Russian interference in 2020 included influencing Trump associates: Report

President Vladimir Putin of Russia authorized extensive efforts to interfere in the American presidential election to denigrate the candidacy of Joe Biden, including intelligence operations to influence people close to former President Donald Trump, according to a declassified intelligence report released Tuesday.

The report did not name those people but seemed to be a reference to the work of Trump’s former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who relentlessly pushed allegations of corruption about Biden and his family involving Ukraine.

“Russian state and proxy actors who all serve the Kremlin’s interests worked to affect U.S. public perceptions in a consistent manner,” the report said.

The declassified report represented the most comprehensive intelligence assessment of foreign efforts to influence the 2020 vote. Besides Russia, Iran and other countries sought to influence the election, the report said. China considered efforts to influence the presidential vote, but ultimately concluded that any such operation would fail and likely backfire, intelligence officials concluded.

A companion report by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security also rejected false allegations promoted by Trump’s allies in the weeks after the election that Venezuela or other foreign countries defrauded the election.

The reports, compiled by career officials, amounted to a repudiation of Trump, his allies and some of his top administration officials. They categorically dismissed allegations of foreign-fed voter fraud, cast doubt on Republican accusations of Chinese intervention on behalf of Democrats and undermined the allegations that Trump and his allies spread about the Biden family’s work in Ukraine.

The report also found that there were no efforts by Russia or other countries to change ballots themselves, unlike in 2016. Efforts by Russian hackers to probe state and local networks were unrelated to efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential vote.

The report also found more resilience among the American public and awareness of foreign efforts to spread disinformation. Intelligence agencies also credited social media companies with acting faster to remove fake accounts and spreaders of disinformation.

Still, foreign efforts to influence U.S. politics remain a key threat, one the Biden administration has said it will fight.

“Foreign malign influence is an enduring challenge facing our country,” Avril B. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement. “These efforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Some of the intelligence report’s details were released in the months leading up to the election, reflecting an effort by the intelligence community to disclose more information about foreign operations during the campaign after its reluctance to do so in 2016 helped misinformation spread.

During the 2020 campaign, intelligence officials outlined how Russia was spreading damaging information about Biden’s son, Hunter, in an attempt to boost Trump’s reelection chances. It also outlined efforts by Iran in the final days before the election to aid Joe Biden by spreading letters falsely purporting to be from the far-right group the Proud Boys.

The conclusions about China are the most in dispute.

The declassified documents released Tuesday included a dissenting minority view from the national intelligence officer for cyber that suggested the consensus of the intelligence community was underplaying the threat from China.

FILE — Voters cast ballots on the last day of early voting at a polling location Las Vegas, Oct. 30, 2020. (Bridget Bennett/The New York Times)

In a letter released in January, John Ratcliffe, then Trump’s outgoing director of national intelligence, wrote in support of that minority view and said that the report’s main conclusions about China’s influence efforts “fell well short of the mark.”

Ratcliffe said the minority conclusion was more than one analyst’s view and argued that some intelligence officials were hesitant to label Chinese actions as influence or interference. Intelligence agencies were using different definitions of those terms, “potentially leading to the false impression that Russia sought to influence the election and China did not,” he said.

Privately, some intelligence officials defended the consensus view, saying their reading of the intelligence supported the conclusions that China sought some level of influence but avoided any direct efforts to interfere in the vote.

The assessment released Tuesday had the most detailed material about Russia. U.S. officials see Russia as the clearest threat to elections, given its track record.

In the closing weeks of the election, intelligence officials said that Russian hackers had broken into state and local computer networks. But the new report said those efforts were not aimed at changing votes.

Unmentioned in this report was the huge hack of federal computer systems using a vulnerability in software made by SolarWinds. The absence of a concerted effort by Russia to change votes suggests that Moscow had refocused its intelligence service on a broader effort to hack the U.S. government.

The report is based on a classified document that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence sent to Congress on Jan. 7. The Biden administration oversaw its declassification but did not rewrite the report done before Biden took office.

The office is required to deliver a report on election interference within 60 days of the vote, but the Trump administration delayed the 2020 report until Jan. 6, the day the election results were certified.

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