In the run-up to the recent U.S. presidential election, there was a great deal of discussion about cyber spies, hacking, and Russian influence. The issue of cyber espionage as it relates to America’s 2016 election took center stage during the first presidential debate in September, with NBC News anchor Lester Holt addressing the candidates: “Our institutions are under cyber-attack, and our secrets are being stolen. So my question is, who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?”
Hillary Clinton responded first: “There’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyber-attacks against all kinds of organizations in our country,” she said, “and I am deeply concerned about this.” Donald Trump countered that nobody knows whether it’s Russia, China, or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
So who was right? Malcolm Nance, a U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism expert and a leading expert on Russian hacking and influence, believes all signs point to Moscow.
To weigh in on this on this subject, Nance published a book prior to the election, The Plot to Hack America. In the book Nance, a New York Times bestselling author and MSNBC contributor, not only identifies the hackers as Russian but digs deep into what many are calling the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
In April 2016, computer technicians at the Democratic National Committee discovered that someone had accessed the organizations’ computer servers. In the days and weeks that followed, they learned that the cyber thieves had helped themselves to everything: sensitive documents, emails, donor information, even voicemails. Nance’s investigations led him to none other than Russia’s spy service. Their method: A new hybrid cyber warfare called Kompromat.
In “The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election,” Nance describes how technicians discovered that Russia’s spy agency was responsible for the hack, how the Russians have devastated individuals, political groups, and entire nations with their cybercrimes, and how they may have cultivated Donald Trump as an unwitting “asset” to facilitate their ultimate foreign policy goals: disband NATO, dominate Eastern Europe, and replace America as the world’s superpower.
Nance goes on to ask why would Vladimir Putin want to tip the scales of an American election? Then he follows the fascinating real-life spy story through a labyrinth of cyber espionage, the history of Russia’s spy services, and Vladimir Putin’s rise through the KGB from junior officer to spy-in-chief. And he details Donald Trump’s many disturbing personal associations with Putin and Russia’s oligarch, as well as Trump’s loose affiliation of advisers nicknamed “the Kremlin Crew.”
In the run-up to the election, Michael Rogers, the U.S. director of the National Security Agency, was asked about the WikiLeaks release of hacked information during the campaign. “This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect, he said. “This was not something that was done casually. This was not something that was done by chance. This was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily.”
While Rogers did not specifically name Russia as the “nation-state” behind the espionage, it was clear that was what he meant. The director of the NSA was in, effect, saying that Russia directly intervened in the U.S. election to obtain the desired end: presumably to undermine confidence in U.S. elections or to elect Donald Trump — or both. Rogers was clearly accusing Vladimir Putin of meddling with American democracy. This stunning statement echoed remarks from other senior U.S. officials. Trump has, both before and after the election, repeatedly called charges of Russia hacking the election as well as any Russian influence over him “ridiculous.”
Nance asserts in his book that Roger’s comments were newsworthy of bold and large front-page headlines — and investigations. And he goes on to conclude that there is another inquiry that is necessary: a full-fledged congressional investigation that holds public hearings and releases its findings to the public.
Nance on cyber espionage
TechGenix spoke to Nance recently to get his views on the Russian hacking and the 2016 elections.
What is your main takeaway now that the election cycle is over?
“Russian intelligence involvement in the 2016 U.S. election is nothing short of the most successful operation in their history.”
We have heard and seen a good deal about Russian attempts to influence the election but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence of real hacking on Election Day. How would you address that?
“The Russians’ ability to not only influence the election through selective hacking and leaking of information about individuals, particularly Hillary Clinton, allowed them to manipulate and enhance the narrative frame about Hillary Clinton in a disproportionate way with zero effect on Donald Trump.”
How would you describe the tactics the Russians used?
“The effect of the Russian hybrid warfare operation [was] at a level of detail that had not been seen before in American history. They applied every aspect of Russian intelligence power, including harnessing the entirety of the Russian information warfare apparatus: cyber, political, propaganda, and the news media.”
But how could Russia have accomplished all this in such a short period of time?
“None of this could’ve been possible had not Vladimir Putin groomed Trump using the Russian oligarchy [since 2012] to the point where Trump adopted virtually all positions favorable to the Kremlin, quite possibly for future potential financial inducements for the Trump organization. It is also possible that the Trump organization has been compromised by Russian intelligence operations targeting him with information that he would not like to see exposed.
So what about President-elect Trump himself. Do you think he is cognizant of all this activity?
“No matter how one views it from either side of the partisan divide, Donald Trump was selected and elected with national-level Russian intelligence assets at his beck and call. I believe he became aware that Russia was collecting and exploiting cyber communications in the United States to his benefit when he publicly requested they release Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 missing emails. At this point he moved from an unwitting asset being manipulated by the Kremlin to an accomplice who willingly embraced Moscow.”
Calls for investigations continue
The election may be over, but the cyber espionage allegations continue.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said recently that the FBI had been “deeply damaged” by its conduct during the presidential election and would find it hard to repair its credibility under a Trump administration.
Schiff said that FBI leaks about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server – and the announcement by the FBI director James Comey 11 days before the election that new emails had been found – “were highly problematic, to put it in the most diplomatic of terms.”
“I think that the bureau, which I have great respect for … has been deeply damaged by their conduct over the last year, by the violation of [Department of Justice] policies about talking about pending or closed cases and, additionally, by the nonstop leaks of information,” Schiff told reporters.
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