is clear is that Trump’s election was itself a victory for Moscow.
“I think Russia has won. If you look at what their goals were — degrading or defeating NATO, breaking up the European Union, finding an ally in counterterrorism for their Syria policy, and making gains against Ukraine — they’ve gotten all of those,” Watts said, adding. “I can think of no intelligence operation and influence operation that’s been more successful in world history in such a short period of time.”
Listen to the full “Bots & Ballots” interview with Watts here.
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