WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is wary of publicly accusing Russia of meddling in the US election, despite increasing pressure from within Washington, for fear of fanning public concerns over the security of the election and igniting a cycle of tit-for-tat cyberattacks, several US government officials told BuzzFeed News.
“Do you really want to call it out, and recognize it? With everything you do, you should be reinforcing the public’s confidence in the election system,” said one US intelligence official who is frequently briefed on Russia issues. Calling Russia out, he said, could also validate widespread worries over the security of the November election. “Do you really want that shitstorm? I don’t think you do.”
The White House has not assigned blame for the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails, which cybersecurity experts say were most likely stolen by Kremlin-backed hackers. The emails were eventually published by WikiLeaks on the eve of the Democrats’ convention. WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, has refused to reveal the source for the emails, despite growing concerns over his ties to Russia. The private cybersecurity experts who provided the strongest evidence that Russian actors were behind the hack linked them to a group that was previously accused of hacking into the State Department and White House. Suspicions of Russian meddling were further fueled when the FBI warned last week of two suspected-Russian linked hacks into state election systems.
Pressed at the G20 summit in China on Monday, President Barack Obama again declined to publicly point a finger at Russia, citing fears of a Cold War-style cyber arms race.
“Frankly, we got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively. But our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past,” Obama said when asked to address the allegations that Russia was meddling in US politics.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, speaking in the UK on Wednesday, warned Russia against “efforts to interfere with our democratic process,” going a step further than the White House but stopping short of directly blaming the country for recent hacks.
Asked whether it was concerned about potentially naming Moscow, National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh declined to comment, and referred inquiries on the matter to the FBI.
The bureau, which is investigating the DNC hack, has yet to publicly identify Russia as the culprit. “I’m going to continue the streak of not talking about that,” Comey said Thursday, when asked at an intelligence conference to address Russia’s alleged attempts to manipulate the election.
Washington has long been worried about Russian hacking, and the intelligence community has begun delegating more and more of its resources to countering and probing Russian threats.
But until the DNC hack, the concern has been over the type of intelligence Russia was accessing and how it would use it to thwart US ambitions on the world stage. Russian hackers were suspected in 2015 of breaching both the State Department and White House servers, gaining access to sensitive, though unclassified, information.
Nothing from that hack has ever been made public. So why were the DNC emails leaked? Some cybersecurity experts say the US and Russia are already engaged in a type of cyber Cold War, in which each side is continually testing the other to see how far they can go.
“There are no rules to this, but both sides are moving pieces around their chessboards and trying to figure how close they can get to a checkmate without acknowledging that they are actually playing the game,” said one cybersecurity expert who consults with US officials regularly though his position at a private company keeps him from speaking publicly about his work.
Another US intelligence official said it appeared as though actors in Russia weren’t even trying to hide their efforts anymore. The official said his organization had buckled down on official travel to Moscow, urging employees to follow protocol and leave their phones and laptops at home. Asked what that meant for working conditions, the official said, “We just have to trust that the facilities we use in the embassy are secure.”
If Russia is proven to be behind the DNC hack, it would mark a serious escalation, with Russia using intelligence it had accessed through cyberespionage to try to influence elections in the US.
But the question of concrete attribution is becoming more difficult each year, as techniques to mask location and inject false flags into code become more and more sophisticated.
“If the US were to stand up and say ‘Russia hacked the White House, Russia hacked the DNC,’ they would need to give solid evidence — and nothing in cyber is solid, and they would have to be willing to face the repercussions of what came next,” the expert said. “Something that has been fought quietly until now would get loud and it would get ugly.”
Speaking at the 2016 Intelligence and National Security Summit this week, the deputy head of US Cyber Command, Air Force Lt. Gen. Kevin McLaughlin, said that when it came to drawing red lines on cyberattacks, “Ambiguity, not locking yourself in, is the way that our government prefers to do this.”
But the concern is there. In the coming weeks, lawmakers will vote on whether to reinstate a Cold War-era task force dedicated solely to keeping tabs on covert Russian efforts in the US. That panel, proposed in the Senate Intelligence Authorization Bill, would be appointed by the White House and meet monthly. While the panel would be tasked with everything from unmasking Russian spies to foiling assassinations, its primary purpose, another intelligence official said, was to expose Russian propaganda efforts.
Underscoring the White House’s timidity on the issue, the National Security Council declined multiple inquiries on whether the White House would support the executive branch panel being proposed by Congress. It also declined to say if the White House was receiving regular briefings on the variety of intelligence community probes into Russian meddling, including a broad effort being led by the director of national intelligence’s office.
Asked to address Russia’s suspected involvement in the hacks, National Security Council spokesman Stroh pointed to several recent public statements from officials, including a comment from White House spokesman Josh Earnest last week.
“The US government has not formally declared any specific entity or country as responsible for these reported intrusions,” Earnest said in a press conference.
What Russia’s goal is in attacking the US election process remains unclear, the first intelligence official said. There remains widespread suspicion that the Kremlin is working actively to elect Donald Trump — Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said as much.
But that suggests Moscow truly thinks Trump would be easier to work with, a notion that the official thought was “overblown.” Instead, it may be a part of a broader Russian effort to cut at the heart of Western democracy.
“It may not be so much intentional as instinctive on their part. They do it because they can,” he said. “Any rationale you can try to apply to this is irrational.”
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at email@example.com.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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