WASHINGTON — The Russian government is likely to try to influence the 2020 presidential election, not through the release of stolen emails and other documents but through faked videos, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said on Tuesday.
The United States has become adept at quickly identifying the perpetrators of so-called hacking and dumping operations that result in the release of potentially damaging material, increasing the risk for Moscow that Washington will respond, said Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat who leads the committee.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, emails and documents were stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign and then released publicly, influencing the presidential race.
“The Russians may feel if they are too overt about it, the risk of blowback is simply too great,” Mr. Schiff said at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But there are other ways to have potentially even bigger impact than hacking and dumping.”
Mr. Schiff said he was particularly worried about the effect of falsified videos, known as deep fakes. Such videos could be easily introduced into social media, where they will spread rapidly.
A carefully crafted, controversial fake video, Mr. Schiff said, would be “hugely disruptive and hugely influential.” The risk is amplified because if a video is executed carefully, it can be hard to both prove it is fake and show where it came from.
Deep fakes are particularly dangerous, because even if avoided by the mainstream media, they can have an impact on the electorate. In a partisan and divided country, Mr. Schiff said, some so-called experts will go on one television channel and proclaim the videos authentic while other experts appear on other networks and declare they are fake.
“The public will be left to doubt,” Mr. Schiff said.
Even fake videos can have a pernicious effect, he said. “You will never completely shed the negative lingering impression you have,” he added.
The House Intelligence Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the deep fake videos on June 13.
A doctored video that appeared last month of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, was an example of a “cheap fake,” Mr. Schiff said, and easily shown to be falsified. But, Mr. Schiff said, when President Trump pushed out the video on his Twitter account it showed that the United States was “on treacherous ground.”
Secret recordings, like Mitt Romney’s 2012 comments about 47 percent of the public being dependent on the government, have shown they can have outsize impact on elections. And Mr. Schiff and others have said that will make faked videos a temptation to organizations and countries intent on influencing an American election.
“You can imagine a videotape that is more incendiary could be election altering, and this may be the future we are heading into,” Mr. Schiff said.
Mr. Schiff, one of the sharpest critics of the administration, said Mr. Trump’s questioning of authentic tapes like the “Access Hollywood” recording and his spreading of falsified videos like that of Ms. Pelosi have “led to an environment when the truth is under assault.”
“I cannot imagine anything more corrosive to a democracy than an environment where no one can tell what is true anymore,” Mr. Schiff said. “You simply retreat to your tribe and view everything as true or false depending on what party you belong to or what group you belong to.”
In the next election, accentuating those divisions — more than electing a particular candidate — could well be the goal, said Jon B. Alterman, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The core paradox is the Russians are less interested in specific outcomes than they are in bending the nature of political discourse in the United States,” he said. “They have a mood of internal turmoil that they want to foment.”
National security strategists have argued that Russia and China have grown adept at competing with and undermining United States power with provocative actions that fall short of traditional views of conflict.
Theorists like Sean McFate, a professor at the National Defense University, have argued that the United States is too beholden to old concepts of war to quickly react and deter the information and influence campaigns that Moscow and Beijing are running against the West.
Mr. Schiff gave a nod to those arguments, talking about China’s aggressive campaign to build economic ties around the world and complaining that the United States is “still fighting the last war.”
Critics of the Trump administration, including Mr. Schiff, have argued that the government is doing too little to deter foreign states from launching cyberattacks or interference campaigns.
Russia, he said, observed the tepid public response by the Obama administration to North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures and realized there was “little risk of repercussion” by mounting cyberattacks.
The United States needs to develop a set of responses to Russian cyberattacks or interference campaigns, which could include more powerful economic sanctions than the United States has previously used, Mr. Schiff said.
“There are lots of ways we could be deterring malevolent action,” he said. “We should be looking at a menu of options and we should be looking at them now. We should be interacting and sending that deterrent message ASAP.”