Well to be fair, we have several people gullible and diseased enough to repeat their propaganda repeatedly and ad nauseam.
Russian internet trolls appear to be shifting strategy in their efforts to disrupt the 2020 U.S. elections, promoting politically divisive messages through phony social media accounts instead of creating propaganda themselves, cybersecurity experts say.
The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency may be among those trying to circumvent protections put in place by companies including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to find and remove fake content that hackers created to sow division among the American electorate in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc. “Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”
Other hackers are breaking into computing devices and using them to open large numbers of social media accounts, according to Candid Wueest, a senior threat researcher at Symantec Corp. The hacked devices are used to create many legitimate-looking users as well as believable followers and likes for those fake users.
While covert efforts to amplify divisive content originated by others isn’t a new technique, hackers and trolls seem to be embracing it heavily in advance of the next U.S. presidential election.
Wueest said he observed a decrease in the creation of new content by fake accounts from 2017 to 2018 and a shift toward building massive followings that could be used as platforms for divisive messages in 2020.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, said social media remains a primary avenue for foreign actors to influence U.S. elections, and the bureau is working with companies on the problem.
“What has continued virtually unabated and just intensifies during the election cycles is this malign foreign influence campaign, especially using social media,” Wray said. “That continues, and we’re gearing up for it to continue and grow again for 2020.”
Yet removing foreign influence campaigns remains a slippery task for social media companies.
Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said policing those efforts is “an incredibly hard balance.”
Companies must “identify ways to impose more friction on the bad actors and the behaviors that they’re using without simultaneously imposing friction on the meaningful public discussion,” Gleicher said.
After Bernie Sanders lost his primary campaign for president against Hillary Clinton in 2016, a Twitter account called Red Louisiana News reached out to his supporters to help sway the general election. “Conscious Bernie Sanders supporters already moving towards the best candidate Trump! #Feel the Bern #Vote Trump 2016,” the account tweeted.
The tweet was not actually from Louisiana, according to an analysis by Clemson University researchers. Instead, it was one of thousands of accounts identified as based in Russia, part of a cloaked effort to persuade supporters of the Vermont senator to elect Trump. “Bernie Sanders says his message resonates with Republicans,” said another Russian tweet.
While much attention has focused on the question of whether the Trump campaign encouraged or conspired with Russia, the effort to target Sanders supporters has been a lesser-noted part of the story. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in a case filed last year against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign, said workers at a St. Petersburg facility called the Internet Research Agency were instructed to write social media posts in opposition to Clinton but “to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
That strategy could receive new attention with the release of Mueller’s report, expected within days.
Sanders told Vermont Public Radio last year that one of his campaign workers figured out what was going on, alerted the Clinton campaign and told them, “I think these guys are Russians.” But Sanders said he never knew, and he later backed off his suggestion that his staff did. A spokesman referred questions to 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who said in an interview that Sanders “misspoke a little bit and conflated a few of the facts. ... He did not know, I did not know, none of us knew” that Russia was behind the efforts.
Only recently, with the latest analysis of Twitter data, has the extent of the Russian disinformation campaign been documented on that social media platform.
A pair of Clemson University researchers, at the request of The Washington Post, examined English-language tweets identified as coming from Russia, many of which were designed to influence the election. It is impossible to say how many were targeted at Sanders supporters because many don’t include his name. Some 9,000 of the Russian tweets used the word “Bernie,” which were “liked” 59,281 times and retweeted 61,804 times.
But that was only one element of the Russian effort to target Sanders supporters, the researchers said. Many thousands of other tweets, with no direct reference to Sanders, were also designed to appeal to his backers, urging them to do anything but vote for Clinton in the general election.
“I think there is no question that Sanders was central to their strategy. He was clearly used as a mechanism to decrease voter turnout for Hillary Clinton,” said one of the Clemson researchers, Darren Linvill, associate professor of communications. The tweets examined in the new analysis “give us a much clearer understanding of the tactics they were using. It was certainly a higher volume than people thought.”
The Russian social-media strategy underscores a challenge that Sanders faces as he once again seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, this time in a crowded field. Many Sanders supporters believe he was treated unfairly by the Democratic Party and Clinton, a point the Russians sought to capitalize on as they worked to undermine Clinton in the November election.
Although Sanders later denounced the Kremlin’s efforts and campaigned for Clinton, some Democrats believe he could have done more to smooth over tensions and encourage his supporters to support his onetime opponent. A former senior Clinton campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing Sanders ahead of the 2020 primaries, said there remains bitterness over the way Sanders repeatedly said the system was tilted against him.
Sanders said in May 2016 that party rules enabling Clinton to collect “superdelegates” did not meet the definition of “rigged,” but he called it a “dumb process which certainly has disadvantaged our campaign.”
The effort to promote Sanders as a way to influence the U.S. election began shortly after he declared his candidacy in spring 2015, according to Mueller’s indictment of the Russians. Russia’s aim was to defeat or weaken Clinton, who had angered Russian President Vladimir Putin when she had been secretary of state.
One reason that Sanders was on Russia’s radar has been little noted: he, like Trump, opposed trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Putin had been critical of the TPP, saying it was secretive and “hardly facilitates sustainable development of Asia Pacific.”
During the primaries, Sanders gave at least three interviews to a Russia-controlled television network, RT, in which his trade stance was highlighted. The network in February 2016 criticized MSNBC for breaking away from Sanders after he said he was “helping to lead the opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” The network posted a story headlined, “Bernie Sanders 'censored' by MSNBC while criticizing trade deal.”
Around the same time that Sanders was featured on RT, Russian employees at the Internet Research Agency were given a document explaining how to influence the U.S. election. The workers were told to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),” according to Mueller’s indictment of the Russians.
The Twitter database shows the impact. The tweets sent from Russia, cloaked to look as though they came from Americans, included: “Bernie Sanders looks to black voters to boost his underdog campaign”; “Hillary Clinton’s summer of drama creates openings for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden”; and “I’m for Bernie all the way!”
Then, in July 2016, WikiLeaks released emails from the Democratic National Committee that suggested the party machinery was tilted against Sanders. The DNC computers were later revealed to have been hacked by Russia. The hack prompted Trump to stoke the divide among Democrats. “Leaked e-mails of DNC show plans to destroy Bernie Sanders,” Trump tweeted July 23, 2016. “. . . On-line from Wikileakes [sic], really vicious. RIGGED!”
Russian trolls significantly increased their effort to persuade Sanders supporters to oppose Clinton in the general election. One of their methods was to try to convince African Americans that they couldn’t trust her.
“#BlackMenForBernie Leader Switches to Trump! I will Never Vote for Hillary,Welcome aboard the Trump Train,” said a tweet from an account that was said to come from Texas and was identified as “Southern. Conservative Pro God. Anti Racism.” The account, actually operated by a Russian, had 72,121 followers. The message was liked 260 times and retweeted 295 times, according to the Clemson database.
Linvill, the Clemson researcher, said Sanders was seen as “just a tool” to the Russians. “He is a wedge to drive into the Democratic Party,” resulting in lower turnout for Clinton, he said. The tweets suggested either voting for Trump or a third-party candidate such as Green Party nominee Jill Stein, or writing in Sanders’s name.
While it is impossible to show a direct correlation between a Russian-based tweet and someone’s vote in the United States, a post-election survey conducted for Ohio State University documented how false stories spread on social media may have caused a decline in turnout for Clinton. Only 77 percent of those surveyed who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 supported Clinton in 2016; 10 percent backed Trump, 4 percent voted for third-party candidates, and 8 percent did not vote, according to the YouGov survey.
In an effort to demonstrate how inaccurate information makes its way into the mainstream, the survey asked respondents about three demonstrably false articles that had been widely distributed. A quarter of respondents believed the false story that Clinton was in “very poor health,” 10 percent believed that Trump had been endorsed by the Pope, and 35 percent (including 20 percent of Obama supporters) believed that Clinton had approved weapons sales to “Islamic jihadists, including ISIS.”
The Ohio State team concluded in a soon-to-be published final version of its report that “belief in these fake news stories is very strongly linked to defection from the Democratic ticket by 2012 Obama voters.” Obama voters who recognized all three stories as false voted for Clinton at a rate of 89 percent, while 61 percent who believed one of the stories was false voted for her, and 17 percent of those who believed two of the false stories supported Clinton.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, said Twitter had studied what happened during the presidential election and will apply those lessons as the 2020 campaign unfolds.
“Protecting the integrity of public conversation around elections is core to Twitter's mission,” Roth said in a statement to The Post. “Since 2016, we've launched new policies, significantly scaled our enforcement against malicious automation, built strong partnerships within the industry and with government entities, and opened the largest public archive of potential information operations online, including thousands of Russian-linked accounts we have removed.”
Sanders told Vermont Public Radio last year that the Russians “were playing a really disgusting role because they don’t believe in anything. And all they want to do is sow division in this country, bring people against each other. So what they were saying is — in so many words — is Bernie Sanders is not going to win, so if you are a Bernie Sanders supporter, let me tell you, Hillary Clinton is a criminal, a murderer, a terrible person . . . crazy, all of these disgusting things.”
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said “the Russians will strike again.” As a result, he said, it is imperative for “everyone else, especially Democratic candidates, to work together and support each other to defend against these threats.”
WASHINGTON—Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report is unambiguously clear on this point: Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and sought to help Donald Trump win the White House.
That has been the unanimous view of the intelligence community for nearly 2½ years. But it is laid out in unprecedented detail across nearly 200 pages of the special counsel’s report, which also describes Russian efforts to forge ties with members of Trump’s campaign to further the Kremlin’s interference goals.
The report from Mr. Mueller will likely serve as the definitive document about Russia’s use of an array of digital weapons to influence the American electorate in 2016. It will also bolster warnings from senior U.S. intelligence officials that Russia and other hostile foreign powers remain intent on disrupting future elections, including the 2020 presidential contest.
Mr. Mueller asserted on the very first page of the report that the Russian government “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
The report describes how the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency engaged in interference dating back to 2014, as Russia’s relations with the U.S. took an abrupt turn for the worse after Russia’s seizure of Crimea. In June of that year, the report said, four IRA employees traveled to the U.S. on an intelligence-gathering mission, assisting what would metastasize over the following two years into a relentless psychological war on voters.
IRA employees took to social media from Moscow pretending to be Americans, creating bogus accounts on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that reached tens of millions of people and garnered hundreds of thousands of followers, the report said. In one instance, Russians used social media to recruit an American to walk through New York wearing a Santa Claus suit and a Donald Trump mask, the report says.
“Hopefully, what this report does is put to bed any lingering questions about what Russian intent or activities were during the 2016 presidential election,” said April Doss, who served as senior counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s own Russia investigation until last year. “This is a level of detail we have never seen before.”
Russia has denied interfering in the election.
The report explains how Russia’s yearslong hacking and social-media operations coincided with a series of contacts between the Kremlin and Trump campaign officials and associates, including Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. Those interactions included discussions about possible business deals, policy goals and getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. The latter transpired during a well-known meeting in Trump Tower in New York. Investigators didn’t establish that a conspiracy existed between the two sides to work together to interfere in the election.
The Russians also succeeded in getting a number of officials closely associated with the Trump campaign to promote the Russian government’s messages. Those officials included the younger Mr. Trump; then-digital-media director for the Trump campaign, Brad Parscale; and prominent members of the media. A lawyer for Mr. Trump Jr. declined to comment on sharing disinformation from Russia, but said there was nothing wrong with his client’s decision to listen to a Russian offer of potentially damaging information on Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Parscale declined to comment on Thursday. Previously, he has said that he retweeted a tweet of Russian origin in his timeline that others in the campaign had retweeted and that Twitter doesn’t advise users of the country of origin for tweets.
In his Thursday press conference, Mr. Barr was emphatic that the report found that no American, including anyone associated with the Trump campaign, knowingly conspired or coordinated with the Russian government to hack Democratic Party emails or peddle disinformation on social-media networks.
Mr. Barr addressed as a separate issue the special counsel’s investigation of whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign helped disseminate or encouraged the release of documents related to the Democratic Party that were stolen by Russian hackers. Mr. Barr didn’t say that no American engaged in such activity, but rather that “publication of these types of materials would not be criminal unless the publisher also participated in the underlying hacking conspiracy.”
Large portions of the report’s section on Russian interference were redacted due to concerns that details would reveal sources or methods of the U.S. investigation, or do damage to an ongoing probe. About two dozen Russian officers were indicted last year as a result of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, but they all remain at large.
Certain sections about Russian interference are so heavily redacted they are nearly unreadable, including one labeled “Structure of the Internet Research Agency” and more than a full page describing Russia’s operations involving political rallies. Both are scrubbed due to concerns about harming an ongoing investigation, while substantial information about Russia’s hacking of Democratic Party emails is blacked out to protect investigative techniques.
Despite the redactions, new details are scattered throughout the report. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn embarked on an effort to find Mrs. Clinton’s deleted emails at Mr. Trump’s direction in the summer of 2016, enlisting the help of a Senate staffer and a longtime GOP donor, according to the report.
Mr. Trump “asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails,” the report said. Mr. Flynn “recalled that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.” A lawyer for Mr. Flynn didn’t respond to a request for comment. The emails haven’t surfaced.
The report doesn’t answer all Russia-related questions. Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-born aide to Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, remains a riddle.
Investigators have long sought to learn whether Mr. Kilimnik, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation says has ties to Russian intelligence, was a conduit between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Mr. Kilimnik denies ever serving as a conduit or having ties to Russian intelligence. The report didn’t say definitively that Mr. Kilimnik ever worked for Russian intelligence, but noted that several facts supported the notion.
During the campaign, Mr. Manafort told investigators that he purveyed polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, with the expectation that he would then give it to people in Ukraine and to a former client in Russia, oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The report also says that Rick Gates, who served as Mr. Manafort’s deputy on the Trump campaign, told investigators he relayed to Mr. Manafort his belief that Mr. Kilimnik was a Russian spy.
Investigators weren’t sure whether to believe Mr. Manafort. “Because of questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the Office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it,” the report said.
The report also reveals some of the forensic challenges encountered by investigators, and suggests that some questions about the Russian operation and WikiLeaks’ exact role in releasing Democratic Party emails may never be fully known. It acknowledges that investigators encountered hurdles trying to obtain communications between Russia’s military intelligence agency known as the GRU, Russian military hackers behind the pilfering of the emails and WikiLeaks, which received those emails and dumped them online in advance of the 2016 election.
The Kremlin was apparently thrilled with Mr. Trump’s victory. Kirill Dmitriev, the chief executive of Russia’s sovereign-wealth fund who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, received a message from an unidentified person on Nov. 9, 2016, as news spread that Mr. Trump had triumphed in an upset. It read, according to the report, “Putin has won.”
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the “sweeping and systematic fashion” in which Russia interfered in the 2016 election highlights the breadth and complexity of the U.S. voting infrastructure that needs protecting.
From voter registration to the vote itself to election night tabulation, there are countless computers and databases that offer avenues for foreign adversaries to try to create havoc and undermine trust in the democratic process.
In addition to targeting the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign in 2016, Mueller noted in his report, Russian hackers also went after election technology firms and county officials who administer the vote — officials often without the resources to hire information technology staffs.
“The Mueller report makes clear that there’s a much larger infrastructure that we have to protect,” said Lawrence Norden, an election security expert at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s clearly a lot to do before 2020.”
But the country also has made strides in the last two and a half years.
The shock of learning that the Russian government interfered in 2016 galvanized local, state and federal officials to increase coordination and strengthen cybersecurity.
In last fall’s midterm elections, “there were no cyber incidents that affected voters’ ability to vote or have votes counted as cast,” said Matt Masterson, Department of Homeland Security senior adviser on election security. “But more importantly, we were able to assess that with confidence because of the robust information-sharing we had in place with state and local election officials.”
It wasn't that long ago that some suspicious state officials were accusing DHS of hacking them. And now, the department is working with all 50 states. “We have relations with 1,500 election offices, but we recognize that there’s 8,000-plus across the country,” Masterson said. “So how do we build out our support to all local election offices?”
Elections in the United States are run by state and local officials, and DHS can advise and assist, but it cannot dictate security standards. What it’s really about, Masterson said, is “raising the level of awareness among local election officials to the threats and risks to election systems.”
One official with heightened awareness is Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, which suffered the most significant breach of a state election system in 2016. That summer hackers compromised a statewide voter registration database and, the board said, made off with the personal data of tens of thousands of voters.
But it wasn’t until Mueller obtained a criminal indictment last July of a dozen hackers that Dietrich and his colleagues got what they considered official confirmation that the Russian government — in particular a military spy named Anatoliy Kovalev — was allegedly behind the operation. So when Mueller’s report emerged Thursday, Dietrich ran a quick search on “Illinois.” He pulled up a brief incident recap with no new details. “I was reassured,” he said.
Illinois, like a number of other states, has begun to use some of the $380 million in election security grants approved last year by Congress to raise its defensive game. With a portion of the $13.2 million it received, the state hired nine “cyber navigators” or experts to conduct risk assessments for county election offices. They also train officials to recognize threats such as “spearphishing” or malware-laced emails designed to look like they come from trusted senders.
Illinois officials worked with DHS, which performed weekly scans of network traffic to detect vulnerabilities — and “didn’t find any,” and then the state took over the scans, Dietrich said. They partnered last year with the Illinois National Guard so if any of the 108 local election offices had an incident, a cyber expert could be on site within an hour.
Illinois also joined the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a voluntary organization of state and local elections officials to exchange threat data and best practices. Through the National Association of State Election Directors and DHS, it has worked with social media companies to better detect disinformation threats.
“All of the things we have done have been done with an eye toward building confidence in the election system in Illinois,” Dietrich said. “We never say there’s a 100 percent guarantee of safety. But we do think we are staying a step ahead. That’s all we’re trying to do.”
In one measure of progress, DHS last year had “Albert” sensors deployed in 47 of 50 states to monitor computer traffic for cyber threats. By year’s end, the department expects to have the sensors installed in all 50 states.
A dozen states are still using electronic voting machines without paper backups, which are seen as a vulnerability. But about half, including Georgia, say they will replace them by 2020. And a majority of states either test their voting machines to federal standards or require federal certification.
The Mueller report also revealed that the FBI believes the Russian military spy agency GRU gained access to the network “of at least one Florida county government” in 2016. The mention prompted Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to press the FBI to disclose information about the incident. In a letter to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, he noted that in 2018, when he was the state’s governor, both the FBI and DHS denied that Russia had successfully penetrated Florida’s election systems.
The FBI declined to comment. But according to five current and former U.S. cyber officials, the breach was not serious. Nonetheless, the FBI notified the county in question, which opted not to disclose the breach, officials said. In general, said one U.S. official, “details that would identify the victims of a cyberattack would not be shared with others besides the victim.”
Experts have often commented on how the decentralized nature of election systems is a form of security making it less likely that one computer hack can result in a cascading series of disruptions across states. But that feature also makes for a big challenge, said Norden, the NYU election security expert. “You’re only as strong as your weakest link and you can’t expect systemic security without some central player pushing to do what needs to be done,” he said.
Congress needs to step up, he said, providing money and direction. And the funding, election security experts said, should be recurring — not a one-time grant.
“I’m not saying they should do everything, but they could lead and do their part,” he said.
Currently there is no election security bill with strong bipartisan support in Congress, he said. “I’m hoping the Mueller report will kick-start that,” he said.
“Whether you’re talking about the Mueller report or the indictments from last summer, all of these are reminders of the importance of securing our election processes,” said Masterson, the DHS adviser. “Every American has a role to play in securing our democracy. Engaging in the process is the best response to these attempts to undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”
WASHINGTON — The F.B.I. director warned anew on Friday about Russia’s continued meddling in American elections, calling it a “significant counterintelligence threat.” The bureau has shifted additional agents and analysts to shore up defenses against foreign interference, according to a senior F.B.I. official.
The Trump administration has come to see that Russia’s influence operations have morphed into a persistent threat. The F.B.I., the intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have made permanent the task forces they created to confront 2018 midterm election interference, senior American national security officials said.
“We recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game,” Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, said Friday in a speech in Washington, citing the presence of Russian intelligence officers in the United States and the Kremlin’s record of malign influence operations.
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“So we are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020,” he said.
Mr. Wray’s warnings came after the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, laid out in hundreds of pages of detail the interference and influence campaign carried out by Russian operatives in the 2016 election.
While American officials have promised to continue to try to counter, block and weaken the Russian intelligence operations, they have complained of a lack of high-level coordination. President Trump has little interest or patience for hearing about such warnings, officials have said.
Mr. Trump views any discussion of future Russian interference as effectively questioning the legitimacy of his 2016 victory, prompting senior officials to head off discussions with him. Earlier this year, the White House chief of staff told Kirstjen Nielsen, then the homeland security secretary, not to raise the threat of new forms of Russian interference with Mr. Trump, current and former senior administration officials have said.
But outside of meetings with Mr. Trump, intelligence officials have continued to raise alarms. Officials including both Mr. Wray and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, have said Russia has aimed its influence campaigns at undermining faith in American democracy.
“What has pretty much continued unabated is the use of social media, fake news, propaganda, false personas, etc. to spin us up, pit us against each other, to sow divisiveness and discord, to undermine America’s faith in democracy,” Mr. Wray said on Friday. “That is not just an election-cycle threat. It is pretty much a 365-day-a-year threat.”
In response to growing threats from Russia and other adversaries, the F.B.I. recently moved nearly 40 agents and analysts to the counterintelligence division, the senior bureau official said in an interview this month. Many of the agents will work on the Foreign Influence Task Force, a group of cyber, counterintelligence and criminal experts. Officials have made that task force, initially formed on a temporary basis before the midterm elections, permanent.
The Department of Homeland Security made its midterm election task forces permanent, folding them into an election security initiative at their National Risk Management Center. And the National Security Agency and the United States Cyber Command have also expanded and made permanent their joint task force aimed at identifying, and stopping, Russian malign influence, officials said.
Intelligence officials have said Russia has kept up its interference operations since the 2016 election. They continued through the midterms and are likely to intensify during the next presidential campaign — albeit with new tactics.
Some intelligence officials believe Russia intends to raise questions in the aftermath of future elections about irregularities or purported fraud to undermine faith in the result. During the midterm elections, Cyber Command conducted an operation to temporarily take offline the most prominent Russian troll farm to keep its operatives from mounting a disinformation operation during voting or vote counting.
Mr. Trump’s continued hostility toward discussing Moscow’s malign influence campaigns, as well as his broader attitude toward Mr. Putin and Russia, puzzles many national security experts.
“The way Trump spoke about U.S. foreign policy, with a particular focus on Russia, NATO and some other cardinal aspects of U.S. foreign policy views were out of kilter with traditional, mainstream foreign policy thinking,” said Andrew S. Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Weiss said, Russia tried to explore what motivated Mr. Trump, to determine any advantages that Moscow could glean from his pro-Russia stance.
“What motivates Trump is still a mystery,” Mr. Weiss said. “Every time he talks about this is so out of sync with the way Republicans, or Democrats, talk.”
Mr. Trump often asserts his desire for a good, or improved, relationship with Russia as one of his foreign policy goals and has argued that Washington and Moscow could cooperate on a range of issues, such as counterterrorism.
At the same time, Trump administration officials have dismissed the notion that the government has taken a soft position on Moscow, noting continued support for American troops in Europe, the expulsion of Russian diplomats and continuing sanctions on Moscow.
The aftermath of the 2016 election and Russia’s attempts to influence the American government illustrates the dangers of a loose, ad hoc approach to foreign policy that Mr. Trump embraced during the transition and still favors to a degree, former national security officials said.
“If you can be led by the nose by foreign governments, that is the simplest definition of what a successful influence operation looks like,” Mr. Weiss said. “All sorts of leaders figure out there are ways to work with the Trump team that stressed informal channels, flattery and a freewheeling approach.”
Campaign officials with little security background looking to make impromptu deals are particularly vulnerable to Russian intelligence operations, said James M. Olson, a former chief of C.I.A.’s counterintelligence unit and the author of “To Catch a Spy.”
“They are dilettantes, no question about it. They have no intelligence or national security background, and they shouldn’t be playing in a game they don’t understand the rules of,” Mr. Olson said. “These people are jumping into deep water, and they don’t even know how to swim.”
What Russia has gained from its influence campaign remains subject to debate. The strong sanctions against Russia remain in place, toughened by congressional action. Funding for American military presence in Europe increased under the Trump administration. The United States has kept up its support for the Ukrainian government and has made no official move to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But Mr. Trump’s skepticism of the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and his occasional wavering over the mutual defense pact have strengthened Mr. Putin’s hand in Eastern Europe.
Former officials and other experts agree with Mr. Wray’s assessment that Russian intelligence has also contributed to sowing chaos in political systems, undermining faith in democratic voting systems and potentially further polarizing already divided electorates.
“My hunch is Putin feels pretty good about how it’s going for him,” Mr. Olson said.
Russian disinformation operations to exploit racial tensions during the 2016 presidential election in the United States found firm ground in a country where legislators have long sought to suppress the black vote, according to a report released Monday.
The report, “State of Black America,” was released by the National Urban League, a civil rights organization based in New York. It underlined the Russian interference in particular but said that black voting rights were under attack from a wide range of actors, including domestic politicians.
In about two dozen states, voting restrictions have gotten worse since 2010 because of changes including new voter identification laws and decisions to limit locations where voters can cast ballots, the report said.
The report’s findings on the Russian interference drew from academic research and federal investigations to highlight the huge campaign run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, which deployed thousands of accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
One such account on Twitter, called @WokeLuisa, garnered more than 50,000 followers, and its posts were highlighted by dozens of prominent news outlets, the report said.
The account sought to explicitly and implicitly discourage black voters from going to the polls in an effort to secure Republican victory, even as other Russian-backed efforts bolstered white extremism online, said Marc H. Morial, the president of the National Urban League.
“It was targeted, it was focused,” Mr. Morial said. “It’s intentionally pouring gasoline on racial division.”
The F.B.I. has warned that the threat of Russian interference in American elections persists. Intelligence officials have said that Russia interfered throughout the midterm elections last year, and that those efforts are likely to intensify during the next presidential campaign.
Bret Schafer, the social media analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative to combat efforts to undermine democratic institutions that is housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote about the Russian interference in the report and described @WokeLuisa as one of many fake accounts that impersonated African-American people to exploit pre-existing animosity and discourage voting.
“It’s moving the dial just a couple of degrees in the direction they want it to go,” Mr. Schafer said in an interview. “The anonymity of the internet allows you to be whoever you want to be, and of course you’re going to be far more persuasive if that target audience thinks you’re one of them.”
The report also outlined domestic efforts to both empower and disenfranchise minority voters.
Citing data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, the report said that as of March, more than 40 states had passed or were considering bills expanding access to voting, for instance by easing the voter registration process, expanding early voting and giving voting rights to convicted felons.
But domestic restrictions on voting, the vast majority of which are imposed by Republicans, proliferated in many states, the report found. Such moves reflect rising partisanship, societal shifts toward greater diversity, and the weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Mr. Morial said it was not possible to disentangle the Russian interference campaign from other factors that determined black voter turnout in the 2016 election, since both involved racial targeting.
Joel Ford, a former Democratic state senator in North Carolina who was a sponsor of a voter identification bill there, disagreed. “I think that those are two separate issues,” he said. “One is something that we as Americans can control through the legislative process, and the other is foreign interference in our elections.”
Mr. Ford said that as an African-American man, he was sensitive to discriminatory voter suppression tactics. But he called blanket opposition to voter identification laws “an unnecessary political wedge,” in part because it is a state-by-state issue, and laws can be crafted to minimize discrimination.
He added that photo identification was already necessary for activities like banking or flying, and that the bill he supported in North Carolina allowed voters to obtain photo identification cards at no cost. (That bill passed in December after the Legislature overrode the Democratic governor’s veto. Monday’s report named North Carolina as one of the states where voting restrictions have gotten worse.)
The report, which is now in its 43rd annual edition, featured more than 30 other essays written by various authors including scholars, politicians and corporate executives.
It also recommended a number of policy changes, including automatic voter registration, the creation of a national commission to “identify and eliminate foreign interference in the American democratic process,” and postelection auditing to compare paper ballots to computerized tabulations.
And Mr. Morial said he hoped Congress would hold hearings on Russian efforts to target black voters.
“I tell people: Russia today, China tomorrow, Saudi Arabia next week,” he said. “Every country that wants to influence and impact us is going to be playing in our elections.”
Sincerely, John Kloper, Russian agent of the KGB, GRU, etc. (as you think about all Russians)