They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the November 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, after the election, Reuters reported.
The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin's office.
The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.
It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.
A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system's legitimacy and damage Clinton's reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.
Read alsoRussian programmer reportedly suspected in U.S. election hacking arrested in SpainThe current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents' classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.
Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin's spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.
The documents were central to the Obama administration's conclusion that Russia mounted a "fake news" campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton's campaign, the current and former officials said.
"Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map," said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
Trump has said Russia's activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.
Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump's quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.
Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an "absolute pack of lies." "And by the way, it's not the first pack of lies we're hearing from 'sources in U.S. official circles'," the spokesperson said in an email.