Why US intelligence agencies say Russia was trying to help Trump

US intelligence agencies say they have 'high confidence' in their consensus opinion that Russia acted to help Trump toward the end of the campaign, an accusation Russia denies.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during his 'USA Thank You' tour event in Cincinnati, Dec. 1. US intelligence agencies say they have 'high confidence' that Russia acted to promote Mr. Trump toward the end of the campaign, an accusation Russia denies.

US intelligence agencies have “high confidence” that Russia was not only involved in the election, but trying to help Donald Trump, they reported earlier this week. 

According to the intelligence officials, the same hackers who shared files from the Democratic National Committee with WikiLeaks also accessed the Republican National Committee. However, while files from the DNC appeared online, often painting the Clinton campaign in a bad light, few Republican documents appeared – and those that did came from individual Republicans, not the national committee.

For US intelligence agencies, the hackers' choice to withhold RNC documents is proof positive that they were trying to support Mr. Trump's candidacy. Their characterization of the hackers’ motives continues to evolve, however, and both Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign strongly refute the claims.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior US official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to US senators, according to the Washington Post. “That’s the consensus view.”

Intelligence officials traced the DNC hacks to two groups, nicknamed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear by cyber-security firm Crowdstrike, reported The Economist. Both groups are thought to be linked to Russian intelligence, thanks to electronic clues like both groups observing Russian holidays.

Similar “fingerprints” may have allowed US intelligence agencies to determine that the RNC had been hacked by the same or similar groups. Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN in September that the RNC had also been subject to hacks.

“The Russians have basically hacked into both parties at the national level, and that gives us all concern about what their motivations are,” Rep. McCaul said.

The RNC quickly denied the hack, however, and McCaul withdrew the comment. But according to a senior administration official, there’s little doubt that the Russians hacked the RNC, too.

“We now have high confidence that [the Russians] hacked the DNC and the RNC, and conspicuously released no documents” from the latter, the official told The New York Times.

Does that mean they were trying to help Trump win the election, as CIA briefers reportedly told senators last week?

During the election, Russia stood out for being the one country where Trump was more popular than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Russians were overwhelmingly positive about Trump, as a BBC reporter observed at an American-themed diner in Moscow.

While this is the "consensus opinion" from intelligence community, it is not unanimous. Some intelligence officials, as well as Clinton campaign operatives, have suggested that the hackers were originally trying to disrupt the election and confidence in the US democratic process, rather than get any individual elected.

After all, Russia was just as surprised as the rest of the world that Trump ultimately won the election, intelligence officials told The New York Times. 

And if Secretary Clinton had won, those officials suggested, the documents might have given Russia a potent bargaining chip, leaving open the constant threat of document reveals through websites like DCLeaks.

US intelligence officials are also divided on the link between the Kremlin and the hackers. It remains unclear whether the state directed the hackers to share DNC files with WikiLeaks, a senior US official told the Washington Post. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement.

The investigation is ongoing: on Friday, the Obama administration ordered a full review of election-related hacking. Though conclusions are expected before the president leaves office on January 20, they may not be shared with the public, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser said at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

"We want to [be] very attentive to not disclosing sources and methods that may impede our ability to identify and attribute malicious actors in the future,” Lisa Monaco told reporters on Friday.

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