QUESTION: Is Russia Plotting to Throw U.S. Election?

Do you really think this is true? And, if it is, what would that mean for this upcoming election? Also if it’s true, we have a big security problem on our hands.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are probing what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.

The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation.

The effort to better understand Russia’s covert influence operations is being spearheaded by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence. “This is something of concern for the DNI,” said Charles Allen, a former longtime CIA officer who has been briefed on some of these issues. “It is being addressed.”

A Russian influence operation in the United States “is something we’re looking very closely at,” said one senior intelligence official who, as others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Officials are also examining potential disruptions to the election process, and the FBI has alerted state and local officials to potential cyberthreats.

The official cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has “definitive proof” of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so. “But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern,” the official said. “It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.”

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack U.S. democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

U.S. intelligence officials described the covert influence campaign here as “ambitious” and said it is also designed to counter U.S. leadership and influence in international affairs.

One congressional official, who has been briefed recently on the matter, said “Russian ‘active measures’ or covert influence or ma­nipu­la­tion efforts, whether it’s in Eastern Europe or in the United States” are worrisome.

It “seems to be a global campaign,” the aide said. As a result, the issue has “moved up as a priority” for the intelligence agencies, which include the FBI and Department of Homeland Security as well as the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Some congressional leaders briefed recently by the intelligence agencies on Russian influence operations in Europe, and how they may serve as a template for activities here, have been disturbed by what they heard.

After Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) ended a secure, 30-minute phone briefing by a top intelligence official recently, he was “deeply shaken,” according to an aide who was with Reid when he left the secure room at the FBI’s Las Vegas headquarters.

The Russian government hack of the Democratic National Committee, disclosed by the DNC in June but not yet officially ascribed by the U.S. government to Russia, and the subsequent release of 20,000 hacked DNC emails by WikiLeaks, shocked officials. Cyber-analysts traced its digital markings to known Russian government hacking groups.

“We’ve seen an unprecedented intrusion and an attempt to influence or disrupt our political process,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, speaking about the DNC hack and the WikiLeaks release on the eve of the Democratic convention. The disclosures, which included a number of embarrassing internal emails, forced the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Members of both parties are urging the president to take the Russians to task publicly.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in a statement urged President Obama to publicly name Russia as responsible for the DNC hack and apparent meddling in the electoral process. “Free and legitimate elections are non-negotiable. It’s clear that Russia thinks the reward outweighs any consequences,” he wrote. “That calculation must be changed. . . . 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.”

Administration officials said they are still weighing their response.

Russia has denied that it carried out any cyber-intrusions in the United States. Putin called the accusations against Russia by U.S. officials and politicians an attempt to “distract the public’s attention.”

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