US: Russia could try to covertly advise candidates in 2020

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FILE – In this June 5, 2015, file photo, the Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. The Department of Homeland Security and FBI warned states earlier this year that Russia could look to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections by covertly advising political candidates and campaigns. That’s according to a law enforcement memo obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Homeland Security and FBI warned states earlier this year that Russia could look to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections by covertly advising political candidates and campaigns, according to a law enforcement memo obtained by The Associated Press.

The Feb. 3 document details tactics U.S. officials believe Russia could use to interfere in this year’s elections, including secretly advising candidates and campaigns. It says that though officials “have not previously observed Russia attempt this action against the United States,” political strategists working for a business mogul close to President Vladimir Putin have been involved in political campaigning in numerous African countries.

The memo underscores how Trump administration officials are continuing to sound alarms about the prospect of future Russian interference in American politics even as President Donald Trump has sought to downplay the Kremlin’s involvement in his 2016 win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Because it was prepared before the coronavirus outbreak, the memo does not reflect how the pandemic might affect the tactics Russia might use to interfere with the election.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security had no immediate comment Monday, and an FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.

The document, described as a “reference aid” and titled “Possible Russian Tactics Ahead of 2020 US Election,” does not identify particular candidates or campaigns that Russia might support through its actions. U.S. officials have said Russia supported Trump in 2016 and took steps to help his campaign and harm Clinton’s candidacy. Intelligence officials briefed lawmakers in February about Russian interests in this year’s election.

Russia has denied the interference.

More generally, the memo warns of eight possible Russian tactics for this year’s elections, dividing the concerns into what officials say are “high” threats and “moderate” threats.

Among the high threats are the possibility Russia could hack and leak information like it did in the 2016 campaign, when emails stolen from the Clinton campaign by Russian military hackers were published by WikiLeaks.

Other high threats include that Russia could use “state-controlled media arms to propagate election-themed narratives to target audiences,” use economic and business levers to influence political objectives inside the U.S., and rely on fake social media personas to promote Russian interests and sway American opinion.

Lesser, or “moderate,” threats include targeting or manipulating election infrastructure, such as voter databases and vote-tallying systems, and providing financial support to American political candidates or campaigns.

The possibility the Kremlin could covertly advise candidates and campaigns is also described as a moderate threat, but it’s noteworthy because this is not a concern U.S. officials routinely highlight in public when they warn of Russian election interference. The memo says “Russia has sought to take advantage of countries that have perceived loopholes in laws preventing foreign campaign assistance.”

That tactic has not yet been observed in the United States, the officials wrote, though the document notes that Russian strategists believed to be working for Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman known as “Putin’s chef” because of his ties to Putin, “were involved in political campaigning in approximately 20 African countries during 2019.”

An October report from the Stanford Internet Observatory detailed a social media operation in multiple African countries, attributed to Prigozhin-linked entities, that supported certain candidates, created pages to resemble reliable news coverage and published content and narratives consistent with Russia’s foreign policy aims.

Prigozhin was among the Russians indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation for his role in a furtive social media campaign aimed at sowing discord among Americans ahead of the 2016 U.S. election.

The document is unclassified but marked as “For Official Use Only.” It was prepared by cyber experts at the Department of the Homeland Security and FBI and coordinated with other federal agencies. The AP obtained it through a public records request.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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