‘This is huge’: National-security experts were floored by the leaked NSA document on Russia election hack

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Vladimir Putin
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A leaked NSA document which found that hackers connected to Russian military intelligence tried to breach US voting systems days before the 2016 election has national-security experts and former intelligence officials reeling.

Russian military intelligence, according to the document, launched an attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to at least 100 local election officials shortly before the election.

In addition to being the strongest indication so far that Russia interfered in the US election, the document also indicates that Russian hackers may have “penetrated further into US voting systems than was previously understood,” The Intercept, which first published the document, reported.

A US intelligence official contacted by The Intercept said that the document’s findings are not necessarily definitive and warned against drawing too many conclusions from the analysis.

But others in the national security apparatus feel differently.

“This is indeed a big deal,” said Bob Deitz, a veteran of the NSA and CIA who worked under former president Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “We are lucky that US presidential elections are so localized that it is difficult to do an effective hack.”

‘The clearest indication yet of a cyber attack’

The document’s findings seem more indicative of a Russian cyber attack on the US electoral system than previous findings were, said Claire Finkelstein, a professor and national security expert at University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“We tend to associate this kind of stuff with China and North Korea,” Finkelstein said. “Technologically-advanced societies like ours are often soft targets, and there’s no reason that Russia shouldn’t be engaging in this kind of activity.”

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Donald Trump.
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Getty Images/Pool

The intelligence community determined in 2016 that there was ample evidence of Russian interference in the election, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin was directly involved. The intelligence community also concluded that Putin specifically chose to help candidate Trump at the cost of Hillary Clinton and to cast her in an unfavorable light.

Until the NSA’s report, dated May 5, 2017, was leaked earlier on Monday, Russian influence during the 2016 election was gauged to be a largely covert operation. This latest document suggests that Putin’s activities were far more overt.

According to the document, the attack was conducted by the GRU, a Russian military intelligence outfit. “That’s no longer just covert activities like email hacking and dissemination of fake news,” Finkelstein said. “This starts to look much more like a cyber attack.” Though the definition of a cyber attack has not been universally agreed upon, “it could certainly look like a military attack on US interests,” Finkelstein added.

Trump ‘will be highly-scrutinized after this’

Experts say the next thing to look out for is Trump’s reaction to the document. The president has in the past sharply criticized leaks of sensitive or classified information to the press, and he recently ordered the Department of Justice to crack down significantly on individuals who leak information.

During the transition period and a number of times after assuming office, Trump lambasted the intelligence community for what he said was a politically-motivated conclusion that Russia meddled in the election to hurt Clinton and help him.

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Donald Trump.
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Trump’s response to the NSA’s document will be critical, Finkelstein said. “If he does not decry this interference or attempted interference with the machinery of democratic processes in the US, that in and of itself will be highly suspect.”

The timing of the document leak has also raised questions, since it was released three days before former FBI director James Comey is set to testify before the Senate about conversations he had with Trump as part of a broader inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Comey was fired on May 9 – four days after the NSA document, which Trump was briefed on, was published.

The document “could have been a meaningful event that had an impact” on Trump’s decision to fire Comey, said Glenn Carle, a CIA veteran and former spy. “Trump probably felt he had ample cause to fire Comey because he was anxious about the Russia inquiry. He had no justifiable reason to fire Comey, other than trying to stop the investigation that’s going to be his undoing,” Carle added.

Finkelstein said it was “highly suspicious” the document was dated four days before Comey was fired. “I suspect that whoever leaked it now was trying to facilitate Comey’s conversation with Congress by putting a few more cards on the table.”

However, a leak of classified information does not declassify it. Comey, who has been tight-lipped in the past when it comes to discussing sensitive or classified information, will likely not address it during his testimony, “despite the fact that he was likely tracking the report and many others like it,” Finkelstein said.

Comey would have been privy to the information, given the frequent collaboration between the FBI and the NSA, and he may also have been involved in attempting to identify further instances of Russian interference and potential collusion with the Trump campaign. “So, the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia may go deeper than we have been assuming up until this point.”

Carle added that the NSA’s document was “evidence for the public now to see yet another example of quite a coherent operation [by the Russians].”

“And that is significant,” he added.

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Former FBI Director James Comey.
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Andrew Burton/Getty Images

‘An excruciating dilemma’

Another pressing issue brought to light by these latest revelations are the potential bind that top intelligence officials may find themselves in.

“What do you do if you are serving the president and this is information that the president has to know, but it pertains to something that has quite obviously, without exception, catalyzed him to take actions hostile to the intelligence community, the national security establishment, and the rule of law?” Carle said. “It’s an excruciating dilemma.”

Law enforcement and investigative officials typically do not inform the subjects of investigations of their findings. “But in this instance, that is the chain of command,” Carle said.

Trump’s fuzzy relationship with Russia also adds another wrinkle to fallout after the release of the NSA document, because it raises questions about whether nations with interests that are antithetical to US interests can be considered enemy nations when the president himself has not clearly outlined them as a threat.

“As commander-in-chief of armed forces, the president identifies who constitutes a threat to the US,” Finkelstein said. “If, however, there’s a clear attack on the US of a military nature, and that includes a cyber attack like this one conducted by Russian military intelligence,” then the president’s own definition of what constitutes an enemy nation may start to carry less weight, Finkelstein added.

One of the steepest threats arising from the latest revelations about a deeper penetration of US voting systems, Deitz, the NSA and CIA veteran said, was to democracy itself.

“Democracies ultimately rest their legitimacy upon fair elections,” he said. “And if people believe that elections are rigged or otherwise corrupt, they will lose faith in them.”