Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the operation to use sensitive Democrat emails obtained by hackers to undermine the campaign of Hillary Clinton, according to a report from NBC News. Citing anonymous US intelligence officials, the report says that diplomatic sources and spies working with US allies have determined with “high confidence” that Putin oversaw how the hacked emails were leaked and used in other capacities to undermine Clinton and disrupt the US presidential election.
Putin’s involvement began as a supposed “vendetta” against Clinton for her role in condemning Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011. Western critics of Russia accused Putin at the time of rigging the election by participating in large-scale voter fraud, and Clinton, as secretary of state at the time, was a vocal member of that group. From there, Putin’s vendetta evolved into what NBC’s sources say was a mission to “split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn’t depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore.”
This information sheds new light on just how unprecedented Russia’s recent espionage tactics are, as well as how deeply involved Putin has been in determining how the stolen data is used to harm the country’s enemies. It’s widely believed that hackers related to the Russian government were responsible both for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. This is also understood to have been an effort to harm Clinton’s chances of victory. However, whether Russia actively did so in an effort to promote President-elect Donald Trump is a controversial topic disputed in the intelligence community.
A report from The Washington Post last Friday, citing anonymous CIA sources, was the first to quote intelligence officials stating Russia’s actions were designed to both harm Clinton and help Trump win the election. The New York Times then reported that same evening that intelligence officials found evidence that both the DNC and the Republican National Committee were compromised by Russia hackers. However, Russia decided not to hand over the RNC data to WikiLeaks, according to those officials, as it did with the DNC data and Podesta’s emails. The FBI has disputed this interpretation of Russia’s actions, but the organization has not denied Russia’s involvement in the hacks. Instead, the FBI thinks the overall goal of the operation was to undermine the American political system at large.
Regardless of the ultimate intent, the new revelation — that Putin was directly involved with the cyberespionage operation — is sure to heighten tensions between the US and Russia. Meanwhile, Trump and his transition team have vigorously attacked the intelligence community’s findings, claiming in interviews that CIA reports are somehow a product of Democrats’ shame over losing the election. Following Trump’s initial outbursts, his team’s more calculated defense — which has called for public evidence of Russia’s involvement — is designed to cast doubt on any connections between cabinet nominees, like Exxon Mobil CEO and Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson, and Russia’s oligarchical leadership.