The post-election dustup over charges that Russia was behind the email hacks of Democratic Party officials and a top aide to Hillary Clinton only seemed to expand on Wednesday, as a GOP Senator said his campaign email had been hacked, and allies of President-Elect Trump feuded with the U.S. Intelligence Community over what is really known about the Russian operation.
I have had a lot of people in recent days ask questions about the rumblings over possible Russian interference in the 2016 elections, what has been proven, what has not, and what sort of evidence is out there and more.
So, let’s run through a little more about this story.
1. This is not about the Russians hacking the election results. Let’s get one thing out of the way at the start – this is not about hackers going after voting machines or state and local elections software, voting numbers, or anything like that. The Russians did not change the vote totals from Election Day. What U.S. Intelligence has believed – since before November 8 – is that the Russians were involved in the email disclosures by Wikileaks, which centered on officials at the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton aide John Podesta. Here is the statement that was issued by the Director of National Intelligence just over a month before Election Day:
2. But what about the evidence? Where is the evidence? As usual, U.S. Intelligence does not hand out press releases to reporters with a handy-dandy rundown of why their analysis points at Moscow. So, the statement above is the most public item there is at this point. James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, was asked about the assessment at a post-election hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. “We gave considerable thought to diming out Russia with that statement,” Clapper told lawmakers, as he said there was “forensic” and other intelligence that implicated the Russians.
3. US Intel sees links between Russia and Wikileaks. The charge that Wikileaks worked hand-in-hand with Russian Intelligence has brought strong denials from the internet freedom group, which has sternly and repeatedly denied any such link. Publicly, U.S. officials have not made a hard and fast connection between Wikileaks and the Russians, but recent reports about Russian actions indicate that some in the Intelligence Community – but maybe not all – have connected those dots. You can find ex-intelligence veterans who will say that it’s not true, and you can find others who think it’s been a badly kept secret.
4. But wait – wasn’t Podesta hacked by spear-phishing? Yes, John Podesta was the victim of a regular type of phishing attack, where he (and others inside the Clinton campaign apparatus) were fooled by a fake message from Google, telling Podesta to re-set his password. For many, that evidence shows this could not have been Russian Intelligence, as they argue Moscow would have used much more advanced means to crack into the emails of the Clinton Campaign. But a report by an internet security firm based in Atlanta found several hundred similar phishing attacks against people working for Clinton, whether via their gmail.com or hillaryclinton.com email addresses. The assessment from June was that those phishing attacks were “gathering intelligence on behalf of the Russian government.”
5. What will the Congress do on this matter? While Democrats have been pushing for an independent commission or a special committee to investigate any Russian interference, Republicans have said they will let existing committees in the House and Senate review the evidence. Not surprisingly, Democrats charge the GOP is trying to avoid getting answers – but Republicans on Wednesday night were aiming their barbs at the Intelligence Community, accusing the IC of not revealing what it knows to the Congress, by refusing to brief the House Intelligence Committee. “It is unacceptable that the Intelligence Community directors would not fulfill the House Intelligence Committee’s request to be briefed tomorrow on the cyber-attacks that occurred during the presidential campaign,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), considered a close ally of President-Elect Trump. Here is the full Nunes statement:
And here is the response from the Director of National Intelligence:
6. The CIA gets kicked around like a political football After President-Elect Trump publicly criticized the U.S. Intelligence Community last week over reports on Russian interference in the elections, some former intelligence operatives speculated that there would be retaliation against Trump by the CIA or other agencies – retaliation in the sense of pushing back with leaks against Trump on the question of Russia’s actions. Some think those type of leaks have been going on in recent days, as news stories about Russian hacks on the DNC and the Clinton campaign have been greeted with social media heckling by conservatives.
7. The White House pushes Trump on Russia. While some are giving the U.S. Intelligence Community hell, the White House has been slowly edging its way into a more confrontational mode on this matter with President-Elect Trump. The Obama White House wants some kind of review done before Mr. Trump takes office – critics contend that will be a biased reading of what the Intelligence Community really knows about Russian efforts. Here was the read of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest from Wednesday at the daily briefing:
8. It was more than just Democrats who were hacked. With reports this week that there were hacks of emails at the Republican National Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told CNN on Wednesday that his campaign email account was hacked by Russia, saying the FBI told him in August that the hack had occurred in June. “They’re trying to destabilize democracy all over the world,” Graham said of the Russians.
9. But what about the FBI and CIA disagreement on this? What the FBI and CIA disagree on is important – but don’t forget the basics. As was stated above on October 7, the U.S. Intelligence Community believes that the Russians were involved in the hacking of emails from the DNC, Podesta, and according to reports this week, maybe the RNC as well. The dispute between the FBI and CIA centers on the next step – can you categorically say that the Russians were trying to get Donald Trump elected? Or were the Russians just trying to screw with the elections.
10. Trump supporters say this is nothing more than sour grapes. For many backers of President-Elect Donald Trump, all of this hand wringing about Russia and the election is nothing more than a way for Democrats to whine about their election loss. “It’s amazing to me that after a year or more talking about the seriousness of Hillary’s four unsecured servers, that the Democrats ONLY get upset about hacking when they lose an election,” one aggravated voter told me on Facebook. Mr. Trump knows his audience well, as he seems in no mood to suddenly change his view on the Russian hacking angle, which he has labeled “ridiculous.”
Stay tuned on this Russia issue – it’s not going away anytime soon.