Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference is providing current and former U.S. intelligence officials with a sense of vindication, affirming many of the conclusions they drew following the 2016 election.
At the same time, however, some suggest the report released on Thursday by the Justice Department should serve as a warning that Moscow’s efforts to degrade and undermine American democracy, already extraordinarily successful, continue unabated.
Specifically, these former intelligence and national security officials warn the evidence in the special counsel report shows Russia was able to find and exploit U.S. citizens who were willing to go along with Moscow’s means, described as “sweeping and systematic,” to achieve their desired results.
“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the Mueller report said, adding that President Donald Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
The January 2017 unclassified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, issued in the aftermath of the presidential election, concluded Russia aimed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the intelligence agencies wrote at the time, adding, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible.”
The assessment, though, has been attacked repeatedly by Trump.
In November 2017, Trump slammed former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Former CIA Director John Brennan as “political hacks,” while deferring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. “He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times.”
Trump again deferred to Putin following their July 2018 summit in Helsinki.
“President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial,” Trump said at a joint news conference.”President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Already, the U.S. has taken action, indicting members of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-based “troll farm” with ties to the Kremlin, as well as charges against 12 Russian military intelligence agents for hacking into Democratic Party computers.
Some former officials worry nonetheless that without a more forceful U.S. response, Russia or other adversaries will seek to get away with such behavior again.
“Those in America who cheered foreign intelligence attacks on our democratic processes, particularly for their own gain, should pay a price,” Larry Pfeiffer, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, told VOA.
But if they do, it will not be in a U.S. court of law. The Mueller report concluded despite numerous contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, and evidence that campaign members “deleted relevant communications,” the evidence, “was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government.”