Five Things To Know About The U.S. Intelligence Report On Russian Election Interference
By Mike Eckel March 17, 2021
In late January 2020, as the U.S. presidential campaign started to take shape, a video documentary appeared on U.S. television -- part of an effort, according to the U.S. intelligence community, to bolster Donald Trump's reelection bid and denigrate one of his strongest challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Neither the documentary nor the network on which it aired is identified in a new report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
But the source of the information is.
"Russian proxies [who] met with and provided materials to Trump-administration-linked U.S. figures...made contact with U.S. established media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a U.S. television network in late January 2020," the report said. "Russian state and proxy actors who all serve the Kremlin's interests worked to affect U.S. public perceptions" during the campaign, it said more broadly.
The conclusions, released on March 16, are a coda to a question that hung over the entire 2020 election that ultimately saw Trump defeated and Biden victorious: How much did foreign countries try, and succeed, to interfere and sway the U.S. electorate?
The declassified 15-page report is the most comprehensive U.S. intelligence assessment released to date on that question. And while China, Iran, and other countries also sought to sway voting, Russia's efforts are the most prominent, and possibly the most closely scrutinized.
The Kremlin rejected the conclusions outright.
Here are five notable details from the report:
So, What About This Documentary?
The report gives few specifics about the actual production. But the details that are provided match up with a film that aired on One America News Network, an eight-year-old channel with a largely conservative slant and until recently a relatively small audience.
During the Trump administration, the channel was a cheerleader for many administration policies, and Trump often favored the channel over other conservative-leaning U.S. networks like Fox.
On January 21, the channel aired a one-hour video called The Ukraine Hoax hosted by a Republican operative named Michael Caputo.
Caputo was a longtime Republican activist who helped Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Long before that, he spent years working in Russia, first for the U.S. Agency for International Development and then starting his own public relations company. In 2000, he was hired by state-controlled Gazprom-Media to try and improve Putin's image in the United States.
In 2020, he was appointed spokesman for the U.S. government's health and welfare agency, but after he was heard calling on Trump supporters to prepare for armed insurrection in September, he left his job.
Caputo could not be immediately reached for comment.
Among other things, the film sought to undermine the case for Trump's first impeachment, which was sparked by a phone conversation Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July 2019, in which Trump is heard seeming to condition further U.S. military assistance on Zelenskiy investigating Biden and his son, Hunter.
Released just two weeks before the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump of the impeachment charge, the film featured, among other things, the appearance of Andriy Telizhenko, a former low-level official in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington. He is also a close associate of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who accompanied Giuliani on a 2019 trip to Kyiv, and also participated in efforts to spread the debunked theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 election won by Trump.
In October 2020, the U.S. State Department revoked Telizhenko's U.S. visa.
In a message via Twitter, Telizhenko told RFE/RL that "I never said that Russia did not interfere in the U.S. elections in 2016 as they did and not only in U.S. elections but [the] Kremlin regularly does interfere in Ukrainian elections and politics."
The "Kremlin interferes in my country and we have a 7 year war continuing today between Ukraine and Russia so I would ask not to use dirty political tricks against me in this matter again," he wrote.
Asked about his visa revocation, he said the only notice he received was "only that without explanation they sanctioned me falsely connecting me to Derkach"-- referring to Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach.
There was no immediate response to an e-mail sent to One American News Network's press office.
Telezhenko's name does not appear in the new U.S. intelligence report.
But Derkach's does.
'A Prominent Role'
The report's mention of Derkach is not the first time the Ukrainian lawmaker has figured in U.S. intelligence and law enforcement conclusions. As recently as September 2020, the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Derkach, saying he "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services."
The March 16 report echoes that assessment and goes further, saying that Derkach's actions were likely directed by the Kremlin, possibly by Putin himself. "We assess that Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach," the report says. "Derkach has ties to Russian officials as well as Russia's intelligence services."
Putin "was aware of and probably directed the influence operations, including those of Derkach," it says.
Derkach attended the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow. His father was a KGB officer in the Soviet era -- as was Putin -- and then later became the head of Ukraine's intelligence agency in the late 1990s.
Since 1998, Derkach has been a member of Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, where he is now an independent and previously was affiliated with a pro-Russian bloc.
He also worked closely with Giuliani, who traveled to Ukraine multiple times as part of efforts to gather information on Biden and, according to U.S. officials, undermine the U.S. intelligence conclusions that it was Russia that interfered in 2016, in part by seeking to denigrate Trump's opponent in that election, Hillary Clinton.
The new intelligence report reiterates earlier findings that one of Russia's goals was to try to persuade U.S. politicians that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in 2016.
In late 2019, Giuliani traveled to Ukraine and met with Derkach. And the two men also appeared together on One America News Network, where they pushed their allegations about Ukraine and the Biden family.
In May 2020, Derkach released leaked phone calls four times in an effort to undermine Biden and link him to Ukrainian corruption.
Derkach could not immediately be reached for comment.
The other person called out specifically in the March 16 report is Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian-Russian man who at one point worked in Moscow for the International Republican Institute, a U.S. funded democracy organization.
Kilimnik later went to work with veteran Republican strategist Paul Manafort, who was hired by a Ukrainian political party in the late 2000s to help elect Viktor Yanukovych to the Ukrainian presidency.
Manafort became Trump's campaign chairman in 2016. While in the post, Manafort secretly met with Kilimnik and shared internal campaign polling data with him.
"A network of Ukraine-linked individuals -- including Russian influence agent Konstantin Kilimnik -- who were also connected to the Russian Federal Security Service took steps throughout the election cycle to damage U.S. ties to Ukraine, denigrate President Biden and his candidacy, and benefit former President Trump's prospects for reelection," the report concludes.
Manafort was later prosecuted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for tax and bank fraud. He was found guilty by a jury. In December 2020, Manafort was given a full pardon by Trump.
In 2018, meanwhile, the United States issued an arrest warrant for Kilimnik, who is now believed to living near Moscow, accusing him of obstruction of justice for trying to persuade witnesses to change their testimony in Manafort's earlier criminal trial.
The FBI later put Kilimnik on its wanted list and offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
"Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services, and that those services likely sought to exploit Manafort's access to gain insight into the [Trump] campaign," the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said in its own report released last year on 2016 U.S. election interference.
Kilimnik did not respond to a text message seeking comment.
In 2016, U.S. intelligence and congressional investigators found, Russian hackers targeted a range of computer systems in the United States: political parties, prominent figures, even some of the databases and servers used in different U.S. states to register voters or tally election votes.
That includes the theft of e-mails from the Democratic Party that were later published and helped undermine Clinton's campaign against Trump.
Mueller later concluded that the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU was behind that effort. Other Russian agencies, including the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service, were also alleged to have hacked and spied on U.S. networks.
Unlike in 2016, however, "we did not see persistent Russian cyber-efforts to gain access to election infrastructure" in 2020, the new report said.
Instead, "we judge that Russian cyber-operations that targeted and compromised U.S. state and local government networks in 2020 -- including exfiltrating some voter data -- were probably not election-focused and instead part of a broader campaign targeting dozens of U.S. and global entities."
Still, the report does note that GRU hackers targeted a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings, a finding publicized by a private cybersecurity firm at around the same time that the Ukraine documentary was shown on One America News Network.
Burisma, which was at the center of the first Trump impeachment, had hired Biden's son Hunter to serve on its board when Biden was vice president. Trump allies, Republican operatives, and some Ukrainians, including Telizhenko and Derkach, pushed the allegation that Biden sought the firing of Ukraine's then-top prosecutor in order to protect his son.
U.S. Senate Republicans later found no evidence that Biden's work as vice president was influenced by his son's employment at Burisma.
E-mails and other potentially damaging materials related to Hunter Biden and Burisma circulated in some U.S. news media just weeks before the presidential election. Former U.S. intelligence officials warned the materials were part of a Russian hacking and disinformation campaign.
'A Manageable Risk'
The new report points to a streak of pragmatism within the Kremlin. As was the case in 2016, Moscow had a clear preference for Trump, who was seen as less hostile than Biden, the report says.
During his presidency, Trump repeatedly voiced conciliatory opinions of Putin, and Russian policies in general, rhetoric that often conflicted with harder-line policies instituted by his administration.
By contrast, Biden, when he was vice president, was a vocal supporter of Ukraine after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and stoked open war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 -- support that earned him Kremlin enmity. "Russia leaders viewed President Biden's potential election as disadvantageous to Russian interests and that this drove their efforts to undermine his candidacy," the report finds.
Aside from Ukraine, the report says, the Kremlin focused on what it saw as Biden's belief in "American exceptionalism" -- that the United States is inherently different from other nations due to its values, history, and its political system.
"The Kremlin views him as part of the reflexively anti-Russia U.S. foreign policy establishment," the report says. "Putin also probably considers President Biden more apt to echo the idea of American 'exceptionalism,' which he and other Kremlin leaders have often publicly criticized as problematic and dangerous."
Last year, amid growing indications that Biden was likely to defeat Trump, the Kremlin prepared for the possibility of a Biden administration, the report says. One particular area where the Kremlin was keenly interested in cooperation: extension of the New START nuclear arms treaty.
Shortly after his inauguration in January, Biden agreed with Moscow to extend the treaty for five years.
Overall, the Kremlin saw meddling in the U.S. political system as fair game; retribution for what it has long insisted is U.S. meddling in elections in Russia and other countries. And besides, the report says, where bilateral relations were concerned, things couldn't get any worse.
"Russian officials probably also assess that continued influence operations against the United States pose a manageable risk to Russia's image in Washington because U.S.-Russian relations are already extremely poor," it says.
Copyright (c) 2021. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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