Over fifty years ago, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence after claiming he had an extensive list of “members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” that were working for the US State Department. Though McCarthy’s accusations were largely unfounded, our country became paranoid that foreign entities had infiltrated the highest levels of American government and had secretly influenced our democracy for the better part of the 20th century.
In contemporary times, however, the notion that these groups have interfered in our democracy has been largely scoffed at and dismissed. But after a century of interfering in the democratic elections of other countries, the United States is finally receiving a taste of its own medicine.
Top officials from nearly twenty different US intelligence agencies recently made the claim that Russian hackers tampered with the US presidential election to give Donald Trump an unfair advantage over Hillary Clinton. They did this by hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) emails as well as those of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, and leaking them to the public and/or the press to seemingly undermine the Clinton campaign as well as public faith in our election system. They have yet to release the full report of their findings or provide tangible proof to substantiate this claim.
Russian officials have flatly denied the accusations since they first rose. When asked about them a few days ago, Dmitry Peskov, a Putin spokesperson, dismissed them as “laughable nonsense.” Though Vladimir Putin praised the DNC leaks as “a public good” in a September interview, he denied claims that Russia was behind them by shifting attention away from the actual hacking itself to the content that was uncovered because of said hacking. He told a reporter that “There’s no need to distract the public’s attention from the essence of the problem by raising some minor issues connected with the search for who did it,” adding that “I don’t know anything about it, and on a state level Russia has never done this.”
However, Russia has been accused of hacking into the federal government’s cyber systems a few times in the past. Last year in April, it was revealed that Russian hackers had infiltrated some of President Obama’s email correspondences and obtained access to “mail archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated” in 2014. A few months later in September, Russian hackers were once again deemed responsible for a “sophisticated cyberattack” that targeted roughly 4,000 military and civilian personnel, this time against the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff email system. The motives were considered to be revenge for crippling economic sanctions imposed on Russia after their invasion of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.
What makes intelligence officials and private cybersecurity experts certain this was a Russian hack is that some of the malware that was discovered on the DNC computers was quite similar to that developed by hacking groups working on behalf of the Russian intelligence agency GRU. These groups have been dubbed APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) 28/Fancy Bear and APT 29/Cozy Bear by researchers and experts who study them. CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm was hired by the DNC to handle the breach, agreed with these findings as well after examining the tools and techniques used by the two groups. CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch provided details of their findings in a blog post on their website which said “both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.” According to Alperovitch’s post, both Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear have targeted Chinese targets, thus discrediting Trump’s rebukes that the hackers could have been Chinese.
Some, including Hillary Clinton herself, have speculated that the hacks were a personal vendetta against her. This so-called beef between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton stems back to the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, which were met by massive civil disobedience following reports of voter fraud and manipulation. Clinton questioned the integrity of the elections while Putin responded to these criticisms by accusing her and “outside agents” of fanning the flames of the protesters. Putin also opposed the regime change in Middle Eastern countries championed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Arab Spring as well as her support for expanding NATO into Eastern Europe.
For a candidate that has repeatedly bemoaned that the election was “rigged” and riddled with “massive voter fraud”, one would think that President-elect Donald Trump would welcome an investigation into the alleged Russian hacking. However, Trump has thus far failed to take these findings seriously and has instead dismissed them as “ridiculous”, claiming that they are mere efforts to “de-legitimize the election” and keep him from the White House.
If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2016
Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2016
Unless you catch “hackers” in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn’t this brought up before election?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2016
However, a recent report by the New York Times indicates that the FBI had known about the DNC hacks since September of 2015, but that a series of missteps and miscommunication between the DNC and the FBI allowed the hacks to continue and intensify. In late July of this year, the Obama administration itself openly warned that “experts” believed the hacks were carried out by Russian operatives, a claim that was reiterated constantly in the weeks and even months before the election.
Trump himself seemingly acknowledged the fact that Russian hackers were behind the hacks and that they would damage Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency during a press conference in July.
It is no secret that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are quite fond of each other. Putin recently called Trump a “clever” man while Trump praised Putin as “a leader far more than our president has been a leader” during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum in October. Trump is also filling his cabinet with many Putin apologists and sympathizers, such as his likely pick for Secretary of State, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and his National Security Advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn. Tillerson forged strong ties with Vladimir Putin as well as Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft, while he was doing oil exploration in Russia and was presented with an order of friendship award by Putin in 2013.
Michael Flynn has been a regular contributor on the English-language Russian state news station, RT, and was spotted as an honorary guest at their ten-year anniversary celebration last year. Flynn has been criticized by his colleagues for his fiery anti-Clinton rhetoric during the campaign, his penchant for unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and his disparaging comments on Muslims.
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions… https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
Despite this cozy relationship between Trump’s camp and Russia, Trump has denied having any contact with the Russians throughout the course of the campaign. However, just a few days after the election, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told Interfax reporters that “There were contacts” between Russian officials and members of Trump’s campaign “during the election campaign,” though he did not reveal the extent of their interactions.
Republicans are divided over Russia’s alleged involvement in the election. RNC chairman Reince Preibus and RNC spokesperson Sean Spicer have both denied that their systems were hacked by the same group who hacked into the DNC. However, a report by the Wall Street Journal indicates Russian hackers did attempt to penetrate their network using the same methods as the DNC hack, though they were apparently unsuccessful.
Some state-level Republican officials and senators did report that their systems were compromised, including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. In an interview last week, Graham told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “I do believe the Russians hacked into the [DNC]. I do believe they hacked into [John] Podesta’s email account. They hacked into my campaign account,” adding that he believed “all the information released publicly hurt Clinton and didn’t hurt Trump.” However, he clarified that he did not believe the hacks had any significant sway on the election. Graham also made it clear that he will vote against Rex Tillerson’s confirmation for Secretary of State if Tillerson continues to deny Russia’s involvement in the hacks.
Just earlier today, a bipartisan group of Senators composed of John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Jack Reed (D-RI) released a letter urging Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to create a select committee that will initiate a “comprehensive investigation of Russian interference” and form “comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge.” McConnell has thus far stood firm, claiming that there is no need for a select committee because the Senate Intelligence Committee is “more than capable of conducting a complete review” of the alleged interference.
But what effect would an investigation have at this point? The electoral college meets tomorrow and though there has been a huge push to get electors to not vote for Trump, only one Republican elector has pledged do so thus far. In a further decisive blow against this effort, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that they will not brief electors on the alleged Russian interference that took place during the campaign. However, President Obama has demanded intelligence agencies perform a “deep dive” before Trump is sworn in on January 20th.
It would be incorrect to claim that the alleged Russian hacks alone handed Trump the election. One must keep in mind, however, that these events didn’t occur within a vacuum. The Clinton campaign and the Democratic party shot themselves in the foot consistently, especially in their blackballing of Bernie Sanders. Hillary Clinton often sounded tone-deaf in her responses to the criticisms she received over the content in the leaks. She also failed to energize the coalition of voters that propelled President Obama to the White House twice and failed to make her case to white, working-class Americans in Rust Belt states. Trump’s combined margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin–predominantly white, working-class states–was a razor-thin 112,000 or so votes. One could see how the leaks of information from one side but not the other could potentially influence a voter who was still on the fence in the weeks and days before the election.
Regardless of the intentions of the hackers, they have accomplished their goal of dividing our country and have also cast a looming shadow over the legitimacy of our president-elect as well as democratic institutions. Since Trump has thus far failed to release his full tax returns, the American people might never fully grasp the full relationship between himself and Russia–something that should worry us all, regardless of political affiliation. As Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) warned his GOP colleagues in October, “tomorrow, it could be us”. What–if any–damning information might these Russian hackers have on President-elect Donald Trump that they could potentially be using to blackmail him to do their bidding?
Since the federal agencies accusing the Russian government of perpetrating or authorizing these hacks have yet to release their findings to the public, this idea is purely speculation at this point. However, is it harder to believe than the notion that Hillary Clinton and her campaign are running a secret pedophile sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington DC pizzeria?