Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Russian Hacking Controversy: What We Do And Don't Know

President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate in St. Louis on Oct. 9. The CIA has concluded that the Russians sought to tip the advantage in Trump's favor, a finding that Trump has dismissed.
John Locher
President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate in St. Louis on Oct. 9. The CIA has concluded that the Russians sought to tip the advantage in Trump's favor, a finding that Trump has dismissed.

Washington felt like a hall of mirrors on Monday.

The CIA has concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win. But Trump says he doesn't believe that. And the FBI doesn't think there's enough evidence.

The U.S. intelligence community had warned about the Russian meddling during the campaign. What's new is that the CIA says it is confident the Russians were acting with a specific goal in mind — to help Trump win.

The entire country is now enmeshed in a story that seems to perfectly correspond with the state of politics and the national mood: tense, paranoid, zero-sum and subjective. It's a narrative with too few solid facts to be definitive but just enough that anyone can feel justified in drawing his or her preferred conclusions.

Here's a look at what's known so far about the election-hacking story — and what isn't.

1. The U.S. government says Russia meddled in the presidential election

The story first exploded in July, when the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks published a tranche of emails connected to the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.

The messages revealed the gritty inner workings of the party elite and showed its preference for Hillary Clinton over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders supporters were outraged; the embarrassment prompted the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Later, WikiLeaks released emails from Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, which depicted her and the campaign's ties to powerful bankers, internal jokes about the Benghazi investigation and other such exchanges.

Combined with parallel stories about the FBI's investigation into the private email server that Clinton used at the State Department, the image was of an aloof influence broker who played by her own rules — an impression Clinton never shook.

But the internal emails released by WikiLeaks, a site called "DCLeaks" and others were not "leaks" in the traditional sense — information knowingly given to reporters by an insider.

They were stolen by hackers working for Russian intelligence agencies, the U.S. intelligence community concluded. After government officials had said so anonymously in press reports, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence affirmed it openly, on the record.

That followed an online forensics report by the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which documented in June the evidence that connected the DNC compromise with Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, and its military intelligence service, the GRU.

2. The U.S. intelligence community told the presidential candidates and Congress about the cybermischief during the campaign

Trump and Clinton began receiving intelligence briefings after their respective party conventions, in keeping with a long tradition of preparing potential future presidents for what they could face in office.

Intelligence officials told the candidates and their campaigns about the evidence for the Russian hacking then, and later during one of the presidential debates Clinton hammered Trump over what she called the support by Russia.

Trump, then as now, said he didn't know whether the Russians were trying to help him, or that he didn't believe they were, and that no one could truly know what was happening in cyberspace.

"Maybe there is no hacking," he said at the time. Since then, he has asked on Twitter why the hacking story didn't come up before Election Day. In fact, the hacking story came up more than a dozen times during the campaign.

On Fox News Sunday, he blamed what he called the sour grapes of Democrats who are still bitter about Clinton's loss.

But Trump also told Fox News host Chris Wallace he'd be open to the investigation that Obama has ordered and that members of Congress also say they'll conduct into the Russian meddling.

"President Obama's been terrific," Trump said. "I don't want anyone hacking us. And I'm not only talking about countries. I'm talking about anyone, period. But if you're going to do that, I think you should not just say Russia, you should say other countries also, and maybe other individuals.

3. Russia did more during the election season than release emails

Commentators linked to the Kremlin talked openly about why they supported Trump and why they believed him to be a better candidate for Russia and the world.

Russia's state media hailed Trump's election and praised the notion that he might nominate Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has extensive ties in Russia, as secretary of state. The Kremlin also underwrites a team of so-called trolls to post on Twitter and elsewhere on social media.

Putin and Trump also praised each other. But Russian diplomats also reached out to Trump's camp behind the scenes, and members of Trump campaign team also had their own previous contacts with Russia.

All along, however, Trump disclaimed that he could be swayed by potential business contacts there and noted he's never met Putin.

"I don't know Putin," he said. And Trump cast his desire for a better relationship with Moscow as smart diplomacy that would help both sides, especially in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

Obama had tried for months to conclude a deal with Russia to join forces in Syria, one that hasn't come together. And Russia has continued to help Syrian President Bashar Assad crush anti-government forces in their last major holdout of Aleppo.

4. We don't know precisely why U.S. intelligence believes what it does or why some agencies disagree

The intelligence community is united by law under the central leadership of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but it is not a monolith. Each agency has its own viewpoint and culture.

The CIA, charged since World War II with spying overseas and conducting clandestine operations, runs human agents in foreign capitals and assembles what intelligence officers call the "mosaic" of information they get to form a whole picture.

The FBI, as a law enforcement arm of the Justice Department, got its start building legal cases against major criminals. That could be why the two agencies disagree about the latest nuance of the Russia story: whether it's possible to prove that Putin or other Russian leaders interfered in the election to help Trump.

It's a question of intent. Did Moscow simply want to sow chaos in the U.S., or did it want to bring about the specific result the election yielded? The CIA believes the case is there; the FBI does not.

The nation's largest intelligence service, however, appears to be in the CIA's camp. Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, said on Nov. 15 that he believes the Russians knew what they were doing.

"There shouldn't be any doubt in anybody's mind," Rogers said at The Wall Street Journal's CEO Council. "This was not something that was done casually. This was not something that was done by chance. This was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily. This was a conscious effort by a nation state to attempt to achieve a specific effect."

Much of the evidence remains secret. As the story grows, pressure is increasing on the Obama administration and Congress to release more. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he is confident in the CIA and that the Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Armed Services Committees were looking into the matter.

5. We don't know whether the Russians also compromised Republicans — and whether they're holding on to what they took as leverage

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said in September that the Republican National Committee also was hacked during the campaign.

Then top RNC officials said that wasn't so. McCaul released a statement explaining that he had "misspoken." On Friday, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials have briefed Congress that Russia in fact did steal information from the RNC.

This may be an issue of semantics — whether individual Republicans' emails were compromised or whether hackers may have breached the networks of the RNC. Given the conflicting public statements and the lack of information from the government, this could set up a whole new thread to the story — is the Kremlin holding what campaign operatives would call an "oppo file" on Trump or other Republicans?

The Russian chess master Garry Kasparov, who has gone on to become an outspoken critic of Putin, suggests that Moscow wants weapons it can use against the Trump administration if necessary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.