In an explosive claim made before the Senate Intelligence Committee, a former FBI special agent told Sen. Marco Rubio that he had been a target of Russian influence operations during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Clint Watts worked as a consultant for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division and National Security Branch and told the panel Russia’s media outlets and “trolls” sought to sideline American politicians “with adversarial views towards the Kremlin.” Watts said they may have helped “sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed.”
“Sen. Rubio, in my opinion, you anecdotally suffered from these efforts,” he said, causing the senator from Florida to look up from his seat in surprise.
The senator declined to comment on whether he believed he had been a target of the Russian government, and if he had been hacked during the campaign.
“I don’t have a reaction to that. I’m just focused on our investigation,” Rubio said in the hallway outside the committee hearing. “The broader thing is that this is not just about the hacking of emails. This is about a concerted effort to engage in propaganda in the United States to undermine individuals, to undermine our elections.”
When Rubio returned to the hearing following a brief recess, he revealed former presidential campaign staff were targeted twice by apparent Russian hackers.
"In July of 2016, shortly after I announced I would seek reelection to the United States Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team, who had access to the information of my presidential campaign, were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia," Rubio said. "That effort was unsuccessful. I would also inform the committee that within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a second attempt was made against former members of my presidential campaign team… again targeted from an IP address from an unknown location in Russia. That effort was also unsuccessful."
Rubio has long been a hawk on the Russia issue, both before his campaign for president and in the days since. He has repeatedly warned of the malicious actions of Vladimir Putin, demanded that Russia sanctions remain in place following President Donald Trump's elections, and grilled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his ties with the Russian government.
Watts, as part of his ongoing work, monitors “trolling networks” and “bots” created by the Russian government for influence operations.
Russia uses bots to push fake or fringe news stories into the mainstream, and force the press to respond to them, Watts said. And their network of online trolls even sweep up the online profiles of the place they are targeting, to build fake accounts that seem authentic to the people who live there. These trolling networks would team up with Russian-backed news networks for maximum effect.
The campaign to disrupt the American elections began to ramp up in August 2015, he said. During the presidential elections Watts noticed what he assesses to be a Russian campaign against Republican presidential candidates who stood up to Putin, Rubio included.
"It hurt [Rubio], but it also hurt people like Jeb Bush on the Republican side," Watts said. “It was the promotion of Trump over all other candidates. They were promoting him at such a volume that it drowned out organic support for Republican candidates… there’s a pumping up of one candidate and discrediting of the opponent, and there’s a combination of the two.”