Russia and the U.S. Election: Assessing Moscow’s Actions and America’s Responses


On January 27, the Center for the National Interest hosted a discussion covered by C-SPAN titled “Russia and the U.S. Election: Assessing Moscow’s Actions and America’s Responses” with Center Executive Director Paul Saunders and George Beebe, a former chief of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and President of BehaviorMatrix LLC, a text analytics company. Center President Dimitri K. Simes moderated. Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), a Center Board member who previously served as the Chairman of the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence, also attended. The event was covered by C-SPAN. Please find a summary of the event below.

Russia and the U.S. Election: Assessing Moscow’s Actions and America’s Responses

A former chief of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit said that he agreed with many in the Intelligence Community that the Agency’s unclassified published report on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election via hacking operations was quite “sloppy.” George Beebe, who also served previously as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, emphasized the report’s weaknesses with regards to questions of attribution, operation, and intent.

Concerning attribution, according to Mr. Beebe, the forensic evidence to support the Central Intelligence Agency’s claim—that the hacking of the DNC was explicitly ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin with the goal of influencing the U.S. elections—is not very impressive. He cited the fact that there were two intrusions into the DNC’s servers, each taking roughly the same information. According to Beebe, this is highly unusual for a centrally directed attack, as each intrusion increases the chance of detection. While acknowledging that the possibility Russian responsibility should not be dismissed, Beebe urged that alternative explanations be considered, including the possibility that the hacking was committed by ‘hacktivists’ or that it was a false flag operation. Beebe asserted that publicly-available forensic evidence is consistent with all of these hypotheses.

At the operational level, Beebe described the two hacking operations as surprisingly sloppy and “amateurish.” Beebe stated that the level of intrusion was not very high, indicating that this was not a sophisticated intelligence operation and many easily concealed indicators pointing to Russia were left behind by the hackers, including timestamps during Moscow business hours, metadata created with Cyrillic keyboards, and the codename Felix Edmundovich—a clear reference to the founder of a Soviet-era secret police force. These clues pointing to the identity of the perpetrators are not typical, said Beebe, implying that the hackers were either not Russian or that they were Russians who wanted to be detected so as to send a message.

Regarding intent, Beebe offered a few explanations that differed from those in the CIA report, arguing that the hacking may have been a tit-for-tat reaction in response to perceived interference by the U.S. in elections abroad. It could have been intended as simple retribution or deterrence to future U.S. involvement in foreign election, or as an impetus to make cyber treaties with the U.S., according to Beebe. He emphasized that misunderstanding the intentions of foreign actors often fosters foreign policy disputes and that there is a need for a national discussion on the issue that candidly addresses what is driving Russian ambitions, as it will have significant implications for U.S. policy towards Russia.

Center Executive Director Paul Saunders addressed U.S. policy responses to the hacking and the current political climate. Saunders stated that the U.S. must ask itself what it is responding to, what it is trying to accomplish with the response, and the cost/benefit of each particular response. According to Saunders, it is a fair conclusion that the hacking was perpetrated by Russia, though the intent behind the attack is not yet fully understood, as there is very little relevant information in the public domain. The first step before the U.S. reacts, according to Saunders, is a thorough investigation into the hacking incident. Mr. Saunders emphasized that this event must be placed in the context of 25 years of troubled and complex U.S.-Russia relations.

Regarding the United States’ objectives in responding to Russia, Saunders argued that the Obama administration’s puzzling response in December—expelling 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioning officials at Russian intelligence agencies, and closing two Russian recreation facilities in New York and Maryland—had a very limited impact on Moscow. If the Obama administration had compelling evidence of serious Russian interference, it should have done more. If not, he said, it should have waited until the facts were clearer.

Citing the importance of a thorough and impartial investigation, Saunders stated that there is as much a danger in responding before an investigation takes place as in failing to respond adequately. The response must be proportional, urged Saunders, stating that the Obama administration had acknowledged that hacking of actual election voting machines did not take place. While the leaked information from the hacks and coverage by Russian state-owned media channel RT may have influenced U.S. public opinion, Saunders pointed out, such efforts are not uncommon in international affairs.

Regarding the political climate, Saunders said that the discourse about Russia is at its lowest level since the McCarthy era, with many in the media looking for Russian sympathizers—an act which prevents having a much-needed serious conversation about U.S.-Russia relations. To further emphasize that point, Saunders referenced an appropriate quote from George Washington’s farewell address: “the Nation, which indulges towards another a habitual hatred, or a habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

There was consensus among the speakers that a serious and in-depth investigation into the hacking be undertaken by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the FBI without the process becoming political. Center President Dimitri Simes added that there should also be an honest and professional investigation into Democrats’ foreign ties as well.