How Russian Hackers Can Blackmail Donald Trump—and the GOP
Former and current U.S. national security officials and experts say that if it is true that the Russian government possesses documents belonging to the Republican National Committee, Donald Trump’s incoming administration may be the most compromised in U.S. history.
A senior U.S. administration official confirmed to The Daily Beast that the CIA believes the Russians hacked the RNC. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
On Friday, Dec. 9, The New York Times reported that hackers connected to two separate Russian security services allegedly broke into the computer systems of the RNC, but chose not to disclose the digital contents of those systems, in marked contrast to the gradual release, via WikiLeaks, of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee throughout the spring and summer.
As a result, the report said U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” that the Kremlin’s motive in these cyberattacks was to get Trump elected, not just do harm to his rival Hillary Clinton or undermine American democracy, as the agencies had previously concluded with only “confidence,” when they announced concerns over Russian interference in October. One senior U.S. official told the Washington Post for its own story on the matter, “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.”
“There’s a real revolt going on,” said a former intelligence officer of the CIA leaks, citing discussions with former colleagues. “They don’t like [National Security Adviser nominee Michael] Flynn and they hate Trump’s guts. This is their whole life’s work being thrown out the door. They feel like the whole intelligence committee is on probation.” The ex-spy spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the agency’s internal anguish publicly.
The DNC hacks, it is widely believed, were perpetrated by two independent organs of Russian intelligence. First, COZY BEAR, a hacker working for the FSB, the domestic intelligence arm, broke into the Committee’s servers in mid-2015. Around the same time FANCY BEAR, a hacker affiliated with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, also penetrated the servers. To drum up plausible deniability, the haul from these hacks was then sent to WikiLeaks and uploaded by two suspected cut-outs of Moscow, “Guccifer 2.0” and a newish website called DCLeaks.com.
The White House and Congress were informed by the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency that the Russian officials responsible for both the RNC and DNC breaches were identified, according to the Times, although their names have not been publicized.
“[CIA director] John Brennan does believe the Russians are behind it,” said ret. Col. Tony Shaffer, who briefed Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn this past week at Trump Tower. “He did brief the senate on his belief that the Russians were involved, but he did not provide any specific evidence. My understanding is the data provided was only of opinion in nature, not details of specific attacks. The American people are owed an answer, but my understanding is they are never going to get an answer because there’s no basic data to back up the allegation,” said Shaffer, who is a member of the New York-based London Center for Policy Research where Flynn is a fellow.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul told Politico during the election he’d informed Trump that Russia was attempting to influence the elections.
“Now he hasn’t had the briefing I had, but I made it clear that in my judgment it was a nation-state,” McCaul said in October. His office declined to comment on the matter Saturday.
The CIA also declined to comment Saturday.
“The Russians hacked our democratic institutions and sought to interfere in our elections and sow discord,” said House intelligence committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA) Saturday, citing the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s public statement. "Sadly, in this effort the Russians were spectacularly successful. One would also have to be willfully blind not to see that these Russian actions were uniformly damaging to Secretary Clinton and helpful to Donald Trump. I do not believe this was coincidental or unintended.”
Schiff would not confirm that the CIA specifically believes Russia was behind the hacking related to the election. The DNI is charged with marshaling the total view of the 16 intelligence agencies his department oversees.
An official close to Clapper pointed out that he has brought uncomfortable, unwelcome news to the Obama White House before, including the assessment that ISIS was rising— though not delivered as forcefully as then DIA-director Flynn thought it should have been. Clapper also told the White House more recently that the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons on the battlefield, despite a much-heralded deal negotiated by Russia where Syria supposedly gave up all of its chemical weapons stockpile in return for avoided bombing by the U.S. The official spoke anonymously because he was not allowed to discuss the sensitive communications between Clapper and the Obama White House publicly.
In a joint bipartisan statement issued on Sunday, Dec. 11, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Senate Democratic Leader-elect, and Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services wrote: “For years, foreign adversaries have directed cyberattacks at America’s physical, economic, and military infrastructure, while stealing our intellectual property. Now our democratic institutions have been targeted. Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American."
Trump’s transition team is having none of these revelations. Having serially denied or downplayed Russia’s involvement in steering the U.S. election, the team issued an unsigned statement casting doubt on the competence of the very intelligence establishment the president-elect will inherit to help him run the country in a month and a half. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement read. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
“We need a new election,” said Bob Baer, a former CIA operative who himself used to interfere in the affairs of foreign governments. “This is a constitutional crisis. It’s unprecedented. If the CIA had hacked and steered a democratic election in a foreign country, say France or Germany, that country would demand a new election. No question,” he said in an interview.
Baer said that he agrees with Trump in the sense that, once Trump is in charge, the Agency may bend to his wishes—which makes the airing of the evidence the agency has imperative before December 19th when the Electoral College is set to certify Trump’s presidency. “We cant wait until after he becomes president and has a political appointee decide whether the evidence we have on the Russians is legit or not.”
In essence, Moscow’s security organs could now be in possession of what the KGB used to call kompromat — compromising personal material — on Trump and his staff, which could then be used to blackmail them into doing Russia’s bidding.
The mere possibility that Putin now knows the secrets of the RNC and the inner workings of the victorious party of the 2016 election is bound to color U.S.-Russian relations for the next four years, regardless or whether or not those secrets are in any way scandalous. Any perceived tilt by Washington toward Russia, or any accommodation struck with the Kremlin on the ongoing wars in Syria or Ukraine can now be interpreted as quid pro quo for Putin’s keeping silent on what’s he got on the sitting commander-in-chief or the latter’s inner circle.
Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told The Daily Beast, representing his personal views and not those of the War College:“The worst possibility is that the Russians are holding back what they've stolen from the RNC because it's valuable enough to keep in reserve until the president-elect is sworn in. This is a frankly terrifying possibility.”
Nichols has been an outspoken “Never Trump” Republican and written numerous articles explaining why he thinks the president-elect is unfit for office. The Trump transition team's response to the Times bombshell only solidified that view. “Their answer is to ‘move on,’ which might be a sensible thing to say to political opponents who didn't like the outcome of the election, but it is a unimaginable answer in the face of an open Russian attack on the U.S. political system. The Russians have made it clear they have no intention of ‘moving on,’ and no amount of hand-waving will change that.”
Trump had campaigned beyond a platform of being in favor of improving relations with Russia, and has often taken to praising Putin personally, comparing his leadership style favorably to that of Barack Obama and casting doubt on the Russian government’s well-documented human-rights abuses, including allegations of the Kremlin having ordered the murder of dissidents and muckraking journalists. Trump also denied that Russia had any role in the downing of the MH17 in July 2014 in the skies above east Ukraine, despite independent international investigations saying that a Russian-imported missile was used to shoot down the commercial airliner. He has also said that Crimeans wanted to be annexed by Russia while denying that Russia had invaded Ukraine.
And then there’s the fact that Trump’s rumored favorite for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, once received Russia’s Order of Friendship award from Putin himself.
A former CIA operative stationed in Moscow during the height of the Cold War said that it was too soon to tell how Langley came to the conclusion that Trump was Putin’s favored candidate. “They’re ascribing motives to the Russians, but I’d like to see the evidence. In committee meetings and review sessions that go over this kind of thing, it’s a circumstantial point to say ‘they did it because of x or y.’ In the absence of an intercept or of extremely reliable sources — more than one — you’re making an inference that one could quibble with.”
As to what kompromat might do to Trump’s decision-making, the former operative says it may not carry much weight at all.
“You’re making an assumption that Trump will respond to kompromat and not to something else, such as his business interests in Russia. He clearly has a blind spot on the country. You can be manipulated by the Chekists in many ways,” the source said, using the catch-all term for Russia spies, “not just through blackmail. We also don’t know what is in the RNC emails.”
Or, for that matter, who will ultimately be affected by them.
The DNC hacks led to the resignation of then-chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz but it is entirely unclear if they really were the decisive factor that swayed the election in Trump’s favor. Other analysts have pointed to Clinton’s exceedingly poor outreach to white working-class voters in battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all of which Trump won by narrow margins. Others have also argued that FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh-hour letter notifying Congress that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server was still active did more to damage the Democratic nominee’s chances just before voters went to the polls, than did anything contained in the DNC emails, or in campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal correspondence.
Andrei Soldatov, co-author of Red Web, a book about Russia’s cybersecurity and use of the Internet to silence dissent, thinks that the likelier target of Moscow is not Trump but rather his now powerful party. “I doubt there can be any kompromat on Trump which can hurt him,” Soldatov said. “But the Republican Party is a different story.”
For Soldatov, the threatened publication of documents confirming rumors or alleged ties between Trump’s cabinet picks and the Russian government could be a useful tool to keep the administration in check. “Remember the story about a former Defense Intelligence Agency chief giving interviews to [Russian state propaganda channel] RT and being paid for that?” Soldatov said, referring to Flynn, who is now Trump’s national security advisor. “It would be bad enough simply to produce documentary evidence confirming things we already knew.”
A former Russian spymaster agrees with that assessment.
Oleg Kalugin was a KGB general in charge of operations in the United States; he also ran the First Chief Directorate’s K Branch, or arm of counterintelligence, which got up to the very sort of dirty tricks, or “active measures,” that state hacking of a political party amounts to. “In the old days, in my time, we relied on human efforts: penetration, handling, manipulating people from the inside,” Kalugin told The Daily Beast, noting that he wasn’t personally convinced the DNC and RNC hacks were done by the Russian government and not by “individual actors.”
Nevertheless, Kalugin allowed that if the FSB and GRU were responsible and Putin was now sitting on crucial information about various GOP officials, it would be reckless and dangerous to try and blackmail the White House directly. High-level officials, such as cabinet secretaries, have rarely been cultivated as spies or informants of Moscow, owing to what Kalugin characterizes as “potential repercussions.”
Middle and lower-cadre officials in the State Department or military-industrial complex are deemed easier and better marks for the spooks.
In this hypothetical, a heretofore semi-anonymous RNC staffer who may have written something professionally or personally damaging to himself is likelier to find himself approached by a Russian operative and offered a chance to switch sides than a member of the National Security Council.
“Just one man can destroy everything,” Kalugin said. “He doesn’t have to be the president.”