The Obama administration has concluded that “Russia’s senior-most officials” ordered hackers to break into the computer networks of American political organizations in order “to interfere with the U.S. election process,” intelligence and security agencies said in a joint statement Friday.
The statement was the administration’s first public attribution of the hacks against the Democratic National Committee and a second political institution to the Russian government. Privately, officials had said for the past few months that all signs pointed to an operation being directed by Moscow intended to meddle with the November election.
That evidence mounted as law enforcement and intelligence agencies sifted through technical details about the hack and eventually reached a consensus that Russia was to blame, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
The process continued “as the intelligence community gathered more information and got higher and higher degrees of confidence” attributing the hacks to Russia, the official said. The agencies, along with the Department of Homeland Security, came to a consensus “recently” the official added, without specifying a precise date, but he added that intelligence and law enforcement “worked as quickly as possible to release as much information as possible” without compromising sensitive sources and methods.
“The intelligence community has high confidence in its attribution into the intrusions in the [Democratic National Committee] and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] based on forensic evidence cited by a private cyber firm and the intelligence community’s own review and understanding of the cyber activities by the Russian government,” a second U.S. official told The Daily Beast.
The joint statement also attributed activities by three separate online organizations to the Russian campaign.
“The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the statement said. DCLeaks has posted stolen emails of current and former U.S. officials. And Guccifer 2.0, which claims to be an independent hacker, had been believed to be the source of stolen DNC emails to WikiLeaks, which published them last summer.
Officials also said they had detected Russian attempts to target state and local-level elections systems.
“We also worked as quickly as possible to release as much information as possible in order to provide state and local officials sufficient time to fortify their infrastructure,” the official said. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have put state elections officials on notice that hackers have been trying to access voter registration files and could cause havoc on Election Day. So far, 25 states have asked the department to help scan their computer networks for security weaknesses.
Notably, the statement didn’t blame the Russian government for targeting state elections systems, but it did say the activity had been traced to servers owned by a “Russian company.”
But the Obama administration did squarely blame the DNC hacks on the Kremlin—and not just lower-level officials. The authorizations for the hacks came from the “most senior levels of the Russian government,” a U.S. official told the Beast.
The administration’s decision to name Russia raised two immediate questions: Why now? And what next?
The first official said the timing had nothing to do with Sunday’s presidential debate or the election campaign in general. Privately, some Republicans groused that the decision appeared motivated to bolster suspicions that the Russians are hacking Democratic organizations in order to boost the campaign of Donald Trump.
The official also said the timing of the statement had nothing to do with the administration’s decision to break off negotiations with Russia over and end to the civil war in Syria. Earlier Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Russian government of “war crimes” for attacks on civilian institutions, including hospitals, raising an already tense U.S.-Russia relationship to a new level.
So what will the U.S. do now that it has blamed Russia for the hacks?
“Denouncing these Russian attacks is a good first step but what if anything will Obama do to make Putin pay a price for his subversion?” Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Daily Beast. If Putin gets away with it, as he’s gotten away with so much else, that will be an invitation to him to continue doing what he’s doing.”
The second official said it was up to “the Department of Justice to determine what happens next.” The first official said the U.S. response would generally follow the model set when President Obama publicly blamed North Korea for a hack against Sony Pictures.
In that case, the administration took what it deemed a “proportionate” response, and sanctioned North Korean individuals and conducted limited cyber attacks on North Korean networks.
But the Russian hacks aren’t entirely analogous to those against Sony.
“This case is unique because there is the electoral angle,” the official said, adding that the hacks represented an assault on American democracy and the political process. “When it comes to a potential response to this the president has made clear we will take action to protect our interests at a time and place of our choosing.”
“Consistent with the practice we have adopted in the past, the public should not assume that whey will necessarily know what actions have been taken or what actions we will take,” the official said, adding that the administration was “not taking anything off the table.”
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who had already said that intelligence led him to conclude Russia was behind the hacks, praised the administration’s statement as a helpful “first step” that now had to be backed up with action.”
“In terms of next steps, I would love to see the administration working with our European allies that have also been the subject of Russian hacking attempts to interfere with their institutions,” Rep. Adam Schiff told The Daily Beast. “There have to be a series of graduated responses that lets Russia know this is not cost free.”
“Now that we’ve said Russia is responsible, it increases the demands for action,” Jason Healey, a former White House cybersecurity official now working at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs. “This should include improving election security and brush-back pitches against Putin using our own cyber capabilities, but perhaps first Obama should call a Article 4 consultation with our NATO allies. France has its own election coming up, as does Germany, which has also been brave in calling out Russian activity.”
While officials suggested they only recently concluded that Russia was behind the hacks, a Sept. 22 statement by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff suggested that some members of Congress had been briefed about the U.S’s conclusions weeks ago.
“Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” the statement read. “We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.
The announcement of the findings immediately raised eyebrows, given this week’s collapsing relations between Russia and the U.S. this week over Syria.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of a “targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives.”
Earlier in the week, the State Department announced it had suspended ceasefire talks after Russia launched an aggressive airstrike campaign over eastern Aleppo, hitting hospitals, food and water supplies. The strikes are part of Syrian regime Bashar al Assad and Russia’s attempt to siege and starve opposition out of the city. Those strikes, and the harm they have done to civilians, including children, has been widely condemned by the international community.
But for all the outrage, the Obama administration has no plans to intervene militarily in Aleppo to stop the attacks or on behalf of its rebels under Russian and regime attack. The administration has said its goal in Syria is to destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Intervening in the five-year civil war could have unintended consequences, the administration has said, namely a possible proxy war with Russia.
How this will impact the American election is anyone’s guess. Trump’s rivals have repeatedly targeted his ties to—and affinity for— Russian policymakers. Trump has downplayed accusations that Vladimir Putin has had journalist and dissidents killed, responding that America, too, has done its fair share of killing. Trump has denied that Russia was responsible for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the skies of eastern Ukraine, even though U.S. officials accused Russian-backed separatists of destroying the commercial jet, and killing all 298 passengers on board, with a Russian-imported Buk anti-aircraft missile, a claim now corroborated by a two year-long investigation. Trump has also denied that Putin invaded Ukraine, or ever would under his administration, even though its annexation of Crimea is a matter of public record and now admitted to by Putin.
Those surrounding the nominee have also had their political and financial ties to Russia scrutinized. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is seen as close to the Kremlin, and even more so to its former client in Kiev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in 2014 after the Euromaidan Revolution. Ukrainian investigators have since uncovered ledgers belonging to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions suggesting that cash payments were disbursed to Manafort, who consulted for the now-banned party, and that Manafort, as part of his policy advice, encouraged the former leader to whip up anti-American and pro-separatist sentiments in Crimea as early as 2006, during NATO exercises held on the peninsula. While Manafort formally resigned from the Trump campaign after these and other compromising disclosures, he is thought to still a relevant figure behind-the-scenes in advising the real estate tycoon on his White House ambitions. Moreover, another Trump advisor, Carter Page, has traveled to Moscow and been rumored to be a point-man between Putin and the Trump campaign—even if few senior figures in Russia claim to have ever even heard of him.
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman and Michael Weiss