Donald Trump’s willingness to embrace Russian disinformation was one of the reasons Russia’s interference in the 2016 election worked, the Senate panel investigating the president’s alleged ties to the country heard on Thursday. Decades of Russian covert attempts to undermine confidence in western institutions, including planting or promoting false news stories or spreading doubt about the integrity of elections, will accelerate in the future unless the US confronts so-called “active measures”, several experts testified to the Senate intelligence committee. “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at time [sic] against his opponents,” said Clint Watts of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Those active measures have migrated online with alacrity in recent years. Watts, a former FBI special agent and army officer who came under personal siege from Russian-backed hackers, told the panel’s first public hearing that social media accounts associated with spreading pro-Russian fake news were visible as far back as 2009.
The expert added that Russia possessed unreleased hacked information on thousands of Americans it could “weaponize” to discredit inconvenient sources. Those and other measures provided Russia with an inexpensive tool to check its wealthier adversaries in the US and Nato, several scholars and former US officials assessed.
When asked why the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, felt the 2016 US election provided the Kremlin an opportunity to intervene – the consensus position of US intelligence agencies – Watts pointed to Trump.
Wittingly or not, Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, embraced and promoted narratives, including false ones, convenient to Russian interests, including a fake story about a terrorist attack on the Turkish airbase at Incirlik used by US forces and baselessly doubting the US citizenships of Barack Obama and Ted Cruz.