NSA, FBI: Russian cyber tactics, ‘loudness’ key differences in 2016 election interference [Updated]

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FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, right, prepare to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Editor’s note: This report has been updated since the original post at 3:30 p.m., March 20.

NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers told Congress on Monday that the “cyber dimension” marked a key difference in the Russian active measures used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, compared to previously observed Russian operations against prior elections.

Rogers told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that, the “biggest difference was cyber to gain access to and extract information.” While U.S. adversaries have employed cyber operations in past elections, Rogers noted we have never seen cyber used to get and publish such a large volume of information.

For the first time, and noting “unusual circumstances,” FBI Director James Comey confirmed publicly an FBI investigation, as part of its counterintelligence mission, into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“And that includes” Comey said, “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”

The investigation was launched in July 2016 and is ongoing, Comey said. Throughout testimony, Comey declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, including its exact scope or who specifically is subject to it. “We will follow the facts wherever they lead,” Comey said.

Asked about recent tweets by President Donald Trump that alleged the Obama administration “wiretapped” then-candidate Trump, Comey said, “I have no information to support the president’s tweets. Neither does the Department of Justice.”

Rogers flatly denied he asked the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (the U.K. equivalent of the NSA) to spy on Trump on behalf of President Barack Obama, as has been alleged by Trump and Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “Nor would I,” Rogers added.

Comey said there was “no evidence” to suggest that Russia was successful in changing vote tallies via cyberattacks on voting machines. Comey said there were efforts aimed at voter registration systems in various states, but “no efforts aimed at the vote itself.”

While none of the allegations on vote tallies have been substantiated, Comey and Rogers confirmed at various times during testimony that Russia was active during the 2016 election and that Russian operations had “many” targets – including the political operations and organizations of both Republicans and Democrats.

Comey said the “loudness” of Russian cyber operations marked a key difference from previous activities. Russian cyber operations were “unusually loud” because, Comey said, Russia “wanted us to see what they were doing.”

When asked the Russian motive for overt operations, Comey could not say specifically, but noted that Russia wanted to undermine the credibility of the democratic system. Comey said one intent for the “loudness” of Russian active measures would be “freaking people out.”

Asked whether the U.S. should expect future Russian interference in U.S. elections, Comey said, “They’ll be back in 2020 – maybe in 2018.”

Rogers confirmed that he “fully expects” the Russians will continue active measures in future U.S. elections and that Russia is currently interfering with upcoming European elections. In Europe, Rogers said, Russia is using similar tactics to those used in 2016 against the U.S. According to Rogers, the Russian active measures in Europe include disinformation, fake news and the use of compromising information – a tactic the Russian’s call kompromat.

Many committee members asked about leakers and U.S. government anonymous sources to the media, who have fueled reports and allegations about the Trump campaign’s “collusion and coordination” with the Russian government during and shortly after the election.

Committee Chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in opening remarks that one of three main purposes of the hearing and ongoing investigations is to find who leaked or facilitated the leaks of classified information and to bring them to justice.

Rogers said he was “greatly concerned about leaks of classified information.” Comey echoed Rogers in saying leaks of classified information are serious and that “leakers should be pursued and prosecuted.”

Comey said one frustration is that the leaks are often inaccurate, because the leakers are “one hop” from individuals who actually know the classified information. However, the FBI never confirms – or corrects, if reported inaccurately in the media – leaked information.

Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., who chairs the NSA and cybersecurity subcommittee, conducted one of the longer lines of questioning in the hearing. He asked about “incidental collection,” wherein U.S. citizens’ identities are unintentionally captured within lawful foreign intelligence collection on non-U.S. persons.

Rogers revealed there are only 20 individuals within NSA who have the power to “unmask” the identities of American citizens who are unintentionally captured by “incidental collection.” In the “incredibly small” number of these incidents, Rogers said, a U.S. citizen’s identity could not be “unmasked” unless there is a legitimate need to know required by the audience in the performance of their official duties and if the identity is necessary to understand the intelligence value of the report.

Rooney referred to the leaks that revealed the identity of Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. as breaking “a sacred trust” between the American public and the U.S. intelligence community.

“For those who break that sacred trust,” Rooney said, “if they are not held accountable, it is very difficult for us to keep that sacred trust” so the American people know that “what we’re doing is valid and has no nefarious motivations.”

In later questioning along the same lines, Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., asked Comey how many people within the FBI would have the power to unmask the identity of a U.S. citizen masked in an intelligence report. Comey could not quote an exact number, but he emphasized the “culture” behind masking and unmasking is “more important.” Comey described the FBI as “obsessive – in a good way” about required Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) protections of U.S. citizens’ privacy.

Asked who else could unmask the identity of a U.S. citizen captured by incidental collection, Comey pointed to the FBI, NSA, CIA and main Justice department. Asked whether the White House could unmask, Comey explained that the authority to unmask usually resides with the collector of intelligence, not the consumer. As a consumer of intelligence, the White House must, Comey said, ask the entity who collected the intelligence to perform unmasking.

The issues of “incidental collection,” “unmasking” of U.S. citizens’ identities and leaking of unmasked identities are broader concerns because FISA Section 702 – which permits foreign intelligence collection on non-U.S. persons – will be up for reauthorization later this year.

Section 702 proponents note that it helps the U.S. intelligence community protect the country, but critics raise concerns about the potential for privacy violations of U.S. citizens.

The hearing turned partisan at times. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., alleged a Russian “web of influence” – with Russia President Vladimir Putin as the “tarantula” at the center – that extends to current Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both former business executives who have had past extensive commercial dealings in Russia. Speier provided no proof beyond circumstantial evidence to support her claims.

Speier characterized Russia’s actions as “an act of warfare and the American people should be concerned about it.”

Comey and Rogers did not address whether Russian activities should be considered acts of war, but both asserted the seriousness of Russia’s actions throughout the hearing.

Andre Carson, D-Ind., suggested former Trump campaign staffers Carter Page and Paul Manafort, as well as Flynn, were all compromised by the Russian government but once ultimately revealed, each was forced to resign. Carson provided no evidence to back his claim.

Rogers and Comey stood by the findings in the U.S. intelligence community’s report on Russian election interference, part of which was released in an unclassified format in January 2017.