Is the Kremlin trying to throw the U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump? It sounds like something out of a spy novel. But many cybersecurity experts, as well as the Hillary Clinton campaign, are now saying the Russians are responsible for last month’s hack of the Democratic National Committee.
That hack has dominated the news cycle on the eve of the Democratic convention, and for good reason. The emails disclosed Friday by WikiLeaks are embarrassing. They show DNC chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, plotting to undermine the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, confirming the worst suspicions of the left flank of the party. She resigned her post on Sunday.
But the bigger issue is who was responsible for the hack in the first place. Bob Gourley, a former chief technology officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency and now the co-founder and partner Cognitio, a cybersecurity consultancy, told me Sunday that he thinks the Russians did it.
“The software code that I have seen from the hack had all the telltale signs of being Russian, including code re-used from other attacks,” Gourley told me. “This is a really big deal. Some people in the community are saying this is the Russians pretending to be a hacker, then giving that information to Julian Assange is all part of an operation.” (Assange founded WikiLeaks.)
Gourley is not alone among cybersecurity experts. When the hack of the DNC was first disclosed in June, the security firm Crowdstrike alsopointed to the Russians. Crowdstrike investigated the incident for the Democratic party and concluded it was the same actor that penetrated the State Department, White House and Pentagon unclassified systems in 2015. Describing the code used for the penetration in a blog post, Crowdstrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch wrote: “Both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.”
Over the weekend, the Trump and Clinton campaigns traded accusations on the issue.
Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook told ABC News the experts consulted by the campaign said it was Russia. Paul Manafort, who runs the Trump campaign, responded that this was “pure obfuscation.”
The technical case for attributing the DNC hack to Russia rests in the similarity of the code found on the committee’s servers to other hacks believed to have originated in Russia. Gourley acknowledges though this isn’t foolproof. “It could be some hacker in a garage in Florida found this code and re-used it,” he said. “But historically the bad guys re-use their own code a lot.”
There is also a circumstantial case that the Russians are behind the hack. To start, Vice Magazine’s Motherboard channel got hold of the alleged Romanian hacker, Guccifer 2.0, who has claimed credit for the cyber skullduggery. The hacker was asked to describe his hack in Romanian and couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in the language.
Then there is the question of who benefits. While Clinton implemented a reset in relations with Russia when she was secretary of state, she has since soured on Moscow. When Russian irregulars invaded Ukraine in 2014, she compared Putin to Hitler.
Trump on the other hand has bucked his party’s Russia hawks. He has said he would only aid NATO states if they paid their fair share of the defense burden in Europe. Until Trump, no Republican presidential nominee has questioned the U.S. mutual-defense commitment enshrined in NATO.
Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me that it was in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s interest for “the Democrats to keep power over foreign policy and to have Hillary Clinton — architect of the Russia reset policy that opened the door for Putin’s aggression throughout the globe — become president.” He added: “That’s why I like this particular conspiracy theory even though I don’t believe it — it would mean Putin is far less intelligent than I thought, and that would be comforting to me.”
Mike Vickers, a former undersecretary of defense for Intelligence and a Clinton supporter, disagrees. “I think all signs point to cyber actors with ties to Russian Intelligence,” he told me on Sunday. “What is unprecedented, it seems to me, is the use of these tools for covert political influence against the United States during a presidential general election.”
That indeed would be unprecedented. The Russians operate RT, an English-language television network that gives airtime to 9/11 conspiracy theorists and other anti-American views. If the Russians are behind the DNC hack, it would be a new tactic that combines the state’s overt influence operations with its covert cyber-spying.
Mike Flynn, who served as Defense Intelligence Agency director between 2012 and 2014 and is an adviser to the Trump campaign, told me he wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians were behind the DNC hack. “Both China and Russia have the full capability to do this,” he said. “If someone were to find out Russia did this I would not be surprised at all.” Flynn said, however, that the real problem is that there is very poor information security for U.S. political parties and campaigns. “This is another email scandal for the Democratic party,” he said.
There is something to this. Last year a group called the Online Trust Alliance surveyed major presidential campaign websites and found that only six met basic standards for security, privacy and consumer data protection.
Part of the problem is that the Federal Election Commission does not impose basic cyber security standards for political parties and campaigns the way the Federal Trade Commission does for U.S. businesses. “By not having a regulator that has the authority to investigate the campaigns and the data security practices of political parties, it was only a matter of time before a campaign or national party was hacked,” Chris Soghoian, the chief technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union told me.
In this sense, the problem of Russian hacking may be bipartisan. In May, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said there were indications of hacks against both the Trump and Clinton campaigns.
This may be true, but so far only the Democrats have seen their pilfered emails made public. In that sense it looks like the Russians are playing favorites in American politics, something the Kremlin has accused the U.S. of doing to Russia for the last 100 years.