As US intelligence and law enforcement agencies investigate the scope and motivations of Russian cyberattacks into election computer systems, Hillary Clinton revealed her own theory Monday.
The Democratic presidential nominee blamed Russia for interfering in the American political process, implying Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to tip the scales in Donald Trump’s favor to weaken the United States and bolster Russian interests.
“I often quote a great saying that I learned from living in Arkansas for many years: 'If you find a turtle on a fence post, it didn’t get there by itself,' Mrs. Clinton said, when she answered questions in a news conference aboard her plane, according to The New York Times.
“We’ve never had the nominee of one of our major parties urging the Russians to hack. I want everyone — Democrat, Republican, Independent — to understand the real threat that this represents.”
In July, Mr. Trump suggested that Russian hackers should help find 30,000 missing emails from Clinton's private computer server.
Clinton’s comments came just hours after The Washington Post reported intelligence agencies including the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, and Department of Homeland Security have started an investigation into what they see as a “broad Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in US political institutions,” as the Post’s Dana Priest, Ellen Nakashima, and Tom Hamburger write.
Clinton’s remarks could, of course, be dismissed as a political ploy against Mr. Trump, and they do in fact go just a step beyond what intelligence officials are saying.
An anonymous senior intelligence official told the Washington Post that US agencies don’t have “definitive proof” of Russian cyber-espionage or Kremlin plans to do so.
“But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern,” the official said. “It’s the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system.”
Such a covert operation also fits into Russian tactics to undermine trust in the American political system, Fiona Hill, director of the Brooking Institution’s Center on the US and Europe, told The Christian Science Monitor in July.
In recent years, Mr. Putin “has been fixed on undermining US leadership in the world by essentially saying, ‘They claim the moral high ground for structuring and dominating the international security institutions, but in actual fact they have no grounds for demanding and being afforded that leadership,’ ”
“This type of revelation would certainly seem designed to reinforce Putin’s argument, which is also the thrust of Russian propaganda – that the US has got as corrupt and hypocritical a political system as anyone else."
Intelligence officials have said that they suspect Russian hackers sponsored by the Kremlin infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s email system, but have not officially ascribed such an attack to Moscow. Hackers have also targeted the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, Clinton, Trump, and the Republican party, according to Reuters.
State election voter systems in Illinois and Arizona were also breached this summer, although the extent of the infiltrations has been downgraded recently. Public information of 86,000 Illinois voters was viewed, while malware was used to steal the username and password of a single election official in the Arizona County of Gila.
Mr. Putin and the Kremlin have denied they were behind the DNC email leak. Putin, in an interview with Bloomberg News Friday, said US accusations against Russia are an attempt to “distract the public’s attention.”
“It doesn’t really matter who hacked this data from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign headquarters,” said Putin. “The important thing is the content was given to the public.”
President Obama has not publicly named the Kremlin as behind the DNC hack. But he and Putin met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 talks in Beijing on Monday to discuss cyber-espionage, according to the Washington Post.
Jessica Beyer, a cybersecurity postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, wrote in a column Reuters published Friday that the hacks of the DNC and the voter registration systems shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“With so many actors, motives, and targets, cyberattacks are inevitable,” she wrote. But she added that it will be difficult to identify who these hackers are and their motivations.
We don't know whether the hackers were engaging in espionage, attempting to manipulate the election, or just harvesting low-hanging cyber-fruit for their own financial gain.
And we certainly don't know who they are. The ambiguity around hacking makes it a powerful tool of governments because hackers can exist in a gray area and, if caught, be repudiated by the state that they are assisting.
Russia has also been accused of ramping up its cyber-espionage efforts, especially against post-Soviet countries.
The Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine have all been victims of Russian cyberattacks and other covert operations, officials told the Post. On the eve of the post-revolution presidential vote in Ukraine in 2014, a cyberattack debilitated the country’s Central Election Commission website. CyberBerkut, a group of Pro-Moscow hackers, claimed responsibility, but said they were not state-affiliated. Ukrainian authorities, however, blamed the Kremlin.