Who Suspects What in U.S. Probe of Russia Hacking: QuickTake Q&A

When it came to disrupting the 2016 presidential election, this much is clear: U.S. investigators say a hacking campaign directed by the Russian government morphed from making mischief to hurting Hillary Clinton. The repercussions of that effort will be reverberating through U.S. as well as European politics in the year ahead. 

1. What do U.S. officials think happened?

A consensus has emerged among U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the CIA and FBI, that the Russian hacking began as a broad operation to collect information on Democratic and Republican groups with an aim to interfere in elections and undermine confidence in American democracy. Intelligence agencies became confident the Russian government directed the hacking and that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities," the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement one month before the Nov. 8 election.

2. Then why the suspicion that the Russians targeted Clinton?

The Russian operation morphed into a targeted campaign to damage Clinton after hackers obtained disparaging information from the DNC and from the Gmail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the view of U.S. officials. Seizing on an opportunity, the hackers and senior officials in the Russian government strategically leaked the information through websites including WikiLeaks, the officials said.

3. Did hackers manipulate the actual vote count?

There’s no evidence of that, officials say. Most voting machines aren’t connected to the internet.

4. Were the Russians trying to help Donald Trump win?

That’s the gist of what the CIA presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee after the election, although the FBI hasn’t reached that definitive conclusion. In addition to evidence the CIA has obtained, but hasn’t made public, the agency’s conclusion is based on its observation that information stolen from Republican groups wasn’t made public anywhere near as aggressively as the anti-Clinton information.

5. Why aren’t the CIA and FBI on the same page?

It’s not that they disagree. Rather, they have different functions. Part of the CIA’s mission is to assess the intent of adversaries; the FBI, as a law-enforcement agency, relies on evidence it can prove in court or to a judge. In a message to his workforce on Dec. 16, CIA Director John Brennan said he had met with FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and "there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election."

6. What was Putin’s role?

Intelligence officials have little doubt that the targeted effort to damage Clinton was done with Putin’s knowledge. President Barack Obama stopped short of confirming Putin’s personal involvement during a press conference on Dec. 16, but left little doubt. “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” he said.

7. What does Russia say?

“This is amusing rubbish that has no basis in fact,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters. Russian officials have demanded that the U.S. make public any evidence to back up the intelligence agencies’ allegations.

8. What does Trump say?

The president-elect has scoffed at the findings Russia was behind hacking of Democrats. “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody," he said in an interview with Fox News. "It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place. I mean, they have no idea.” As for the CIA’s finding that Russia intended to help him, he said, “I think the Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics."

9. What happens next?

Democrats and many Republicans in Congress say they are convinced that Russia was behind the hacking and are proposing various investigations. The U.S. intelligence community is preparing a report on hacking during the 2016 election and prior elections. The report will be completed before Obama leaves office on Jan. 20 and is expected to include a declassified public section, although it isn’t yet clear how much evidence will be released. With elections looming in the Netherlands, France and Germany, European leaders are warning that similar Russian-backed efforts to interfere are surely in the offing, if they haven’t started already.

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