WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee downplayed its public spat with the FBI on Friday over why federal investigators did not independently examine their servers breached by Russian cyberspies, saying it was a misunderstanding that didn’t have anything to do with lingering political tensions between the two.
“There’s no fight between the Bureau and the DNC,” a high-level DNC official told BuzzFeed News, requesting anonymity to discuss the investigation. “I don’t know how this has happened, I don’t know where this is coming from.”
The FBI announced in July it was investigating a sweeping cyberattack against the DNC, later attributed to Russia-backed hackers. That intrusion, and subsequent release of stolen DNC emails, was part of a broader Kremlin-directed effort to undermine the US election, smearing Democrats and bolstering Donald Trump, according to an intelligence assessment released Friday.
The FBI’s investigation of the hack, launched in July, came under sharp scrutiny Wednesday after BuzzFeed News revealed that the FBI had never had direct access to the committee’s hacked servers, and that no US Government entity had yet run an independent forensic analysis on the system. Instead, federal investigators had relied on computer forensics from a third-party DNC contractor, Crowdstrike.
“How and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers?” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday about the scandal. “What is going on?”
A spokesman for the DNC did not respond when asked what had led to the communications breakdown between their organization and the FBI by Friday night. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
The DNC said Wednesday that the FBI had never asked for access to the servers. On Thursday, in a stunning counterpunch, the FBI said it had not only asked, but had consistently and repeatedly been denied access by DNC officials, who the bureau said had “inhibited” the investigation.
It was a startling twist in a tense storyline that’s emerged between the DNC and the FBI, who top Democrats say torpedoed Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects by mishandling its wholly separate investigation into the Democratic presidential nominee’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State.
The FBI had previously told lawmakers on the Hill that the DNC had not allowed federal investigators to access their servers. After BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that the DNC claimed FBI agents had never asked for the servers, congressional officials pressured the FBI for answers. A senior law enforcement official issued a public statement on the matter Thursday night.
“Someone is lying their ass off,” a US intelligence official said of the warring statements.
But officials with the DNC still assert they’ve “cooperated with the FBI 150%.”
“They’ve had access to anything they want. Anything that they desire. Anything they’ve asked, we’ve cooperated,” the DNC official said. “If anybody contradicts that it’s between Crowdstrike and the FBI.”
DNC officials planned to reach out to the FBI Friday to try and clarify both institutions’ positions, the official said.
Without direct access to the computer network, another US intelligence official told BuzzFeed, federal investigators had been forced to rely on the findings of the private cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike for computer forensics. From May through August of 2016, the Democratic National Committee paid Crowdstrike $267,807 dollars for maintenance, data services and consulting, among other things, according to federal records.
Trump received a briefing from the heads of the US intelligence community on the new intelligence community report on Friday, the full, still-classified version of which reportedly offers evidence linking the Kremlin to the widespread election subterfuge, including the DNC hack. Trump called the meeting “constructive,” but stopped short of saying Russia was to blame.
A public, declassified version of that report was released Friday.
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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