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3 Most Disturbing Fears Confirmed By US Intel Report On Russian Hacking

The United States intelligence community, comprised of 17 agencies and the Director of National Intelligence office, issued a declassified version of its report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, PBS reported Friday. The report published the agencies’ “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “multifaceted campaign” to undermine Americans’ confidence in election integrity, to undermine Hillary Clinton in part because of a personal grudge the autocrat holds against her, and to promote Donald Trump due to the perception that he would be far more amenable to Russian foreign policy goals. The report assesses that the campaign was unprecedented in its scope and boldness, and concludes that Russia is likely to expand on the operation’s successes by applying its lessons against elections in US-allied countries.

Mainstream media reporting on the intelligence report has focused on these main findings, as well as Trump’s switching gears on his reaction to it, somewhat, by accepting its conclusions, but insisting, conveniently relying on a counterfactual, that Russia’s meddling campaign had “no effect on the outcome of the election.”

But when I read the full report, which you can read here, three things jumped out at me that were mentioned only briefly, but potentially had vast, and disturbing, implications. They were not huge surprises, but confirmed deep fears about where Putin’s influence in the US, and his relationship with Trump and Republicans, might be headed.

Precursors To The Putin-Trump Relationship

Throughout the campaign, Trump’s critics and supporters alike rooted around for historical parallels to his unusual rise to power. These ranged from Adolf Hitler to Andrew Jackson. The US intelligence community has two examples of leaders in mind, when they consider how Putin might view Trump.

“Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Gerhard Schroeder was German Chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He had a close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, which only grew in office. According to Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s largest and most respected political news magazines, Schroeder called Putin a “flawless democrat” despite his crackdown on dissent, the press, and political opposition. He signed an energy trade deal with Russia that was absurdly beneficial to Russia, and allowed Russia newfound political leverage over European countries downstream from its Caspian gas pipelines. Schroeder was widely criticized in Germany, including by Angela Merkel, who rose to power on criticizing Schroeder and Putin. Shortly after leaving office, Schroeder took a lucrative position on the board of Gazprom, the enormous Russian company that Putin nationalized. The Russian dictator used it to fuse the Russian state with its energy industry, and uses it as both a geopolitical weapon and a patronage network for allies. Schroeder’s move to Gazprom was viewed as “simply outrageous” in Germany. He continues to defend Putin to this day, and has been seen palling around with Putin as recently as 2014. Oh, and Schroeder has been married four times!

Silvio Berlusconi is a billionaire real estate developer who became deeply invested in Italy’s media industry, and served as Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011. As PM, he repeatedly faced calls to divest from his businesses, and was at the center of endless controversies surrounding his conflicts of interest, involvement in prostitution with underage girls, and tax evasion. While in office, Berlusconi’s personal wealth soared, laws and rules were re-engineered seemingly with no other goal than to benefit his business interests, and political actors sought to curry his favor by sending business toward him. Russian oligarchs reportedly benefited immensely from Italian business connections under Berlusconi. When Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008, Berlusconi was one of the only European leaders to defend Putin. In 2015, the two toured an archaeological area together in the newly Russian-annexed Crimea, infuriating Ukraine.

If these two bombastic, self-interested, playboy leaders of European countries and their conflicts of interest sound astoundingly similar to America’s president-elect, the US intelligence community delicately indicates that it believes that’s not a coincidence.

What Else Was Hacked

The intelligence community’s report describes its conclusions about the objectives, tactics and outcomes of Russian operatives’ hacking of the DNC and Democratic targets. In the midst of that description, this seemingly offhanded sentence,

“Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.”

Phew, right, Republicans? On the contrary, Putin could be sitting on damning information, or kompromat, that could be used as blackmail or to torpedo people in Washington. This raises disturbing questions. Who or what did they hack? What did they find? Does anyone in Washington know the extent of it? Given the success of the Russian campaign to sabotage Clinton and elevate Trump, any kompromat Moscow has on Republicans in Congress could potentially be extremely powerful leverage. Given that the GOP now controls Washington virtually unimpeded, Putin could, by extension, have extraordinary leverage over the US government generally. It’s not hard to imagine that Trump could seek to give Putin a sweetheart oil deal, or refuse to come to a small Eastern European nation’s defense when Putin starts bullying them, and any principled Republican opposition in Congress could abruptly become mysteriously silent.

Russian Propaganda’s Influence In The US

The report analyzes the influence of Russian propaganda at length. The combination of media outlets, particularly Russia Today, or RT, and “a network of quasi-government trolls” which had previously supported Russia’s efforts in Ukraine and recalibrated to blend into American social media platforms, had a vast messaging influence in the US. The report doesn’t quantify the influence of trolls, but investigative reporting during the campaign described them as a professional “army of well-paid trolls.” Their efforts began in earnest as early as December 2015. They were successful in using things like hashtags and hijacking comments threads and messaging boards to create the perception of organically trending messages. They also helped direct users to RT content.

RT consistently publishes cherry-picked information to heighten political division and foment suspicion in the US and other countries. While its direct social media presence in the US is small, its YouTube impressions in the US during the campaign were in the hundreds of millions, likely over half a billion views. This was greater than CNN International, BBC World, and Al Jazeera English. Many users may not even be aware of the source when watching and sharing an RT video, which can easily go viral on other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The extent of Russian propaganda’s influence on the US electorate is difficult to quantify, but may be much greater than anyone realized.

The combination of Russian influence on the president-elect, the incoming Republican Congress, and perceptions held by the US electorate may be unprecedented in the history of the United States. Unless Trump reverses course in his feud with US intelligence, and commits to a major investment in counter cyber espionage, which seems unlikely, Russian influence in the US and in US allies, is likely to grow.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.