Updated Oct. 7, 2016 7:13 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON—The U.S. intelligence community took the extraordinary step Friday of directly accusing the Russian government of trying to interfere in the coming U.S. elections by purposefully leaking emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other entities.
The intelligence agencies, in a joint statement, alleged the hacks were directed by the most senior officials in the Russian government.
“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 said.
The agencies said some state election systems have been recently scanned and probed and that this action originated from servers operated by a Russian company. But the statement stopped short of definitively blaming the Russian government for that activity.
The allegation, coming less than four months after the DNC first disclosed it was hacked, puts the U.S. and Russia on an even more adversarial path following the breakdown of negotiations over hostilities in Syria and other diplomatic spats.
U.S. officials have blamed foreign countries for cyberattacks in the past, notably attributing a hack of Sony Pictures to North Korea in 2014. But it is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for Washington to directly accuse a powerful country of attempting to sabotage U.S. elections.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” said the joint statement from agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
It added that leaks by three entities—a hacker self-described as Guccifer 2.0, the website DCleaks.com and the organization WikiLeaks—“are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The Kremlin late Friday said the accusations were “nonsense,” according to Interfax news agency. “Tens of thousands of hackers attack the site of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin every day. Many attacks are traced back to U.S. territory. We don’t blame the White House or…[the CIA] every time,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying.
An administration official said the U.S. government could activate numerous measures in response to the alleged Russian operation, including diplomatic and economic steps as well as criminal charges.
Accusing a foreign government of attempting to interfere in the U.S. election leaves several difficult choices for the White House. Many computer experts and even U.S. lawmakers have said there should be more of a deterrent to prevent nation states from launching computer attacks.
The White House may choose to level sanctions against Russia or Russian businesses believed connected to the operation, or it may launch computer attacks of its own if President Barack Obama believes such retaliation is merited.
The agencies did offer a note of reassurance, saying “it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyberattack or intrusion,” citing the decentralized nature of the U.S. election system and protections that election officials have installed.
Still, the statement urged state officials to be vigilant and seek cybersecurity help from the Department of Homeland Security.
The White House for months resisted publicly accusing Russia of conducting the cyberattack operation, in part because Russian-affiliated hackers are skilled at masking their activities.
The intelligence community and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have spent months probing the operation and regularly briefed congressional leaders on their findings, telling them weeks ago that they believed Moscow was behind the operation.
But officials only recently reached the highest level of confidence in that assessment, a senior administration official said, based on intelligence clues and results of the criminal investigation.
The FBI probe is continuing and could result in legal action.
Members of both parties called for consequences. Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said Friday’s statement should prompt strong action against Moscow.
“Moscow must face serious consequences,” Mr. Sasse said. “Moscow orchestrated these hacks because Putin believes Soviet-style aggression is worth it. The United States must upend Putin’s calculus with a strong diplomatic, political, cyber and economic response.”
- U.S. Believes Hackers Are Shielded by Russia (Sept. 28)
- Guccifer 2.0 Denies Russian Involvement in Hack of Democratic Party (Sept. 7)
- U.S. Intelligence Chief Suggests Russia Behind Hacks of Democratic Party Groups (Sept. 7)
- Hackers Target Clinton Campaign, House Democratic Campaign Committee (July 29)
- Obama Says Experts Tie Russia to DNC Hacking (July 27)
- New White House Metric Will Guide Cyberattack Response (July 26)
- DNC Hack Prompts Allegations of Russian Involvement (July 25)
- DNC Says Computers Breached by Russian Government-Linked Hackers(June 14)
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence community needed to take the step of identifying Russia as being behind the leak operation because otherwise it was “viewed by the Russians as an open-door policy that they could continue to meddle.” The U.S. is considering more responses to the Russian operation, he said, but they would be carefully weighed.
“One thing that has gotten the Russians’ attention is sanctions,” Mr. Schiff said, referring to steps taken by Western countries in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Elizabeth Rosenberg, who served in a senior role at the Treasury Department and worked on sanctions issues until 2013, said imposing economic sanctions against Russia for the cyberattacks could be seen as an extreme move.
“Imposing sanctions based on a hack alone is aggressive and disproportionate,” she said. “It’s a really aggressive response to a malicious cyber activity such as this one.”
U.S. officials believe the Russian government controls some of the world’s most sophisticated hackers, and Moscow is believed to have conducted cyberattacks to influence elections throughout Europe for years.
But the hacks and leaks that have targeted the U.S. election have been mostly focused on the Democratic Party, leading for calls by some Democrats for the White House to toughen its stance with Mr. Putin.
The U.S. believes Russian computer spies have been stealing sensitive political documents, including emails and financial records, since at least last year. But the documents only began leaking to the public in April, first with the creation of DCleaks.com, then with the emergence of Guccifer 2.0, and later with the publication of more than 19,000 emails linked to the DNC by WikiLeaks.
The WikiLeaks emails came just days before the Democratic National Convention and caused tumult within both the party and the broader public, leading to the ouster of numerous top DNC officials.
Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks have released thousands of documents that U.S. officials believe are connected to the Russian operation, publishing the information piecemeal on at least 45 separate occasions. WikiLeaks has said it would release more documents about the U.S. election process before the Nov. 8 election.
Some of the documents included spreadsheets with personal cellphone numbers for many Democratic House members, files listing donors, and emails between Democratic staffers discussing travel and political races.
The Wall Street Journal has sought for weeks to contact Guccifer 2.0, DCleaks.com and WikiLeaks. Guccifer 2.0, in a series of messages sent through a social-media platform, insisted he was acting alone and not on behalf of the Russian government. He said he saw the U.S. political process as corrupt and acting on behalf of big business
Someone claiming to be a representative of DCleaks.com asked the Journal to submit questions in writing but never responded to them. Representatives for WikiLeaks didn’t respond to questions, but have told other news organizations that they don’t reveal the sources of their information.
In 2015, the White House strongly suggested that China was behind a large-scale cyberattack that obtained the records of more than 20 million people from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
That led to a diplomatic showdown between the U.S. and Beijing, eventually resulting in a carefully crafted agreement between both countries to limit certain types of computer intrusions without either side admitting guilt.
Kremlin watchers have said any Russian involvement in the current leaks may be less an attempt to influence the election’s outcome than a bid to cast doubt on the sanctity of American democracy. Russian officials have for years bristled at U.S. censure of Russian authoritarianism, and pro-Kremlin commentators have seized on the leak as an example of American hypocrisy.
“In America, there has been a gradual evaporation of democratic institutions, a seizure of power by the establishment,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political commentator, said when the first hacks came to light in late July.
—James Marson contributed to this article.
Write to Damian Paletta at email@example.com
U.S. Says Russia Directed Hacks to Influence Elections
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday formally accused the Russian government of stealing and disclosing emails from the Democratic National Committee and a range of other institutions and prominent individuals, immediately raising the issue of whether President Obama would seek sanctions or other retaliation.
In a statement from the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., and the Department of Homeland Security, the government said the leaked emails that have appeared on a variety of websites “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
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