Watts came to studying Russian cyber meddling almost by chance
He has a counter-terrorism background
The Senate Intelligence Committee heard Thursday from a counter-terrorism expert who described a sophisticated Russian propaganda machine that specifically sought to bolster and influence President Donald Trump.
So who is Clint Watts?
Watts, who testified on a panel of experts as part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the US election, has a military and intelligence background, largely in counter-terrorism.
Watts came to studying Russian cyber meddling almost by chance, when he noticed a pattern of social media trolls attacking him online for a 2014 article he wrote about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He and two social media analyst colleagues began studying the patterns and suspicious pro-Russia WhiteHouse.gov petitions, leading them to study the Russian social media propaganda machine.
Watts has been a fellow on national security and the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute since 2011, and is a senior fellow at the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University. He published research in November with Andrew Weisburd and JM Berger titled: “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.”
Watts himself became the target of a cyberattack in 2015 after a post he wrote about the research, which prompted the FBI to notify his organization, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, about the attack, he said during his testimony. Since then, Watts and his colleagues have “watched and tracked the rise of Russia’s social media influence operations witnessing their update of an old Soviet playbook known as Active Measures,” he added.
He now works as a consultant and does training and research programs for a range of military, intelligence and law enforcement entities, his biography said. Previously, Watts served as an Army infantry officer, an FBI special agent on a joint terrorism task force and was the executive officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Watts also is a frequent writer and commentator – and often shows off his sense of humor. His biography on the website War on the Rocks adds to his resume: “His service to the nation has earned him the award of ‘Platinum Elite’ from the Marriott Corporation. Follow him on Twitter @selectedwisdom where you will not understand most of his sarcasm.”
While Watts is not known as a cyber expert, the associate vice president and director of the Center For Cyber and Homeland Security told CNN that his background in understanding networks as part of his counter-terror work makes him specially qualified to do the research he is doing on Russian propaganda.
“A lot of the analytical and methodological kind of thinking have applicability to this,” Frank Cilluffo said. “So yeah, he kind of came to it accidentally, but that background has a lot of relevance here as well.”
Cilluffo also noted that Watts often operates outside the mainstream school of thought, allowing him at times to “push the envelope.”
“He’s a good researcher, he has operational experience, he marries those up well and is an innovative or disruptive thinker, which I think can rub some people a little abrasively, but by and large he’s spot on,” Cilluffo said.
During the hearing, Watts testified on a variety of fronts that the Russian propaganda effort extended beyond the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Trump.
“This past week we observed social media campaigns targeting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hoping to foment further unrest amongst US democratic institutions,” Watts told senators.
Watts also noted that Russians likely targeted every candidate in the campaign – including one member of the Intelligence Committee, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
“They were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season – and may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed,” Watts said. “Sen. Rubio, in my opinion, you anecdotally suffered from these efforts.”
Watts also highlighted research that has been mostly reported in niche circles, including that the Russian bots strategically push propaganda when they expect Trump may be watching.
“I can tell you right now today, gray outlets that are Soviet pushing accounts tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they know he is online and they push conspiracy theories,” Watts said. “So, if he is to click on one of those or cite one of those it just proves Putin correct – that we can use this as a lever against the Americans.”
CNN’s Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.