The nation's intelligence agencies are investigating whether a Russian covert operation is under way to undermine Americans' confidence in the November presidential election and to spread disinformation, The Washington Post reported.
Former longtime CIA officer Charles Allen, who has been briefed on some of the issues, told The Post that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. is spearheading the effort, as "this is something of concern for the DNI."
"Even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern," a senior intelligence official told the Post. "It's the key to our democracy that people have confidence in the election system."
He was careful, though, to emphasize the intelligence community is not saying it has "definite proof" of election tampering or the potential of cyber threats.
Other officials called the covert campaign "ambitious," but stressed the intent may not be to sway the election but instead to cause chaos that will allow it to attack the United States' democracy efforts in former Soviet Union countries or other parts of the world.
"Russian 'active measures' or covert influence or manipulation efforts, whether it's in Eastern Europe or in the United States" are troubling, a Congressional aide told The Post. The anonymous aide noted the issue is now a priority for the nation's intelligence agencies, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, CIA, and the National Security Agency.
Some congressional leaders, briefed recently by the intelligence agencies on Russian influence operations in Europe and how they might serve as a template for activities here, have been disturbed by what they heard.
"We've seen an unprecedented intrusion and an attempt to influence or disrupt our political process," California Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the night before the Democratic National Convention opened, which forced then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign as the convention opened.
Russia has denied it carried out the DNC hack or other cyberattacks, but there are calls for President Barack Obama to name the nation as being responsible.
"Free and legitimate elections are non-negotiable," Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse wrote in a statement. "It's clear that Russia thinks the reward outweighs any consequences . . . this is going to take a cross-domain response — diplomatic, political and economic — that turns the screws on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his cronies.”
The FBI last month warned state election officials to watch for any kind of election tampering and to upgrade security, and the Department of Homeland Security has offered its assistance to help prevent or stop cyberattacks on the local level.
But pro-Russian hackers have already run at least one notable election intrusion overseas: the Ukraine presidential vote in 2014. CyberBerkut, a pro-Russian group, claimed responsibility for a "denial of service" technique that flooded the Ukraine Central Election Commission website with a high number of requests to block it. The group said they were not affiliated with Russia's government.
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