Washington Post Report on Putin Election Hacking Leaves Major Questions Unanswered

The Washington Post’s recent article on Kremlin involvement in the 2016 election primarily questions President Obama’s reactions to it. The article points out the seriousness of the attack while contrasting it with what they consider to be Obama’s anemic response. In retaliation for what the Post claims to be the political “crime of the century”, Obama took actions that the Post criticizes as “modest”, “largely symbolic”, and without “proportionate consequences”.  The weak Obama response caused one former senior Obama administration official to admit that, “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Here is what we know about this extremely top secret report. Former CIA Director, John Brennan, must have received this intelligence well before August, 2016 because he released the report on it to President Obama early that month. The report claims the CIA “captured Putin’s specific instructions” on discrediting and defeating Hillary Clinton while assisting Donald Trump. Remember, however, that the Russians had been in the DNC network for over a year at this point and that 20,000 documents were released to Wikileaks on July, 22, 2016. The hacking had already been attributed to the Russians by cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, in April. In other words, these new revelations raise a number of questions that are not answered in the article. First of all, when exactly did the CIA get the information on Putin ordering a Clinton-discrediting cyber attack? Was it prior to the infiltration of the DNC and, if so, why did they take so long to give the president this information? Moreover, if they got this information earlier, why didn’t they take steps to stop the attack from occurring in the first place?

FBI Director, James Comey, alerted the DNC of possible Russian infiltration as early as September, 2015. Did he know something that the CIA did not? Don’t these agencies talk to each other? When Brennan decided to release his information on the Putin-directed cyberattack, he didn’t include the FBI. He didn’t initially even tell President Obama. He contacted chief of staff, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, Avril Haines, and national security adviser, Susan Rice.

John Brennan

Why did he feel it necessary to tell them first? Was he testing the waters to see what Obama’s response might be? Was he wondering whether to give the president this information at all? These are questions that need to be answered. Interestingly, the official declassified report states that it is a “version of a highly classified assessment that has been provided to the President and to recipients approved by the President.” Well, which is it? Clearly, the president couldn’t have approved of the information being given to those mentioned above if they received it before he did.

Although the CIA and FBI now claim they have high confidence in Putin/Russian meddling in the election, they did not, apparently, have such confidence in July, 2016. At the Aspen Security Forum on July, 28th, 2016, Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had this interchange with CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

James Clapper

SCIUTTO: …the official in the White House described — said to me there is little doubt it’s Russia.  I just wonder does the intelligence community share that certainty?

 CLAPPER: Well, I will just say that I don’t think we are quite ready yet to make a call on attribution.  I mean, we all know there’re just a few usual suspects out there, but in terms of the process that we try to stick to, I don’t think we are ready to make a public call on that yet.

 SCIUTTO: And is that because you haven’t made a decision to publicly name and shame or because there’s still some uncertainty?

 CLAPPER: Little both, little both.

 SCIUTTO: Good.  Do you think that we in the media, but also some officials who have been speaking to us in the media have gotten ahead of the certainty on this?

 CLAPPER: Yes, I guess, yes.

   (Laughter)

It was not until October 7th that the intelligence community agreed to a statement naming Russia as being behind the election hacks. The statement was signed by Jeh Johnson and Clapper, but Comey removed his signature, saying it was too close to the election and he did not want to make it look as if the bureau was trying to influence the outcome, even though he did intervene two weeks later. That same day, Susan Rice summoned Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to the White House and handed him a message to deliver to Putin.

Although initial drafts of the statement mentioned Putin as being behind the attack, the final version changed this to “Russia’s senior-most officials”. As luck would have it, the carefully written statement went largely unnoticed, as it coincided with the Trump-incriminating Access Hollywood tape and the first release, by Wikileaks, of the John Podesta emails. Perhaps, if Putin was directly mentioned in the statement, more attention would have been paid to it. But with the election looming and a Clinton victory seemingly in the cards, everyone probably thought that it would be better to wait until the election was over before releasing details which could influence the results.

There are other hazy areas in the Washington Post article. In the article, The Post writes that they are “withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.” This must include information on how Putin was hacked. Putin is said to be very cautious about being a hacking target. So how did U.S. intelligence get this information?

The answer to this might be found in leaks released by a Ukrainian hacking group known as, CyberHunta, which, possibly with the help of U.S. intelligence, hacked the communications of Vladislav Surkov, a close aide to Putin. It could be that U.S. intelligence was able to intercept some communications which indicated that Putin was interested in promoting a hack on the DNC. The Post article even remarks that “some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country.” However, there is no evidence in the Surkov leaks that directly points to Putin ordering a hack on the DNC. Does the U.S. intelligence community possess the necessary cyber tools to hack the Kremlin? Probably, yes, but it would be easier to do so with a little inside help. Barring more specific information, it cannot be concluded that Putin, himself, was hacked. At this time, any evidence of Putin’s direct involvement in the hack seems to be either circumstantial or arrived at by intercepting third party correspondence and is, therefore, not conclusive.

The shock of the Trump victory plunged the White House and the intelligence community into morbid introspection. “What if we had…?” A growing narrative emerged which blamed the Clinton loss on Russian meddling coupled with the weak government response to it. This sentiment eventually evolved into a desire for revenge against the protagonists. In a December, 2016 meeting organized by Rice and attended by Clapper, Brennan, Kerry, and Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe, the attendees were told to retaliate against Russia to the “max of their comfort zones.” This caused Obama to send 35 suspected Kremlin operatives packing on December 29th. But this was also the time of the Trump transition with the normal confusion that accompanies all such transitions. This Russian can of worms was dumped in the lap of Trump’s designated national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who, in an apparent attempt to calm the Russian ambassador, only managed to get himself fired.

Susan Rice

In the scramble to retaliate against Russia before he left office, Obama issued executive Order 12333 which expanded government surveillance and made unmasking easier. Clapper signed the order on December 15, 2016 and Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, signed it two weeks before leaving office on January 6, 2017. Obama also approved the use of destructive malware or “implants” on sensitive parts of Russia’s infrastructure; infrastructure components that were “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted.” This remotely triggered malware could be related to the Nitro Zeus malware which, in turn, is related to Stuxnet.

The only surprise about this revelation is that it is considered a revelation. Infrastructure-destroying malware was likely already in the Russian infrastructure as theirs is already in place in the infrastructure of the U.S. Possibly, Obama only agreed on its upgrade.

The Post article does not address what is the main question about the investigation: Why didn’t the F.B.I. have its own forensic team examine the DNC servers? I understand that the government has worked with CrowdStrike for years but in such a serious case, wouldn’t it be good to get a second opinion, especially since CrowdStrike has subsequently lowered its confidence level on Russian involvement from ‘highly confident’ to ‘moderately confident’? Comey admitted that the F.B.I. made “multiple requests at different levels” to get access to these servers, but the requests were rebuffed. Why? Was there something that the DNC didn’t want the F.B.I. to know? Something’s just not right here and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Until we get more answers, it only looks like the government and intelligence agencies are trying to cover up their poor behavior by using the Washington Post as a shill.

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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