U.S. officials first caught wind of the full extent of Russia's plot to meddle in the presidential election back in May 2016, when spies intercepted a Russian military officer boasting about his intended exploits, Time's Massimo Calabresi reported in the magazine's latest cover story:
Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay [Hillary] Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as secretary of state. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.
What the officer didn't know, senior intelligence officials tell Time, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. [Time]
As obvious as the conversation's implications may be in retrospect, Time reported that U.S. officials at the time "didn't know what to make of it." "We didn't really understand the context of it until much later," a senior intelligence official said.
Now, of course, the U.S. knows this GRU officer was foreshadowing Russia's plans to infiltrate American opinion through a wide-reaching social media campaign intended to spread disinformation. U.S. officials have learned that 2016 could just be the beginning: The Russians are now apparently "running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter" that allows hackers to "take control of the victim's phone or computer — and Twitter account."
Read the full story on Russia's growing social media powers at Time.