The U.S. intelligence community now says it’s “confident” the Russian government “directed” recent hacks into the computer systems of American political groups to interfere with the U.S. election — an explosive charge that security researchers have been making for months.
A joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, issued Friday, marks the first time the United States has formally accused Moscow of carrying out computer network operations on American soil.
“We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” said the joint statement, which did not name which Russian officials or organizations carried out the attacks.
Still, the statement’s release late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend also highlights the Obama administration’s reluctance to publicly call out Russian attacks on American political organizations, which have occurred throughout the summer and emerged as a subplot in this year’s presidential contest.
Those concerns stem in part from a desire to avoid the perception that a Democratic administration is using the American intelligence community to protect the Democratic Party. Among the many targets of Russian hacking, the most prominent was the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee — and that partisan fact has complicated the White House’s response.
Intelligence officials said attacks on American political organizations are part of a larger campaign by Moscow. “The Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there,” the ODNI and DHS said in the statement.
The administration’s accusation against Russia comes after GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump declared during last month’s presidential debate there was no way of knowing who was responsible for cyber attacks on political institutions. “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?” Trump said.
Security researchers and Russia watchers describe the hacking campaign as an attempt to sow confusion and chaos ahead of the Nov. 8 election — and perhaps to influence its outcome. Trump has made several policy statements in line with Moscow’s interests — especially his declaration that he may not come to the aid of Baltic NATO members in the event of a Russian invasion. Some analysts speculate that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be attempting to throw the direction in the businessman’s favor.
Russian hackers broke into the DNC earlier this year, stealing emails and files. DNC emails later appeared on the WikiLeaks website and revealed that senior party officials had tried to undermine the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). The ensuing scandal resulted in the resignation of party chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
On Friday, WikiLeaks released the first 2,000 emails of an archive containing what it claims is more than 50,000 messages belonging to Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The organization did not disclose the source of those emails. The release comes after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pledged that his organization would be publishing material on a weekly basis during the run-up to the U.S. election.
While Friday’s statement from the Obama administration called out Russian attacks on American “persons and institutions” it did not name the DNC as one of the targets. Other targets of the Russian hacking campaign include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, and the philanthropic organizations of Democratic-leaning investor George Soros.
Emails from the hacked accounts and computer systems of American individuals and organizations have also appeared on a website called DCLeaks and another belonging to an individual calling himself Guccifer 2.0. “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the ODNI and DHS said.
Guccifer did not respond to Twitter messages Friday asking for his response to accusations from American spies that he is a Russian cut-out.
As officials have investigated the scope of Russian hacking, Washington has sought Moscow’s cooperation in forging a cease-fire agreement and eventual political solution to the Syrian civil war. The collapse of that diplomatic process this week may have paved the way for Friday’s public declaration. Administration officials did not respond to questions about whether the diplomacy over Syria had figured into the debate over how to respond to Russia.
But it remains unclear whether the public admonishment will be enough to deter Russian from further hacking. Jason Healey, a former cyber operations officer for the U.S. Air Force and a scholar at Columbia University, said American hackers “should be given the green light to actively disrupt Russian operations, not to go on the attack, but as a counter-offensive against an attack on constitutional democracy.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Obama administration official implied that such operations may already be underway. “The public should not assume that they will necessarily know what actions have been taken or what actions we will take,” he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, applauded the administration’s decision to go public. “We should now work with our European allies who have been the victim of similar and even more malicious cyber interference by Russia to develop a concerted response that protects our institutions and deters further meddling,” he said in a statement.
German and French authorities have both said they have been attacked by hacking groups linked to Russia. Both countries have elections coming up: France’s presidential elections are set for 2017 and Germany will choose a chancellor the same year. Last month, German authorities accused Russian hacking groups of targeting German political parties.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images