Why did Russian hackers steal from the DNC?

Russian government hackers accessed the Democratic National Committee's research on Donald Trump. Hacking campaigns is surprisingly common, experts say.

Paul Holston/AP
Two groups of hackers linked to Russian intelligence services broke into the Democratic National Committee’s computer networks. The DNC headquarters in Washington are pictured here on Tuesday, June 14.

Almost 44 years to the day after operatives associated with President Richard Nixon's re-election committee broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, news broke that the DNC had once again been compromised.

Two groups of Russian government hackers broke into the DNC's computer networks over the past year, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. One of the groups monitored email and chat conversations and had been in the system for around a year, while the other entered more recently, specifically targeting opposition files on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

US officials told the Post that the DNC was not the only group targeted: The hackers also tried to gain access to the networks of Mr. Trump, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and some Republican political action committees. However, details on those cases were not released. 

A Russian Embassy spokesman said he had no knowledge of such intrusions, and DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wassermann Schultz (D) of Fla. told the Post the security of the system is "critical to our operation and to the confidence of the campaigns and state parties" they work with. Once the DNC was aware of the hack, they "moved as quickly as possible to kick out the intruders and secure our network," she said.  

The DNC hired CrowdStrike, a cyber security firm, which ejected the hackers last weekend. Shawn Henry, CrowdStrike's president, told the Post every foreign intelligence service collects information from their adversaries, and it is very difficult for civilian organizations to protect themselves when attacked by skilled states such as Russia. 

"We're perceived as an adversary of Russia," he said. "Their job when they wake up every day is to gather intelligence against the policies, practices and strategies of the U.S. government. There are a variety of ways. [Hacking] is one of the more valuable because it gives you a treasure trove of information."

Experts say that the hacks of presidential campaigns and politicians are common, Wired reports. Dave Aitel, a former NSA analyst who now runs Immunity, a security firm, said both Republican and Democratic campaigns have likely been targeted by hackers. Mr. Aitel told Wired that Russian, Chinese and Iranian hackers have likely been seeking information, and although CrowdStrike was successful in removing them for now, it is likely they will be back. 

"People get confused because they assume they're after one thing. But this is about long-term collection, not any particular piece of information," Aitel told Wired. "It's the same thing we do: Let's suck this target completely dry and turn it into signals intelligence product. This is not a one-time event."

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns were compromised by hackers in the 2008 election, as Newsweek reported. After an FBI investigation, the Obama campaign was told it was hacked by a "foreign entity." The FBI would not reveal which country was behind the hack, but experts speculated the hackers were most likely from Russia or China. The FBI told the Obama campaign that a country or foreign organization likely wanted to look at the evolution of the campaign on policy issues to glean information that could be useful in future negotiations.  

Analysts told the Post that Trump's recent entry and success in the political arena caught foreign intelligence agencies off-guard, forcing them to play catch-up in information gathering.  

Robert Deitz, former senior councillor to the CIA director and a former general counsel at the NSA, told the Post the purpose of this hacking is to help predict the politician's inclinations. 

"Trump's foreign investments, for example, would be relevant to understanding how he would deal with countries where he has those investments" if Trump is elected, Mr. Deitz said. "They may provide tips for understanding his style of negotiating. In short, this sort of intelligence could be used by Russia, for example, to indicate where it can get away with foreign adventurism."

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