The following is the second in a series of articles that will summarize the “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” (aka The Mueller Report). In Part 1, we looked at the ways in which the Russians used social media to influence the election. In this part, we’ll look at ways in which the Russian government carried out “hacking” operations to further influence the election.
In early 2016, the Russian government employed cyber intrusions (hacking) and releases of hacked materials damaging to the Clinton campaign. A division of Russian military intelligence called the GRU carried out these operations.
In March, the GRU began hacking (through malware and “spearphishing” campaigns) the email accounts of Clinton campaign volunteers and employees, including campaign chairman John Podesta.
In April, the GRU hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the DemocraticNational Committee (DNC). The GRU stole hundreds of thousands of documents from the compromised email accounts and networks.
In June the GRU began disseminating stolen materials through the fictitious online personas “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0.” They later released additional materials through the organization WikiLeaks.
The release of the documents was designed and timed to interfere with the election and undermine the Clinton campaign. Releases were organized around thematic issues, such as specific states (e.g., Florida and Pennsylvania) that were perceived as competitive in the election.
WikiLeaks released a searchable archive of approximately 30,000 Clinton emails and over 50,000 documents stolen from Podesta’s personal email account.
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that they were releasing. Assange repeatedly denied that the Clinton materials his organization released had come from Russian hacking.
Intrusions Targeting the Administration of U.S. Elections
The GRU also targeted computer systems of state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and companies that provided voting machine software.
In one instance in June, the GRU compromised the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections by exploiting a vulnerability in their website. This allowed them to gain access to a database containing information on millions of registered Illinois voters.
In August, GRU officers targeted employees of a voting technology company that developed software used by numerous U.S. counties to manage voter rolls, and installed malware on the company network. Similarly, in November, the GRU sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the election.
Trump Campaign Interest in Russian Hacked Materials
On July 27, candidate Trump said at a rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Donald Trump Jr. had direct electronic communications with WikiLeaks during the campaign period. On October 12, WikiLeaks wrote to Trump Jr. that it was “great to see you and your dad talking about our publications. Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us: wlsearch.tk.”
WikiLeaks wrote that the link would help Trump in “digging through” leaked emails and stated, “we just released Podesta emails Part 4.” Two days later, Trump Jr. tweeted the wlsearch.tk link.
Michael Flynn, who would later serve as National Security Advisor in the Trump Administration, recalled that Trump repeatedly requested that he, or others attempt to find the “missing” Clinton e-mails. Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley’s staffer Barbara Ledeen and investment banker Peter Smith were among the people he contacted.
Ledeen had actually begun her efforts to obtain the Clinton emails before Flynn’s request, as early as December 2015.
On December 3, she emailed Smith a proposal to obtain the emails, stating, “Here is the proposal I briefly mentioned to you…The person can get the emails which 1.) Were classified and 2.) Were purloined by our enemies. That would demonstrate what needs to be demonstrated.” Attached to the email was a 25-page proposal stating that the “Clinton email server was, in all likelihood, breached long ago,” and that the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian intelligence services could “re-assemble the server’s email content.”
According to Mueller, neither Smith nor Ledeen were ultimately successful in obtaining the “missing 30,000” emails.
Reality Leigh Winner: a Whistleblower in Prison for Alerting the Public About the Hacking Operation
An interesting footnote to the story of GRU hacking operations during the 2016 election is the lesser-known story of Reality Leigh Winner, a former NSA intelligence specialist, who is now in prison for leaking classified documents in 2017 to a news outlet informing the public about the GRU hacking operations.
Even though, arguably, Winner’s leak alerted the public to a very real threat (a threat that was in fact confirmed by the Mueller Report) to national security, she was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for violating the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that has been resurrected in recent years to prosecute whistleblowers.
This is the same law the government has used against whistleblowers Edward Snowden (who revealed widespread NSA surveillance programs) and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks). Prosecutors said Winner’s sentence was the longest ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.
Trevor Time of The Intercept writes, “Despite being consistently the most covered news story of the Trump presidency — with a seemingly avid readership — a whistleblower accused of releasing a topsecret National Security Agency document that gave the public an unprecedented window into how U.S. intelligence agencies think Russia tried to interfere has been all but forgotten.”
Despite the fact that Winner released documents that provided important information to the American public, she is facing a longer prison sentence than anyone who was indicted by Robert Mueller, including Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, etc.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, in which we look at contacts between various Russians and the 2016 Trump campaign.
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