(CNSNews.com) - "Russia, for years, has conducted influence operations targeting our elections," an FBI agent told Congress on Wednesday. But what made 2016 different was the degree of interference, facilitated by the Internet, said Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division.
"The Internet is just -- has allowed Russia to do so much more today than they've even been able to do in the past," Priestap said.
In his opening statement to the Senate intelligence committee, Priestap explained why Russia is conducting what he called "information warfare."
His remarks provide a succinct answer to the question: "What does Russia want?"
Russia, for years, has conducted influence operations targeting our elections," an FBI agent told Congress on Wednesday. But what made 2016 different was the degree of interference, facilitated by the Internet, said Bill Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division. As you well know, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the world's two great powers. However, in the early 1990s, it collapsed and lost power, stature and much territory. In a 2005 speech, Vladimir Putin referred to this as a major catastrophe. The Soviet Union's collapse left the U.S. as the sole super power.
Since then, Russia has substantially rebuilt, but it hasn't been able to fully regain its former status or its former territory. The U.S. is too strong and has too many alliances for Russia to want a military conflict with us. Therefore, hoping to regain its prior stature, Russia has decided to try to weaken us and our allies.
One of the ways Russia has sought to do this is by influence, rather than brute force. Some people refer to Russia's activity, in this regard, as information warfare, because it is information that Russia uses as a weapon.
In regards to our most recent presidential election, Russia used information to try to undermine the legitimacy of our election process. Russia sought to do this in a simple manner. They collected information via computer intrusions and via their intelligence officers, and they selectively disseminated e-mails they hoped would disparage certain political figures and shed unflattering light on political processes.
They also pushed fake news and propaganda. And they used online amplifiers to spread the information to as many people as possible. One of their primary goals was to sow discord and undermine a key democratic principle, free and fair elections.
In summary, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss Russia's election influence efforts. But I hope the American people will keep in mind that Russia's overall aim is to restore its relative power and prestige by eroding democratic values. In other words, its election-related activity wasn't a one-time event. Russia will continue to pose an influence threat.
Priestap told the committee he believes the Russians "will absolutely continue to try to conduct influence operations in the U.S., which will include cyber intrusions."
Later in the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) noted that American politics includes opposition research.
"It's legitimate; both side do it," he said. "You find out about your opponent. Hopefully it's embarrassing or disqualifying information if you're the opposition research person. You package it. You leak it to a media outlet. They report it. You run ads on it.
"Now imagine being able to do that with the power of a nation state, illegally acquiring things like e-mails and being able to weaponize by leaking -- leaking it to somebody who will post that and create all sorts of noise. I think that's certainly one of the (Russian) capabilities."