Exploit, divide, disrupt: How the Russians used cyber techniques to rattle the U.S.

Russian "pro-disruption" efforts in election

A tweet fired off in 2015 by a woman who described herself as a New York City mother of two, claimed to her followers that her entire family got sick from a Wal-Mart turkey over Thanksgiving.

"My son Robert got in the hospital and he's still there," she wrote, according to a report Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal. "I don't know what to do!"

Shortly thereafter, according to the Journal, Twitter users spread the post and a news story was published saying 200 people were in critical condition after eating tainted turkey. However, no such thing happened, and the incident was ultimately determined to be a hoax.

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"That was a Russian test," cybersecurity expert Jim Lewis told Major Garrett on the latest episode of "The Takeout" podcast. "Wal-Mart turkeys didn't make people ill. The people who tweeted about it and complained about it were imaginary figures created by the Russians. You got an echo effect from Americans."

Lewis, who serves as a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and has advised a number of presidents on the issue of cybersecurity, joined Garrett for yogurt parfaits and ham steak at the Edgar – a restaurant in downtown DC. 

He said this is just one case that reflects the culmination of methodical studies of American behavior.

"They've been practicing for probably about four years," Lewis explained. "And they – they know that certain themes will attract Americans. Certain Americans are attracted to conspiracy theories. Health always gets attention, violence, sex. They have a list. And they put out a theme. If it bites, they go with it. If no one pays attention, they drop it and go to something else."

So, how does the U.S. fight back in a time when relations with Russia neither qualify as wartime or peacetime but a gray area in between?

"The previous administration struggled with it, as well," he said. "My favorite is still -- in discussing with them what are things we could do back to the Russians – one of the ideas they had was, well, suppose we leak Vladimir Putin's botox injection schedule. And I said, 'Is that the best we can do?'"

"That's why he looks so stern all the time. He can't move his face," Lewis said. "You feel a little sympathy for the guy."

Lewis said no, the U.S. still does not know what it can do to fight back. Piling on sanctions isn't too effective, he argues, but the indictments filed last week by special counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russian nationals, as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election, are a step in the right direction.

The Kremlin's goal, Lewis said, is to "disrupt the notion of Western democracy...It's to make us less competent, less able as a competitor against Russia. So their goal is to weaken us, and they've done a pretty good job."

But Russian disruption of the 2016 election cycle and likely the midterms in 2018, Lewis argues, was somewhat haphazard. "It's pro-disruption. When you list all the things that probably contributed to the outcome of the election, Russian meddling is at best a distant third. They don't care, as long as there's confusion and turmoil."

For more of Major's conversation with Lewis, including how intrinsically linked the Russian government is linked to the mafia and crime, download "The Takeout" podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, or Spotify. New episodes are available every Friday morning.

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Producers: Arden Farhi, Katiana Krawchenko