Former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos is relieved that the Mueller Report has finally been released, he confessed to Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI), on an episode of the World Class podcast.
“There have been a lot of things bouncing around in my head that have either been not appropriate for me to talk about or would probably violate U.S. law,” said Stamos, who is an adjunct professor at FSI.
Stamos told McFaul that he was pleasantly surprised by the thoroughness of the investigation by Robert Mueller’s team, and that he thinks the report did a good job of distinguishing between the activity carried out by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll” group, and the GRU, Russia’s military foreign-intelligence service.
As explained in the Mueller Report, the IRA used non-technical methods to create divisive narratives among Americans, which included contacting the family members of victims of police shootings and encouraging them to post on social-media websites. The GRU was more straightforward in its interference in the 2016 presidential election, hacking documents and emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
But Stamos was surprised to learn that Mueller’s team found no evidence of coordination between these groups.
“It seems these organizations were working semi-independently — perhaps to a shared goal of weakening the United States, or perhaps to a shared goal of supporting Donald Trump — but without a lot of coordination,” he said. “That was surprising to me, that you would have free agents doing this work.”
Stamos noted that the report did link the GRU to DCLeaks — a website that publicized emails belonging to prominent U.S. government and military leaders — and that members of those organizations contacted journalists privately to serve as sources and plant stories in the U.S. media.
The targeted journalists should now come forward publicly with a plan for how they could do things differently during the next presidential campaign, he suggested.
“That reckoning has not happened yet — everybody’s kind of keeping quiet,” said Stamos. “The Mueller Report does block out the names of the journalists who were affected. So for now, they’re in the clear.”
Missing from the report, noted Stamos, is a thorough explanation of Russia’s plan for influencing the U.S. election, including details about the coordination and communication between Russian troll groups and hackers.
“For those of us on the unclassified side, it is still not clear who was driving the agenda of the IRA,” Stamos pointed out. “What kind of help are they getting? And I think that information is going to be critically important in 2020. From the data I have seen, the IRA has gotten much better about covering their tracks since we caught them in 2017.”
Facebook and some of the other large tech companies have improved their capabilities too, with the aim of more effectively combating potential Russian influence in the 2020 election. For example, explained Stamos, when he was Facebook’s Chief Security Officer he helped create a team to study potential propaganda actors and it has grown steadily over the last couple of years.
Related: Listen to FSI director Michael McFaul and Greg Miller — a national security correspondent for the Washington Post – discuss the challenges that policymakers and journalists face in investigating Russia, and how democracy in the U.S. has fared since 2016 here.