WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly — and often tauntingly — denied that his government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Earlier this month he said that the cyber campaign might have been the work of “patriotically minded” Russian hackers he likened to “artists” who take to canvases to express their moods and political views.
New details reported Friday by The Washington Post reveal the extent to which the Russian meddling bore Putin’s own signature and brushstrokes.
U.S. intelligence officials have been pointing at Putin since October, when the Obama administration released a statement declaring that the stream of embarrassing emails and other material being posted online by WikiLeaks and other sites were tied to Russian hacking efforts that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized.”
A broader U.S. intelligence report released in early January went further, identifying Putin by name and concluding that one of the operation’s aims was to help elect Donald Trump.
The latest revelations center on a critical piece of evidence that led U.S. intelligence agencies to that conclusion. In particular, the CIA had obtained intelligence from sources inside the Russian government by early August that captured the Russian leader’s specific instructions to subordinates on the operation’s objectives: disparage and seek to defeat the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton while helping to deliver the White House to Trump.
One former CIA official likened the intelligence to the “holy grail,” a rare window directly into the plans and intentions of Putin, a former KGB operative who takes extraordinary precautions to protect himself from foreign surveillance. The intelligence was as raw as it was compelling, and it took other U.S. spy agencies months to reach consensus that Putin not only directed the interference but worked to defeat Clinton, a politician he disliked and suspected of fomenting internal Russian opposition.