The Russian penetration of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network at first glance seems like the “third-rate” burglary that Richard Nixon’s tricksters tried to pull at the DNC’s headquarters in 1972. But just as with Watergate, this latest political thievery has the earmarks of becoming a first-rate thriller.
I’ve written before about advances in cyber warfare, such as a Chinese cyber-mercenary gang known as Icefog,with apparent strong connections to the Chinese military. And while most cyber attacks are meant to gather intelligence and, if possible, not leave a trace, a few have become notoriously public, such as North Korea’s revenge attack on Sony Pictures for releasing a comedy that poked fun and insults at North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The U.S. intelligence service, on the other hand, is widely believed to have unleashed an invasive program called Stuxnet against Iran that physically sabotaged its nuclear program. Rather than corrupt computer files, Stuxnet caused centrifuges for processing nuclear material to spin too fast and self-destruct.
So any strong U.S. reaction to the Russian hack of DNC email servers would have been like saying they were “shocked, shocked to learn there was cyber spying going on around here.” In fact, the initial reaction was an admission that foreign countries, and our own, hack files of political organizations in other countries, friendly or not, to regularly gather insight into another nation’s key politicians. There’s a sort of nudge-and-a-wink attitude about such political spying, perhaps because it’s better for all sides if everyone’s up to speed on each country’s political landscape.
It was the release of DNC’s emails to Wikileaks, however, that seemed to cross the line.
“I tell you, there’s something phony going on … I said [he] is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life, and even now I feel that way – this minute. And yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, something tells me it’s not true. It’s just not true …. In fact, he’s probably one of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever known in my whole – all my life.”
– from the movie “The Manchurian Candidate,” 1962
Evidence of Russian Involvement Mounts
Diplomats, cyber security experts, and journalists are saying, with growing supporting evidence, that the Russians are attempting to influence the coming U.S. presidential election by undermining the Democrat’s campaign and shifting more support to Trump.
A major power attempting to surreptitiously influence a foreign country’s national election? I’m shocked, shocked to learn…. Oh, wait, I’ve used that quote already.
Neither the Eastern nor Western powers have their hands clean on that issue. But this is the first time that a major power on one side of Cold War II, A New Threat, has tried to insert that influence in the elections of the opposing major power through cybernetic means. Just a click on the send button sent the DNC’s embarrassing emails to Wikileaks, and the first day of the Democratic Convention into heated chaos. Of course, the Bernie Sanders campaign has grumped for months about the DNC’s bias toward Hillary Clinton, but the leak of thousands of emails put that much more salt on the wounds of Bernie’s supporters, increasing the chances that a significant portion of those supporters wouldn’t switch to Clinton.
This Isn’t Watergate
If the Russians are indeed behind the hack of the DNC emails and leaked them just before the Democrats’ convention began, the correct analogy here isn’t Watergate, but “The Manchurian Candidate.” Trump’s comments that praised Russian President Vladimir Putin raised concerns early on in the campaign. But Trump’s threat in a July 20 New York Times interview that showed tepid support at best for NATO really started ringing alarm bells beyond Democrats and Republicans. Instead of sending military support to a NATO country if it is attacked, Trump might just send notice of an overdue bill if financial obligations to NATO haven’t been met. That alone would make Trump the Russians favored candidate.
Hey, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un even officially endorsed Trump in June.
But unlike the Manchurian Candidate, the Russians didn’t need to brainwash Trump to make him their favorite. It seems he brainwashed himself, raising concerns and fears in military and diplomatic circles.
The evidence pointing to Russia’s involvement is strong. When the DNC discovered something was wrong with its network, it called in CrowdStrike, a security firm that specializes in countering advanced network threats.
As reported on the technology website Motherboard, CrowdStrike discovered and identified two groups had separately hacked into DNC’s networks. Both groups, already known in cyber security as Advance Persistent Threats – you know, spies – are linked to the Russian intelligence services. At the DNC’s request, CrowdStrike made its report public in June.
A day after the report’s release, however, the twitter account @Guccifer_2 appeared claiming he was a lone hacker who invaded the network and sent some of the purloined emails to The Smoking Gun and Gawker. Then on the Saturday before the Democrats convened, WikiLeaks released thousands of the DNC’s emails.
CrowdStrike and other security experts insist the evidence linking the original hack to the Russian groups is strong. Evidence that Gawker 2 is part of the same Russian hack is not as strong, but growing.
Authors of science fiction and thrillers love to write about plots that evolve through cyberspace, with computers by themselves eventually taking control of military missile sites or massive satellite lasers to wreak havoc on the world. The real world can be more subtle. A hack of a less than secure site, a few good words to a foreign politician who thrives on praise that other politicians don’t seem to give him at home, and a timely release of embarrassing emails could throw an election and put a bamboozled candidate into the White House.
Someone in Russia, whether it was Putin himself or an underling who thought this was a good idea, set out to rig this election in a way no one expected. Will it work? At this point, it was a one day commotion, and may backfire on them by reinforcing the connection between Russia and Trump.
On the other hand, Trump held a news conference this morning and doubled down on the issue. Figuring the Russian cyber soldiers already stole them four years ago, he asked Putin to release Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails from when she was Secretary of State.
After all, what are friends for?
The Atlantic: Trump Time Capsule #57: Russia, and Taxes