TIME magazine continues its excellent reporting on the Russian hacking of the U.S. election in 2016. Election Hackers Altered Voter Rolls, Stole Private Data, Officials Say:
The hacking of state and local election databases in 2016 was more extensive than previously reported, including at least one successful attempt to alter voter information, and the theft of thousands of voter records that contain private information like partial Social Security numbers, current and former officials tell TIME.
In one case, investigators found there had been a manipulation of voter data in a county database but the alterations were discovered and rectified, two sources familiar with the matter tell TIME. Investigators have not identified whether the hackers in that case were Russian agents.
The fact that private data was stolen from states is separately providing investigators a previously unreported line of inquiry in the probes into Russian attempts to influence the election. In Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained drivers license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers, according to Ken Menzel, the General Counsel of the State Board of Elections.
Congressional investigators are probing whether any of this stolen private information made its way to the Trump campaign, two sources familiar with the investigations tell TIME.
“If any campaign, Trump or otherwise, used inappropriate data the questions are, How did they get it? From whom? And with what level of knowledge?” the former top Democratic staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, Michael Bahar, tells TIME. “That is a crux of the investigation.”
Spokesmen for the House and Senate Intelligence committees declined to comment on the search for stolen data.
The House Intelligence Committee plans to seek testimony this summer from Brad Parscale, the digital director of the Trump campaign, CNN reported last week. Hill investigators in February asked the White House and law enforcement agencies to ensure that all materials relating to contacts between the Trump administration, transition team and campaign had with the Russians had been preserved. Parscale did not return messages requesting comment for this story.
Both intelligence committees are looking at whether and how the intrusions could have furthered Russia’s larger strategic goals of undermining U.S. democracy, hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump. During the run up to the vote, Obama Administration cyber-security officials took steps to prepare for widespread voter registration manipulation, fearing Russia might seek to cause chaos at polling places to undermine the credibility of the election. Current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials say Russia could also have tried to use stolen voter data to gain leverage over witting or unwitting accomplices in the Trump camp, by involving them in a broader conspiracy.
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Cyber-security officials testifying at the Senate hearing acknowledged for the first time the extent of the Russian effort to interfere with the election. Twenty-one states saw such intrusions last year, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, said. None of the intrusions affected the vote count itself, all the officials testified.
That has not reassured some Hill leaders. “There’s no evidence they were able to affect the counting within the machines,” says the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California. But, he added, “the effect on the election is quite a different matter.”
The Russian efforts against state and local databases were so widespread that top Obama administration cyber-security officials assumed that by Election Day Moscow’s agents had probed all 50 states. “At first it was one state, then three, then five, then a dozen,” says Anthony Ferrante, a former FBI cybersecurity official and member of the White House team charged with preparedness and response to the cyber intrusion. At that point, says Michael Daniel, who led the White House effort to secure the vote against the Russian intrusions, “We had to assume that they actually tried to at least rattle the doorknobs on all 50, and we just happened to find them in a few of them.”
The Washington Post published a lengthy investigative report on Friday, Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault (excerpts):
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.
But at the highest levels of government, among those responsible for managing the crisis, the first moment of true foreboding about Russia’s intentions arrived with that CIA intelligence.
The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.
It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.
Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.
But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.
Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.
In political terms, Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy. It was a case that took almost no time to solve, traced to the Kremlin through cyber-forensics and intelligence on Putin’s involvement. And yet, because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.
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The post-election period has been dominated by the overlapping investigations into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia before the election and whether the president sought to obstruct the FBI probeafterward. That spectacle has obscured the magnitude of Moscow’s attempt to hijack a precious and now vulnerable-seeming American democratic process.
Beset by allegations of hidden ties between his campaign and Russia, Trump has shown no inclination to revisit the matter and has denied any collusion or obstruction on his part. As a result, the expulsions and modest sanctions announced by Obama on Dec. 29 continue to stand as the United States’ most forceful response.
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The Senate this month passed a bill that would impose additional election- and Ukraine-related sanctions on Moscow and limit Trump’s ability to lift them. The measure requires House approval, however, and Trump’s signature.
This account of the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s interference is based on interviews with more than three dozen current and former U.S. officials in senior positions in government, including at the White House, the State, Defense and Homeland Security departments, and U.S. intelligence services. Most agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
And this is just from the introduction of the report. The Post goes into a deep-dive investigation of the tick-tock of how this unfolded.
Here is a key passage of details that have been previously reported:
In early September, Johnson, Comey and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.
The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.
“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.
So once again, evil GOP bastard Mitch McConnell is at the center of the controversy. The man who has destroyed the Senate, the man who undermined the Constitution with a blockade of judicial nominees, the man who is hellbent on destroying health care in America in secret, is also the man who prevented a forceful response to Russian interference in the U.S. election. McConnell always puts partisan politics ahead of his country. He is the worst of what America represents.
And then there is Donald Trump, who made it a central theme of his campaign to undermine confidence in the election results by constantly asserting that the election is rigged, asserting and implying that the Obama administration would rig the election for Hillary Clinton. Trump also encouraged the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent, and for Wikileaks to release information the Russians hacked. Numerous members of the Trump campaign team had unusual contacts with the Russians. Vladimir Putin could not have dreamed of a more compliant puppet to parrot his plan to undermine confidence in the American electoral system than Donald Trump. Putin pulled the strings and his puppet happily danced for him. If you are looking for “collusion,” this was collusion hiding in plain sight.
Up until the publication of this Post report, Trump was the last remaining individual in America who continued to dismiss the unanimous position of U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in the U.S. election as a “hoax.”
Trump is now promoting “alternative facts” in an attempt to create an alternate reality in which he seeks to redefine the meanings of “collusion” and “obstruction.” He is a pre-pubescent man-child whose intellectual development retarded at “I know you are, but what am I?” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” This is a classic case of psychological projection.
Steve Benen reports that Donald Trump responded to the Post’s reporting in a rather amazing way during one of his many Fox News interviews. Trump blames Obama for Russian attack he doesn’t believe happened:
“Well I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it. But nobody wants to talk about that. The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before they even – before the election…. It’s an amazing thing. To me – in other words, the question is, if he had the information, why didn’t he do something about it? He should have done something about it. But you don’t read that. It’s quite sad.”
The president also had a pair of tweets on the subject over the weekend, arguing the Obama administration knew about “election meddling by Russia,” but “did nothing about it.” Trump, who now apparently refers to himself in a first-person-and-first-letter way, added, “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Even by 2017 standards, this is astonishingly foolish.
First, to argue that the Obama administration did “nothing” in response to the Russian attack is plainly wrong – Trump may have heard something about Obama imposing new sanctions on Russia that the Trump administration has thought about lifting – and contradicted by the Washington Post article the president is only pretending to have read.
Second, as recently as last week, just a few days before the Fox interview, Trump denied that Russia intervened in the American election, dismissing the allegations as a “hoax” concocted by Democrats. Now he’s saying the intervention did happen, and it was up to Obama to stop Trump’s foreign benefactors’ crimes.
If the Republican president is going to sound coherent on the subject, he should probably make up his mind, because this is getting a little silly. Trump used to argue that Russia didn’t interfere in the election; then he argued that Russia may have interfered, but it didn’t matter; then he argued that it may have mattered, but the Trump campaign didn’t cooperate with the Russian crimes; then he went back to saying Russia didn’t intervene at all, only to say a few days later that Russia did intervene, and Obama deserves the blame.
Third, if Trump is going to blame Obama and his team for not responding aggressively enough, he might also want to have a chat with congressional Republican leaders – who were notified and who refused to take the matter seriously.
Fourth, given that the Russia attack on our election was the most important attack on the United States since 9/11 – a point made clear by the Washington Post article the president is responding to – why in the world has Trump taken no action in response to the intervention he now admits happened?
And finally, for all the love of all that is good in the world, why is Trump saying he “just heard today” about this “for the first time”? Sure, the amateur president has a steep learning curve, and he appears to struggle to keep up with current events. But Americans have known for a while about the Obama White House’s challenges in responding to the Russian attack last year. Unless he daydreamed through every intelligence briefing he’s received, Trump has been notified about the details more than once, and didn’t need the Washington Post’s reporting to shed light on the subject.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard Trump say he’s “just” learned something the rest of us have known for months. Not to put too fine a point on this, but when the president resembles a low-information voter, there’s a problem.
The critical point is that the Trump administration has done nothing to counter the Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and to possibly manipulate election results.
Instead, Trump has sought to discredit the intelligence agencies and their conclusions about Russian interference in our elections, and he has sought to smear former FBI Director James Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller for investigating his campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. And as always, he has followed a pattern of deny, deflect and blame others, especially President Obama.
The Time and Post articles make clear that the Russians have the capacity to disrupt our elections on a much broader scale. But the Trump administration is disinterested in taking any actions to stop this from occurring. We are in a cyber war with Russia, and what we are getting from the Trump administration is appeasement.