Russian Hacking
August 21, 2018

Microsoft said Tuesday it has shut down another six websites created by hackers linked to Russia's military intelligence, with the newest targets the U.S. Senate and two conservative think tanks critical of Russia and President Trump, the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Microsoft won a court order last year to shut down fake web domains created by the hacking group it calls Strontium, also known as Fancy Bear and APT 28, and including the six just shuttered, the company has used this legal authority to shut down 84 fake Strontium-created sites.

"We are now seeing another uptick in attacks," Microsoft President and chief legal officer Brad Smith told The New York Times on Monday. "These are organizations that are informally tied to Republicans," he added, "so we see them broadening beyond the sites they have targeted in the past." Microsoft discovered an attempted Strontium attack on Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.) network in July, and the same group hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, according to an indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. "This activity is most fundamentally focused on disrupting democracy," Smith told The Associated Press, adding, "We have no doubt in our minds" who is responsible for the fake sites.

The spoofed websites of the Senate, Hudson Institute, and IRI contained malware that would make anyone who clicked on the sites vulnerable to hacking, surveillance, and data theft, but Smith said there's no indication anyone actually clicked on the sites while they were live. Thomas Rid at Johns Hopkins University says "Microsoft is playing whack-a-mole here," because the sites are "easy to register and bring back up" when shut down. "These attacks keep happening because they work," he said. "They are successful again and again." You can read more about how Russia is working to disrupt America's 2018 elections at The Week. Peter Weber

July 26, 2018

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is the first known target of Russian interference in the 2018 midterm election, The Daily Beast reports.

In order to steal email passwords, Russia's GRU intelligence agency — the same agency behind the 2016 election cyber attacks — sent emails to Senate targets in August 2017, claiming their Microsoft Exchange password had expired, and they needed to make a new one, The Daily Beast says. Anyone who clicked on the link was brought to a replica of the U.S. Senate's Active Directory Federation Services login, used for email and other services.

The Daily Beast was able to see a snapshot of the different targets who tried to change their passwords, and saw the email of one of McCaskill's policy aides. McCaskill said in a statement the attempt to steal the password was unsuccessful, and it was "outrageous that they think they can get away with this." Russian President Vladimir Putin is "a thug and a bully," she added, and "I will not be intimidated." McCaskill is considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats, as Missouri went for President Trump in the 2016 election. Catherine Garcia

December 28, 2017

In an interview with an independent Moscow-based television channel, jailed Russian computer hacker Konstantin Kozlovsky said he was ordered by the Kremlin to hack the Democratic National Committee computers during the 2016 presidential campaign, and he can prove it.

Kozlovsky said he worked with the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and because he was worried his minders might turn on him, he left behind a "poison pill" during the DNC hack — his passport number and other personal information hidden in a .dat file. Kozlovsky was jailed earlier this year, accused of being part of a hacking group that stole more than $50 million from Russian bank accounts, and earlier this month, he posted to his Facebook page a transcript and audio recording of what he said was his confession to the DNC hacking, made in court on Aug. 15.

Kozlovsky told RAIN-TV he developed computer viruses for the FSB, which they first tested on unsuspecting Russian companies. He said he worked mostly from home, didn't know much about the other hackers, and was part of a larger effort to spread viruses across the private sector and in different countries. It won't be easy to prove if Kozlovsky was behind the hack, McClatchy DC notes, because so few people know the details of it. The tech firm hired by the DNC to investigate the cyber attack, CrowdStrike, has said it discovered Russians were behind the hack, but did not comment on Kozlovsky's claims. Catherine Garcia

March 30, 2017

During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday on Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) revealed that people who worked on his failed presidential bid were the targets of foreign cyber attackers.

Rubio said that in July 2016, not long after he announced he was running for re-election to the Senate, "former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia. That effort was unsuccessful." A second attempt took place one day ago, he added, going after the same people and coming from "an IP address from an unknown location in Russia." This effort was also a failure.

Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security, testified in front of the committee, telling the senators that "Russia's overt media outlets and covert trolls sought to sideline opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. Senator Rubio, in my opinion, you anecdotally suffered through these efforts." Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) shared during the hearing that hacking attempts had been made against his office as well. Catherine Garcia

January 25, 2017

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a statement Wednesday announcing plans to undertake an assessment of "Russian activities and intentions in recent U.S. elections." "While the committee has already begun to receive important documents, we trust that the incoming leadership of the intelligence community will fully and promptly support our requests for information related to the inquiry," chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

The committee plans to look into Russian cyberactivity, counterintelligence concerns potentially linking Russia to campaign officials, how the U.S. government responded to information about the hacks, and possible leaks of classified information.

"This issue is not about the party, but about the country," the statement said. "The committee will continue to follow the facts wherever they may lead." Jeva Lange

January 9, 2017

On Friday, in its unclassified report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the FBI, NSA, and CIA concluded that Russian President Vladimir "Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him," and that Russian military intelligence "relayed material to WikiLeaks," then "used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton," an effort that "amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign."

Trump was particularly interested in asserting that even if Russia (and "China, other countries, outside groups, and people") did hack Democrats and the Clinton campaign, it didn't affect the election.

In fact, the intelligence agencies said in their report that they "did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election," and that "Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign." In any case, Trump's insistence that the election wasn't affected sort of clashes with his repeated insistence during the campaign that the Russian-fed WikiLeaks leaks should disqualify Clinton.

ThinkProgress took a look and found that Trump publicly mentioned WikiLeaks at least 164 times between Oct. 10 and Election Day, saying things like, "Boy, that WikiLeaks has done a job on her, hasn’t it?" (Oct. 26) and "WikiLeaks, some new stuff, some brutal stuff. I mean I'd read it to you but to hell with it trust me it's real bad stuff" (Oct. 10).

On CNN Sunday, Jake Tapper brought this up with Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. "I guess what I'm confused about is how can you say that the hacking had no impact on the election when Mr. Trump kept invoking WikiLeaks, which was printing, publishing things that the Russians had hacked?" he asked. "Obviously he thought it was going to have an effect on the election." Conway said that Trump did not know at the time that Russia was behind the leaks, and "we didn't need WikiLeaks to convince the American people they didn't like" Clinton. Peter Weber

January 6, 2017

An unclassified version of the 50-page report on Russian hacking delivered to President Obama on Thursday is expected to be released to the public on Monday. Until then, unidentified intelligence officials are parceling out some highlights to the news media. The biggest piece of news is probably that U.S. intelligence agencies have reportedly identified the individuals who passed hacked Democratic emails from Russia to WikiLeaks, which then published them before the election. But U.S. officials also told The Washington Post, NBC News, and CNN that intercepted conversations showed Russian officials celebrating the election results and congratulating themselves on Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton.

"The Russians felt pretty good about what happened on Nov. 8 and they also felt pretty good about what they did," a senior U.S. official tells The Washington Post. The signals intelligence on the Kremlin celebrating Trump's win was just one of several bits of data that convinced U.S. intelligence that Russia's eventual goal in the election hacking was to help elect Trump, not just disrupt the U.S. election, and there is no intercepted conversation that is a "smoking gun" on Russia's intentions, officials tell CNN.

Other tools Russia relied on included social media and "fake news" platforms, both used as an "accelerant" to help Trump and hurt Clinton, a second official tells The Washington Post, adding that the intercepted communiqués show that Russian officials "were as surprised as the rest of the world" that Trump actually won. A "senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge" confirmed to NBC News that senior Russian officials were captured celebrating Trump's win, as The Post reported, but only because "the official felt that the details the paper chose focused too much on the Russian celebration and not enough on the thrust of the report." You can watch NBC's report on that broader thrust below. Peter Weber

December 21, 2016

Amid public consensus among the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for a temporary select committee to be created to investigate Russia's election-season hacking and other cyberattacks on the U.S. On Monday night, in an interview on Kentucky public television, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected the idea, saying "We already have a committee established to do this."

There are three Senate committees starting their own investigation — intelligence, foreign relations, and armed services — and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee and a leading proponent of setting up a special committee, says it would be more efficient to give jurisdiction for Russian cyber-meddling to one committee. McConnell disagreed. "We don't need a special committee to set up what we already have the ability to do, but it is a serious matter and it will be investigated," he said. He also dismissed the idea, advocated by the CIA and FBI, that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking to help Donald Trump win the election. "If they say they're trying to elect a particular candidate, I think they're going to find out that it didn't do them any good," he said.

McConnell — whose wife, Elaine Chao, is Trump's pick for transportation secretary — said it was "doubly exciting" that Republicans kept control of the Senate and Trump won the White House. "I honestly thought we wouldn't hold the U.S. Senate — I thought we'd come up short," McConnell said. "I didn't think President Trump had a chance of winning." Trump pulled it off, he speculated, because he "was able to convey, oddly enough, a message from a billionaire who lives in Manhattan, a genuine concern for people who felt kind of left out, who were sort of offended by all the political correctness they see around them, and didn't feel like this was the America they were accustomed to." You can watch excerpts of the interview below. Peter Weber

See More Speed Reads