The Obama administration today publicly accused the Russian government of cyberattacks against U.S. political organizations and prominent figures that are “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The extraordinary move comes after months of disclosures stemming from the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other groups — cyberattacks that the U.S. intelligence community is now “confident” were directed by the Russian government.
The accusation came in a joint statement by the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” the statement reads. “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.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process,” the statement continues. “Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
The statement appears to raise the political stakes over the cyberattacks, threatening a new confrontation with Russia at a time of increasingly tense relations between Washington and Moscow in Syria and elsewhere. But some commentators immediately noted that the joint statement cites no specific evidence to back up the public accusation. “Words, no proof, no threat,” wrote Jack Goldsmith, a former senior Justice Department lawyer during the Bush administration, on Twitter.
Earlier Friday, a group of former top national security officials and experts warned 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, urged the news media to be “cautious” about publishing such material lest they play into Russian 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.
“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 is more favorably disposed to Trump and doing what he can to assist his candidacy. 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.
Sonenshine insisted that the purpose of the letter was not to pressure the news media to refuse to publish any leaked emails. Instead, she said, it is only to inject a cautionary note into the review of such material given the Russian propensity to fabricate documents.
“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 that such actions appear to fit into a larger strategy of using “cyber tools” targeting 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.