A group of former top national security officials and outside experts is warning that Russian intelligence agents may “doctor” emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups as part of a sophisticated “disinformation” campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 election.
The group, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, is urging the news media to be “cautious” about publishing such material lest they be playing into the Russians’ hands.
“What is taking place in the United States follows a well-known Russian playbook: First leak compelling and truthful information to gain credibility. The next step: Release fake documents that look the same,” the group said in a joint public statement to be released Friday. An advance copy was provided to Yahoo News.
The statement is being released the day after DCLeaks — a mysterious, recently created pop-up website that has been linked to Russia’s military intelligence service — posted a cache of emails apparently hacked from the private gmail account of Capricia Marshall, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide who served as chief of State Department protocol during the time the Democratic nominee was secretary of state.
While it was not immediately clear whether the Marshall emails contained anything politically damaging, the posting was viewed with alarm inside Democratic Party circles, said two sources who are closely monitoring the Internet hacks. It was seen as the latest sign that the DCLeaks website and others believed to be receiving material from Russian intelligence, including WikiLeaks, may be planning more surprise disclosures in the last few weeks of the election campaign.
“The Russians aren’t coming. They’re already here,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former undersecretary for public diplomacy under Clinton and one of the organizers of the joint statement.
The fear that more embarrassing emails may be coming is especially acute among Democratic operatives and loyalists who have become convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin favors Republican nominee Donald Trump and is attempting to help his campaign. And perhaps not surprisingly, most, if not all, of the 16 former officials and national security experts who signed the statement — including Chertoff, who served during the Bush administration — have endorsed Clinton.
(Other signers include several Obama administration alumni, such as former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet and former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin; former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, who served as chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee; and Robert Kagan and Max Boot, two influential Republican national security commentators who are backing Clinton.)
Sonenshine insisted that the purpose of the letter was not to pressure the news media to refuse to publish leaked emails. She said it was to alert editors to the Russians’ history of fabrications and the need to proceed cautiously.
“You can’t put out a red stop sign to journalism,” she said. “But you can put up a yellow flag.”
Sonenshine and another organizer of the letter, Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress, said there is evidence that the Russian intelligence service has fabricated or altered documents to further its political aims in Ukraine and elsewhere. And the joint statement warns such actions appear to fit into a larger strategy of using “cybertools” against Western democracies. Similar concerns about Russian “information warfare” were raised in a recent U.S. intelligence report, disclosed last week by Yahoo News, that cited the activities of Russian Internet trolls and the broadcasts of RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored media outlets.