BY JAMES STEINER, The HilL
When Bob Gates was CIA Director he mandated that his analysts estimate and assess the impact of every U.S. covert action program both before operations began and after they ended.
This makes eminent sense given the cost, political risk, and potential blowback involved in such undertakings.
Obviously trying to measure the impact of a covert action program is difficult and full of uncertainties, but intelligence analysts are trained to deal with uncertainty, to develop estimates broad enough to embody the uncertainty, and to use estimative language to convey that uncertainty to the customer.
Therefore it occurred to me that somewhere in Moscow, Russian intelligence analysts are estimating the impact of Putin’s covert action program aimed at defeating Hillary Clinton and electing Donald Trump.
Would those analysts accept the widespread U.S. narrative that Vlad’s program had zero impact on the U.S. vote?
I doubt it.
The unclassified January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment on Russia’s influence program describes a Russian covert action program composed of two major elements: sabotage and propaganda.
The Russians conducted a widespread and sustained cyberattack to sabotage our state-based voter registration systems. To date, cyber fingerprints have been found by at least 39 states.
The Russians reportedly were attempting to sabotage our systems using simple techniques such as deleting names from voter lists or changing the spelling of names. To date, no state or local official has reported any Russian successes in these undertakings.
So for now we can give the Russian cyber warriors an F for cyber sabotage and not credit them with any changed votes or missing votes at the ballot box. We should admit some upside uncertainty, however, because really good sabotage operations are the ones the target doesn’t even realize occurred.
But the Russians undoubtedly did much better with the propaganda tool.
According to the same U.S. intelligence report, Russia’s state-run propaganda machine is comprised of its domestic media apparatus, “news” outlets targeting global audiences such as Russia Today.
With this infrastructure, they engaged in black and gray propaganda during the campaign.
Black propaganda is the creation and dissemination of false narratives that are falsely sourced to credible individuals and/or organizations.
This is fake news and the Russians are aggressive practitioners. For example, Russia Today’s most popular video on Secretary Clinton, “How 100 percent of the Clintons’ ‘Charity’ Went to…Themselves,” had more than 9 million views on social media platforms.
Do we really think Russian efforts like this video did not lead any U.S. voters to either change their vote from Clinton to Trump or to not bother to vote at all?
Gray propaganda is the development and dissemination of true information that is falsely sourced to credible individuals and/or organizations. The timing of release of this information is controlled to have the maximum impact on the target audience.
For example, the Russians used Julian Assange and Wikileaks to provide credible sourcing of true but damaging information — such as the 20,000 hacked DNC emails which were rolled out on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
Once again, do we really think that not a single voter was influenced to change their vote away from Clinton?
Even if we cannot physically count which specific voters were led to change (or not cast) Clinton votes because of Russian actions, U.S. think tanks and academics that specialize in factors determining how voters think and make decisions should be able to produce estimates, with sufficient confidence, to answer the key question: “Did the Russian covert action program change the outcome of the election?”
I can assure you that the Russian intelligence analysts are taking credit for some significant positive number of Trump votes, and it would not be surprising for them to be claiming to have won the election for Trump.
Jim Steiner teaches courses in intelligence at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany. He is a retired CIA officer. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the CIA.