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FBI Chief says Russia’s ‘information warfare’ against US has not eased

Director Christopher Wray spoke at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance Summit in Washington (Federal Bureau of Investigation/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says Russia is conducting an “information warfare” operation against the United States ahead of the 2020 presidential election, although he says he has not seen signs that Russian actors have attempted to breach election infrastructure.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on February 5 told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee that Moscow was using a covert social-media campaign to divide U.S. public opinion and exploit differences to create discord.

The remarks are in line with conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia conducted similar operations during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, an assertion Moscow continues to deny despite overwhelming evidence that it did so.

Wray said the current effort includes the use of fictional identities, computer bots, postings on social media, and disinformation.

He said the effort may intensify during an election year, but the threat is there at all times, making it more difficult to combat than a specific hacking attack.

“Unlike a cyberattack on an election infrastructure, that kind of effort — disinformation — in a world where we have a First Amendment and believe strongly in freedom of expression, the FBI is not going to be in the business of being the truth police and monitoring disinformation online,” Wray said.

In 2016, Russians hacked e-mails of the Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and probed local election systems for potential vulnerabilities.

“It is that kind of effort that is still very much ongoing,” Wray said. “It’s not just an election cycle, of course we’re now in an election year, it’s an effort to influence our republic in that regard.”

Wray told the lawmakers, however, that “I don’t think we’ve seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016.”

Still, Wray said, Russian efforts to interfere in the election through disinformation and “fake news” had not eased since 2016.

“They identify an issue that they know that the American people feel passionately about on both sides and then they take both sides and spin them up so they pit us against each other,” Wray said.

“And then they combine that with an effort to weaken our confidence in our elections and our democratic institutions which has been a pernicious and asymmetric way of engaging in affect information warfare.”

The director also raised concerns that other countries may have seen Russia’s apparent successes in 2016 and are looking to carry out similar operations in the upcoming election.

“We know other adversaries are looking very closely at what the Russians have done and taking note of it and giving active consideration to whether that’s a playbook they should adopt,” he said.