U.S. intelligence overheard a Russian operative brag about targeting Hillary Clinton in the upcoming 2016 presidential election as payback for an “influence campaign” the former secretary of state ran against Vladimir Putin five years earlier.
Senior intelligence officials told Time that a Russian military intelligence officer with GRU said his group “was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election” to “pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him” during Russian elections.
In December 2011, protests broke out in 70 Russian cities “organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets,” Time reported.
Protesters took to the streets amid allegations Putin’s party United Russia rigged the election results. The protests were the largest demonstrations since the 1990s and bled into Putin’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Putin won his re-election and “dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering.”
U.S. officials who overheard Russian officials discussing their cyber campaign against Clinton wrote up their findings in a report, but intelligence experts didn’t see what was coming.
“We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” a senior intelligence official told Time.
Time reported that officials “now realize that the officer’s boat was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote.”
Time’s report runs up against claims made by Democrats and some media outlets that Russian officials tried to help President Donald Trump’s campaign during the election. Instead, Putin wanted to hurt Clinton, regardless of who was opposing her.
Putin publicly blamed Clinton for the protests, saying she set off the protests with a “signal.” The Department of State said it had only funded pro-democracy organizations in the country.
Clinton said the U.S. had “serious concerns” about the 2011 election. She called for a “full investigation of all reports of fraud and intimidation.”
“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” Clinton said. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.”
Four days later more than 50,000 protesters marched on Moscow. Smaller demonstrations had taken place in the previous week. Another major protest took place on December 24.
In May 2012, protesters demonstrated outside in Moscow the day before Putin’s inauguration.
“She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work,” Putin said of Clinton in 2011. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs.”
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