Analysis Outgoing US President Barack Obama has promised to take action against Russia over its alleged interference in the presidential election campaign.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that hackers linked to the Kremlin infiltrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee as well as the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta with the aim of influencing the November 8 outcome.
Russia has dismissed these allegation as baseless (or “amusing rubbish”), a denial that cut little ice with Obama given the consensus among the US intelligence community that the Kremlin ran a dirty tricks campaign. Even the FBI now accepts, after initial reluctance, the CIA's conclusion that Russia helped miscreants meddle with the election.
"I think there's no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact on the integrity of our elections, that we need to take action and we will, at a time and a place of our own choosing,” Obama told US public radio network NPR. "Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be."
Obama also gave a press conference today – his final one as US President – in which he discussed the hacking claims and all but pinned the blame on Vladimir Putin's government. "Mr Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it ... I told him to cut it out," said Obama.
Republican president-elect Donald Trump dismissed the accusations against Russia as “ridiculous” and motivated by sour grapes. He questioned why the accusations – which had been circulating for months – had resurfaced with such force only after an election the Democrats lost. In reality, the claims had been aired in the press for months, and discussed privately among diplomats and officials: it was a looming threat rather than an excuse by sore losers.
President Obama's proposed “proportional” reprisals for the alleged meddling need to happen before the Democrat leaves office on January 20 – because, clearly, Trump is not interested in causing trouble for Vlad.
Exactly how America will exact revenge is unclear. A range of options – explicit and covert – are on the table and may involve economic sanctions or the release of sensitive data about the hidden wealth of Russian political and business figures, according to various former diplomats and foreign policy pundits.
Similarly worded cyber-threats were made against North Korea after the country was blamed for the Sony Pictures mega-hack.
By leaking emails stolen from servers, miscreants threw the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign off balance at crucial points in the election campaign cycle. The two biggest bombshells were the DNC emails that sparked the resignation of party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in July and the online dumping of the John Podesta emails, through WikiLeaks, in October.
The release of the messages was likely designed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of US political processes and its leaders in general. Weakening the Clinton campaign by portraying Hillary – a Putin critic – as elitist and out of touch was an obvious goal. The American administration's indignation is not focused on the hack itself – all intel agencies target foreign political and business leaders – but that the resulting intelligence was “weaponised” through selective leaks.
US spies concluded that the Russians also hacked the Republican National Committee (RNC) as well as the DNC but decided not to leak the Republican data trove.
The CIA reckoned Russia was motivated by a desire to tilt the election in favor of Putin-friendly and easily manipulatable Donald Trump. Private intelligence biz Crowdstrike attributed the DNC ransacking to two state-backed elite Russian hacker crews – Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear – which are linked to attacks on the German Bundestag and other campaigns.
A previously unknown hacker using the moniker Guccifer 2.0 claimed responsibility for the DNC attack. Infosec experts and the US intel community have dismissed these claims as a “smokescreen.” Uncle Sam's snoopers have "high confidence" that the Russian government hacked the DNC.
In October, the US Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence had this to say about election security:
The US Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked emails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
The substance of the allegations isn’t in itself new but has been given fresh currency by Obama’s decision to order the intelligence community to review “malicious cyber activity” during the 2016 election process. ®