By Joseph Menn
(Reuters) – The U.S. government spent more than a decade preparing responses to malicious hacking by a foreign power but had no clear strategy when Russia launched a disinformation campaign over the internet during the U.S. election campaign, current and former White House cyber security advisers said.
Far more effort has gone into plotting offensive hacking and preparing defenses against the less probable but more dramatic damage from electronic assaults on the power grid, financial system or direct manipulation of voting machines.
Over the last several years, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked Russia’s use of coordinated hacking and disinformation in Ukraine and elsewhere, the advisers and intelligence experts said, but there was little sustained, high-level government conversation about the risk of the propaganda coming to the United States.
During the presidential election it did – to an extent that may have altered the outcome, the security sources said. But U.S. officials felt limited in investigating Russian-supported propaganda efforts because of free speech guarantees in the Constitution.
A former White House official cautioned that any U.S. government attempt to counter the flow of foreign state-backed disinformation through deterrence would face major political, legal and moral obstacles.
“You would have to have massive surveillance and curtailed freedom and that is a cost we have not been willing to accept,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They (Russia) can control distribution of information in ways we don’t.”
Clinton Watts, a security consultant, former FBI agent and a fellow at the nonprofit Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the U.S. government no longer has an organization, such as the U.S. Information Agency, that provided counter-narratives during the Cold War.
He said that most major Russian disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe have started at Russian-government funded media outlets, such as RT television or Sputnik News, before being amplified on Twitter by others.
Watts said it was urgent for the U.S. government to build the capability to track what is happening online and dispute false stories.
“Those two things need to be done immediately,” Watts said. “You have to have a public statement or it leads to conspiracy theories.”
A defense spending pill passed this month calls for the State Department to establish a “Global Engagement Center” to take on some of that work, but similar efforts to counter less sophisticated Islamic State narratives have fallen short.
The U.S. government formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against U.S. political organizations in October, a month before the Nov. 8 election.
James Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies who has worked for the departments of State and Commerce and the U.S. military, said Washington needed to move beyond antiquated notions of projecting influence if it hoped to catch up with Russia.
“They have RT and all we know how to do is send a carrier battle group,” Lewis said. “We’re going to be stuck until we find a way deal with that.”
Watts, who said he has tracked tens of thousands of pro-Russia Twitter handles since 2014, believes many of the most effective stories stoke fear of war or other calamities or promote a narrative of corrupt Western politicians, media and other elites.
He and others said Sputnik shows the intensity of the Russian effort.
Launched two years ago as a successor to the official Russian wire service and radio network, Sputnik does not merely parrot the Kremlin political line, according to experts. It has gone out of its way to hire outsiders with social media expertise, including left and right-leaning Americans who are critical of U.S. policies.
Sputnik News did not respond to a request for comment.
During the election campaign, one of the most prominent fulltime Sputnik writers and commentators, Cassandra Fairbanks, shifted from an ardent anti-police protestor and supporter of socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders to a vocal backer of Republican Donald Trump.
Fairbanks said in an interview with Reuters that Sputnik had not told her to advocate for Trump, now president-elect. She said she was swayed by Trump’s opposition to overseas wars and international trade agreements.
“I did my best to push for him,” Fairbanks said, “but that was of my free will.”
A woman in her thirties with more than 80,000 Twitter followers, Fairbanks was an activist with the hacking movement known as Anonymous before she joined Sputnik.
The day before the election, Fairbanks said on a YouTube channel that it was “pretty likely” that the authors of emails hacked from the account of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta were using code words for pedophilia when they spoke about pizza.
The assertion fed the falsehood that Clinton supporters were operating a child sex ring out of a Washington-based pizza parlor. The channel, with 1.8 million subscribers, was run by Alex Jones, a radio host who has said the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job.”
Joe Fionda, a veteran of the Occupy protests who worked briefly for Sputnik in 2015, said the organization’s articles and social media efforts overall were aimed at praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies such as Syria and dwelling on negative news in the United States, including police misconduct.
Some U.S. officials and political analysts have said Putin could believe businessman Trump would be friendlier to Russia than Clinton, especially when it came to economic sanctions.
Fionda said spreading hacked emails was a priority at Sputnik. He said his job included trying to create viral memes on a Facebook page called Mutinous Media, which did not list a Sputnik connection.
Former workers of the Democratic National Committee, one of the groups infiltrated by Russian-backed hackers, said the U.S. government should consider providing funding for the technological defense of major political parties. They said that once hacked emails began appearing online, party functionaries were constantly behind in responding.
They also said that the staff of Democratic President Barack Obama had been overly concerned about not appearing to defend its own party’s candidate.
Obama has asked spy agencies to deliver an analysis of Russian meddling in the election that will include discussion of propaganda operations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence General Counsel Robert Litt told Reuters.
Asked on Tuesday whether he thought the U.S. government had been caught off guard, Litt said: “I’m not touching this with an 11-foot pole. It is a very important issue that the intelligence community is looking at very carefully, and it will issue a report in due time.”
(Reporting by Joseph Menn; editing by David Rohde and Grant McCool)