United States intelligence officials now believe Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in efforts to alter the outcome of the 2016 elections in favor of Republican President-elect Donald Trump, NBC News exclusively reported on Wednesday night.
The new report offers few concrete details on the alleged Russian operation. But according to the NBC report, "two senior officials with direct access to the information" say Putin knew about and directed cyber attacks on Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The attacks released a bevy of embarrassing revelations, including DNC hostility to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' primary campaign and unflattering looks at the unfiltered thoughts of Clinton staffers.
One high-level official told NBC Putin began with a "vendetta" against Clinton, but then transitioned into a generalized attack on what Russian officials saw as corruption in the U.S. political system. As the operation continued, Putin intended to "split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore," the official said.
The CIA believes the end game of the operation became supporting Trump's candidacy and preventing Clinton from winning the election, though other agencies have not yet mirrored that assessment. But an October statement from all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies said the attacks could only have been authored with the approval of "Russia's senior-most officials."
In the wake of the NBC report, Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham voiced his suspicions he was also a target of the operation.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday FBI officials are convinced the leaks were the result of phishing attacks by a hacking enclave called "'the Dukes,' a cyberespionage team linked to the Russian government." In the case of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, a simple typo from another campaign staffer led to the inadvertent compromise of his account.
Trump himself gleefully publicized information revealed by the break-ins, often citing passages from the emails at campaign rallies across the country. In a brazen defiance of conventional political logic, the then-candidate responded to the DNC leaks in July by daring Russia to hack Clinton; the Podesta campaign emails were later released.
The real estate mogul extended olive branches to Russia throughout his campaign, promising a reboot of decaying U.S.-Russia relations. Trump recently announced one of Putin's closest U.S. allies, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, as his pick for secretary of state.
The friendly tone of Trump's rhetoric seems to have influenced U.S. opinion on Russia — at least among the GOP. As polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight noted, recent polls have shown a sharp divergence between Democrats and Republicans on attitudes towards Russia.
U.S. intelligence agencies are not always correct in their assessments, most notoriously in the lead-up to the Iraq War. But NBC's report indicates officials are likely planning to reveal a more robust case for the accusations in the coming weeks and months. It is also a clear warning shot against Putin's government, which has consistently denied any involvement.
Russian involvement does not necessarily indicate foreign interference was a crucial factor in Trump's victory. A Fox News poll published Wednesday found that 59% of Americans survey don't believe the hacking affected the election outcome.
There is no evidence Russian intelligence assets attempted to directly manipulate the final vote count, such as by fraud or hacking electronic voting machines.
This is a breaking news story and may be updated as more information becomes available.