US spies caught a Russian military-intelligence officer bragging about causing chaos in the upcoming US election six months before the vote, according to a new Time magazine cover story by Massimo Calabresi.
Although a declassified intelligence report released in January concluded that Russia ordered an influence operation to try to sway the 2016 election, it was in May 2016 that American spies were hearing the first talk of it in Moscow.
Citing “senior intelligence officials,” Time reports that a Russian military officer with the GRU (its military-intelligence agency) was caught speaking with a colleague, saying that he would cause chaos in the upcoming American election as payback for what Hillary Clinton did to foment protests in Russia during her time as secretary of state.
What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast 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. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.
American intelligence later concluded the influence operation was approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had the goal of undermining faith in US democratic institutions, and to harm Hillary Clinton during the campaign and undermine her if she became president.
“Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report said.