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Putin Used Russia’s Competitive Advantage in Cyber to Attack the US … Here’s How

DC DISPATCH-Land, Air, Sea, and Space used to be the battlegrounds where wars were fought.

Though the NSA added Cyber to the list in the 1990s, it attracted little public attention. The costs and casualties of wars fought on the aforementioned spheres are public, divisive, and costly. 

Given its wealth of technological talent, Russia knew that cyber warfare was a dimension in which they had a competitive advantage, so they created a sophisticated operation to influence the American election of 2016. With a “useful idiot” (in the form of President Trump) to confuse the American public, with attribution taking months to detect, the use of multiple private networks and social media, and the relatively inexpensive operation funded by cryptocurrencies, Putin doubtless thought he had a foolproof scheme to implement his attack. He had the added advantage that his group had been practicing their techniques for years in Europe and in former FSU protectorates. 

Furthermore, the legal framework governing cybersecurity was murky, international treaties lacked teeth, and post mortem detection would be complex and costly to conduct. More importantly, if his scheme worked, Trump would be President and he would be able to control the narrative and deflect any accusations of meddling by the Russians. This was a pristine anaerobic ecosystem where Russian cyber viruses could thrive and multiply and be increasingly difficult to detect -- an idiopathic nirvana where chaos and discord would reign, and Putin could solidify his control. 

So, when Putin asked us to read his lips and stated that he had nothing to do with the hacking of the DCCC, DNC, the Clinton Campaign, John Podesta’s emails and related clouds, he was able to do so with an element of deniability though not very plausibly. He must have thought his coterie of GRU agents would not leave any digital fingerprints. However, Putin gravely miscalculated the efficacy of the cover up and the intensity with which U.S. counterintelligence would follow the undetectable traces that the GRU left behind. Putin, and Trump, badly underestimated how the American institutions (the FBI and the Justice Department) would respond to an attack. While Putin/Trump were able to successfully implement an effective media disinformation campaign, they were progressively stumped by unanticipated events: Jeff Sessions’ recusal; the firing of Jim Comey and his memos that only aggravated Trump’s problems and increased suspicion about his conduct; and Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel. Trump, an impatient man by nature, bristled with each obstacle. 

Trump launched an aggressive counterattack and cover operation, refusing to attribute the hacking to Russia and calling on House Republicans to find points of attack. First, Congressman Devin Nunes undertook efforts to claim improper unmasking and violations of FISA warrants; Congressman Goodlatte tried to attack Peter Strzok, the former head of FBI counterespionage, for bias because of his unfortunate texts critical of Trump; and then a number of congressional initiatives were undertaken to impeach and/or fire Mueller and Rosenstein. So far, none of these tactics have been successful and the 29-page indictment specifically naming the 12 GRU officers responsible for the election hack sent electric shocks through the White House and Trump’s Congressional supporters. 

Russian Military Intelligence, the GRU, managed to penetrate the computer network at the DCCC by stealing the credentials of an employee in March 2016. By April 2016, both the DCCC and DNC were fully compromised and infected with Russian malware (X Agent). The theft was magnified by gaining access to the DNC, Clinton Campaign and related clouds. Russian Malware infected every computer it touched -- over 300 of them -- and created a tunnel to syphon the stolen documents. The GRU got campaign analytics detailing Clinton’s key state targets, opposition research the DNC had on Trump, as well as all fundraising data. Their theft was undetected at the time and continued to feed the Trump campaign on a real time basis. 

The theft of the information from the Democratic Party computer networks was staggering. It was so strategic that it gave the Trump campaign incredible insight into every move the Clinton campaign could or would make. With a few tweaks, Trump could affect the margin of error in key states to ensure an upset for Clinton. By stealing analytics, fundraising information, and opposition research and releasing it at opportune moments on DC Leaksand Wikileaks, the GRU was able to deflect negative media attention from Trump and magnify the divisions in the Democratic Party. Trump could now come in and focus on the three states where the disinformation could have the largest impact -- Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania -- while having the GRU complement his efforts by buying Facebook and Google ads. So, with advanced knowledge that Clinton was not going to spend much time in Wisconsin (which she deemed safe and blue) and because Trump knew her voter turnout plans, his campaign, working with GRU, could undermine and counter her plans by actively working to suppress the vote through negative ads. Thus, Trump won the election by flipping Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by 77,744 votes. 

Is it any wonder Trump is reluctant to discuss his election when he won it by such a margin of error and with support from a foreign power? President Putin’s cyber theft and disinformation campaign reached its apex in Helsinki, where he admitted that he affirmatively wanted Trump to win. Strategically, it was probably a bad idea for Trump to insist on a one-on-one meeting with Putin without any advisors present for two hours and 10 minutes, leading Lavrov to conclude that the meeting was “Better than Super.” The question is, for whom? Certainly not for the American people, who still remain ignorant of its content one week later and must rely on Russian TV to get information about the topics discussed. 

The Helsinki press conference that followed did nothing to confirm Trump’s allegiances. By calling his fellow countrymen stupid and foolish while refusing to acknowledge the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian hacking, Trump departed from his agreed upon script. Instead, he gave us a rambling, nonsensical non sequitur about the Clinton server and the” rigged witch hunt.” If Trump had spent 15 minutes reading the previous week’s indictment of GRU and noted the specificity with which it addressed server access and methods of penetration, he would have defaulted to a different argument. To the delight of Putin, Trump stated that “he (Putin) just said it is not Russia. I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be Russia (hacking). Even after making a correction from “would” to “wouldn’t” Trump sided with a tyrant who digitally assaulted our country. The rebuke has been bipartisan, but Trump is now back to calling the Russian hacking “a great big hoax.” The only thing he managed to do was confirm his loyalty to Putin and increase concerns that his allegiance is not to the U.S. Constitution but to the Kremlin. Even more concerning is what classified information Trump may have shared with Putin that may further weaken our institutions. 

As I surf through multiple news outlets to get an alternative perspective, I still see the same false claims circulating: “Hillary sold the U.S. to the Russians in Uranium One;” “Obama should have done something to the Russians while in office;” “Obama was their patsy;” “Democrats are in the back pocket of the Russians.” When I asked my friend if he knew about the Foreign Committee on Investment (the group of 12 cabinet secretaries that approves acquisitions of which Hillary Clinton was only one), he didn't. When I asked him if he knew that Russian malware was still in the DNC until October 2016 and that the attribution of the malware, tunneling software, VPNS, websites, and distribution would take months to uncover and would only become obvious once Obama was no longer President, he didn't. 

The specifics of the GRU actions would only be proved on Trump’s watch. Moreover, our President has done nothing to ensure the integrity of the electoral system for 2018. So, while we continue to be bitterly divided by the Trump Presidency, have U.S. news outlets crossed the line and become part of the Trump/Putin propaganda machine by promoting “fake news”? As we all lose confidence in ourselves and ponder the fate of our Democracy, one thing is clear, we must rely on original documents and intelligence to assess who is lying and who is telling the truth.

 

(Sara Corcoran is publisher of the National Courts Monitor and writes for CityWatch, Daily Koz, and other news outlets.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.