- Robert Johnston, the cybersecurity expert who was the first to uncover the extent of Russia’s hacks into the DNC during the 2016 election, didn’t think the stolen data would be leaked to Wikileaks.
- Johnston, a former Marine, spoke publicly about his role in the DNC hacking investigation for the first time in an interview with Buzzfeed News.
- Johnston says he “takes responsibility” for thinking that Russia would only used the stolen information for espionage purposes.
In May 2016, Robert Johnston, a former Marine Corps captain, briefed members of the Democratic National Committee about reported hacks into their emails and data servers.
“They’re looking at me and they’re asking, ‘What are they going to do with the data that was taken?'” Johnston told Buzzfeed News.
Johnston’s response: nothing.
More than a year later – as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible coordination between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election intensifies – Johnston has realized he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I take responsibility for that piece,” he said.
As the former head of a government cyber protection team, Johnston had plenty of experience with hacks prior to the DNC incident.
In 2015, he presided over a massive malware attack linked to the Russian government that compromised the computers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s top military advisers. The attack affected around 4,000 personnel who worked for the Joint Chiefs and kicked the Pentagon’s email system offline for almost two weeks.
As with other hacks that he had witnessed, lots of data was stolen, but it was never released.
When the DNC reached out to IT security organization Crowdstrike last year to investigate the DNC hack, the task fell to Johnston, then the firm’s lead investigator. After assessing the damage, he met with DNC officials to discuss what to expect. Thinking back to the previous hacks he had witnessed, he assumed nothing would come of the DNC hack.
“I start thinking back to all of these previous hacks by Russia and other adversaries like China. I think back to the Joint Chiefs hack. What did they do with this data? Nothing. They took the information for espionage purposes. They didn’t leak it to WikiLeaks,” Johnston said.
He says those past hacking experiences convinced him that Russia wouldn’t do anything with the information gathered from the DNC’s servers. He told them not to worry.
He was wrong. The stolen data was leaked to Wikileaks and founder Julian Assange, who published the emails, throwing the 2016 DNC Convention in Philadelphia, PA and the Hillary Clinton campaign into disarray.