Russia mounted a campaign of “propaganda on steroids” seeking to influence the 2016 US presidential election, the top Democrat on the US Senate Intelligence Committee said on Thursday, listing several areas of concern about possible links to Republican Donald Trump’s campaign.
“I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation,” Senator Mark Warner told a rare public intelligence committee hearing on alleged Russian efforts to influence elections in the United States and Europe. “We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but so far there is a great, great deal of smoke.”
Trump has dismissed suggestions of links with Moscow as Democratic sour grapes about his surprise November defeat of the party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Moscow has repeatedly denied such activity. Earlier Thursday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had not interfered and said contacts Russian diplomats had made in the United States were merely part of routine work.
The US lawmakers warned of the danger that Russia could intervene in upcoming elections in Europe and in future US campaigns. Experts at the hearing detailed what they described as the dissemination of disinformation and cyber attacks on both Democratic political operatives and Republicans.
US intelligence agencies say Russia hacked emails of senior Democrats and orchestrated the release of embarrassing information to hurt Clinton’s campaign.
The lawmakers also warned of the potential for Russian influence on upcoming elections in France and Germany, such as stories being spread to discredit German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And they said Britain’s “Brexit” vote last year on leaving the European Union should be examined.
Clinton Watts, a security consultant and former FBI agent, told Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican committee member, that he may have been victimized by such propaganda during his unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Republican nomination against Trump.
“We’re all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary,” said Senator Richard Burr, the intelligence committee’s chairman.
Warner, who was a technology executive before entering politics, described a sweeping Russian campaign using trolls and botnets, or networks of hacked or infected devices, to disseminate large amounts of disinformation.
The campaign of “fake news” was particularly targeted at traditionally Democratic-leaning states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Trump defeated Clinton by narrow margins that were not predicted by opinion polls, he said.
“This Russian ‘propaganda on steroids’ was designed to poison the national conversation in America,” Warner said.
Citing concerns to be addressed in the committee’s probe, Warner listed the prediction by a Trump associate about the release of hacked emails weeks before they were released, a change in the Republican Party’s platform to water down language on Ukraine, and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and other Trump associates being forced to step down over alleged ties to Russia.
A separate investigation in the House of Representatives into Russia’s alleged role in the U.S. election has become mired in controversy over accusations that its Republican chairman, Trump ally Devin Nunes, is not impartial.