Since the first signs emerged of Russian’s hack into the presidential elections, some within the intelligence community have speculated that the operations had two objectives: First to issue a not-very-subtle warning to CIA and NSA of Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities; Second, to interfere with the process and, thereby, call into question the integrity of our election process and government. Many within the intelligence community think the second motive may have been the most important, because it would undermine voters’ beliefs in Western democracies.
The Hacks Were Very Traceable
In their testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, both NSA Director Rogers and FBI Director Comey said the FSB and GRU made it clear they were behind the hacks. When asked for the difference between the Russian operations in the 2016 presidential elections and previous cyberattacks, NSA Director Rogers said, “I’d say the biggest difference from my perspective was both the use of cyber, the hacking as a vehicle to physically gain access to information to extract that information and then to make it widely, publicly available without any alteration or change.”
FBI Director Comey said, “The only thing I’d add is they were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew what they were doing or that they wanted us to see what they were doing. It was very noisy, their intrusions in different institutions.” In intelligence terms, the phrase “unusually loud” means there were many hacks and all were easily traced back to the Russians.
A person in the intelligence community with first-hand knowledge of the investigation into the Russian hacks of the DNC and state election systems told us last year that the Russians did not even try to hide their digital trails. In fact, this person said, one of the hacks traced directly back to a senior Russian intelligence official.
During the summer of 2016, our intelligence community source described the Russian hacks as “the cyber equivalent of flying a MIG 50 feet over the USS Eisenhower in the Mediterranean.”
They Wanted Us to Know
Rep. Ros-Lethinen asked the FBI and NSA directors why the Russians did not mind being loud and, thus, found out. Comey said, “I think part — their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation and so it might be that they wanted us to help them by telling people what they were doing.”
Rogers agreed with Comey. He said, “a big difference to me in the past was while there was cyber activity, we never saw in previous presidential elections information being published on such a massive scale that had been illegally removed both from private individuals as well as organizations associated with the democratic process both inside the government and outside the government.”
. . . And Maybe That Was the Point
The intelligence community source said a follow-up exchange between Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and the directors may be a key to the Russian operation. The congresswoman asked whether Comey and Rogers expect further interference in our elections.
Comey said he did, “. . . I’ll just say as initial matter they’ll be back. And they’ll be in 2020, they may be back in 2018 and one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sewed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process.”
The NSA director said, “I fully expect them to continue this — this level of activity because I — our sense is that they have come to the conclusion that it generated a positive outcome for them in the sense that calling into question the democratic process for example is one element of the strategy.”
Same Thing Is Happening in Europe
Rogers went on to testify that the Russians were using the same cyberwarfare techniques during the current round of European elections. He testified the intelligence community noticed “some of the same things that we saw in the U.S. in terms of disinformation, fake news, attempts to release of information to embarrass individuals” have begun to “play out to some extent in European elections right now.”
Within weeks of the intel officials’ testimony, a cybersecurity firm issued a report on hacks that involved both the French and German elections. Trend Micro reported that cyberattacks on the campaign of Emmanuel Macron (in the French presidential runoff against Marine Le Pen), and the political party aligned with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to have originated in Russia.
Trend Micro said the techniques (phishing attacks and malware) and internet protocol addresses used by Pawn Storm – the group behind the hacks – were similar to those the Russians conducted against the DNC and other people and entities during the 2016 elections.
The Point Is to Sow Confusion
Since the Russian hacks into the U.S. elections became public, one question that politicians and pundits have been asking is why? What was the Russian’s motive?
The official answer is that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him” – to quote directly from the Director of National Intelligence’s report.
A career Russia analyst explained that Russians are chess players, they look many moves ahead. Disinformation also is a hallmark of their tradecraft, the analyst said, who noted that a long-term goal of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Republic is to undermine Western democracies.
As the DNI report of the 2016 hacks noted, “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.” The report states that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process . . .”
The analyst’s comments and the DNI’s report lead to a set of conclusions: The Russians hack into political computers to gain access to information, which they then selectively leak. The leaks undermine political leaders’ confidence in their cybersecurity, and make them search for moles. The Russians sometimes salt the hacked documents with fake ones, to create further suspicion. In addition, through blogs, trolls, and “media reports,” the Russians push out false media reports. All of which causes voters to question what is real and what is true. All of which undermines people’s faith in elected and political institutions, and in the trustfulness of the media.
And that is the point. That is the Russian’s aim: to have us question everything and believe nothing.
The author is a former U.S. government investigator.