Threat Management, Threat Intelligence, Network Security

Declassified intelligence report says Putin, Russia meddled in U.S. presidential election


Russian President Vladimir Putin directly ordered a campaign consisting of cyberespionage, hacking and propaganda to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in order to subvert America's democratic process, malign candidate Hillary Clinton, and spoil her chances at victory, according to the declassified version of a joint intelligence assessment released on Friday.

Moreover, Russia developed a clear preference for President-elect Donald Trump and attempted to help him win the presidency through both covert and overt actions, continued the report, a highly classified version of which was previously shared with President Barack Obama. A joint effort of the CIA, FBI and NSA, the report did not provide an analysis of how the campaign may have influenced voters and whether it was ultimately responsible for placing Trump into power.

“Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow's longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-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 reads.

Officially released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the report details that in July 2015, Russian Intelligence hacked into the networks of the Democratic National Committee, where it maintained persistence through at least June 2016. U.S. intelligence experts believe that the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, began cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election around March 2016.

“We assess that the GRU operations resulted in the compromise of the personal e-mail accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures. By May, the GRU had exfiltrated large volumes of data from the DNC,” the report states. Russia subsequently used the website as well as the fictional hacker persona Guccifer 2.0 to publicize this stolen data, and also relayed files to WikiLeaks.

The election hackers did not, however, sabotage voting machines to change vote tallies, intelligence officials noted in the report, though they did gain and maintain access to “elements of multiple U.S. state or local electoral boards.”

Meanwhile, CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper met with Trump today to brief him on their findings. A statement by Trump following the meeting said that the discussion was “constructive,” and that the president-elect has "tremendous respect for the work and service done" by the intelligence community, but still appeared to minimize the nature of Russia's actions.

“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democratic National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” the statement read.

Trump also referenced Russian attempts to hack the Republican National Committee (RNC), but said that “the RNC had strong hacking defenses and the hackers were unsuccessful.” However, the joint intelligence assessment offered a more nuanced take: “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign,” the declassified document reads.

Interestingly, the report notes that when it appeared Clinton would win the election, Moscow shifted its tactics to undermine her expected presidency and the validity of the election. For example, Pro-Kremlin bloggers had reportedly prepared to launch a #DemocracyRIP Twitter campaign on election night if she had won.

The report was issued on that same day that the FBI fired back in the face of earlier claims by a DNC spokesperson to the news outlet BuzzFeed that the agency never requested to examine the DNC's hacked servers. According to the FBI, the DNC initially denied the agency permission to investigate its systems.

“The FBI repeatedly stressed to DNC officials the necessity of obtaining direct access to servers and data, only to be rebuffed until well after the initial compromise had been mitigated,” read a statement Friday from a senior FBI official. “This left the FBI no choice but to rely upon a third party for information. These actions caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier.”

In an email sent yesterday to BuzzFeed, Eric Walker, the DNC's deputy communications director, stated,“The DNC had several meetings with representatives of the FBI's Cyber Division and its Washington (DC) Field Office, the Department of Justice's National Security Division, and U.S. Attorney's Offices, and it responded to a variety of requests for cooperation, but the FBI never requested access to the DNC's computer servers.”

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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