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Obama Orders Inquiry Into Cyberattacks On Democratic Party Websites

President wants U.S. intelligence to provide report before he leaves office Jan. 20.

President Obama has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a full review of several election-related hacking incidents earlier this year, which many believe were an attempt by the Russian government to meddle with the US election process.

The President expects a report on the review before his term officially ends next month, White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco reportedly said at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington, Friday.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that,” the Washington Post quoted Monaco as saying. The goal of the review is to understand what happened, conduct “some after-action” and impart lessons learned to the relevant stakeholders.

Monaco did not indicate if the results of the review would be shared publicly.

It is unclear what might have prompted the White House call for the new investigation of intrusions into the websites of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Hillary Clinton’s campaign website earlier this year.

Thousands of emails and documents stolen in the intrusions were later posted on WikiLeaks and other websites, causing embarrassment to Democratic Party members, some of whom were force to resign.

Many believed the attacks were politically motivated and designed to swing the election in then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s favor. Several lawmakers from the Democratic Party have asked for more information on the intrusions to be released to them.

An individual or group using the handle Guccifer 2.0 has claimed credit for the DNC intrusion, while several security vendors have attributed the attacks to Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, two groups with supposed links to the Russian government.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security laid the blame for the attacks squarely on the Russian government. In a joint statement in October, the two agencies described the intrusions as an attempt to interfere with the US election process.

“Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there,” the statement had noted. It went on to say that based on the scope of the attacks and the kind of data that was exposed, only senior-most officials in the Russian government could have authorized them.

The FBI too has pointed to Russian involvement in the intrusions.

President-elect Trump himself has said he does not believe the Russian government had a hand in the hacking. In an interview with Time magazine, Trump said that he believes the conclusion made by US intelligence agencies of Russian involvement, is politically motivated. “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” he told Time.

John Bambenek, threat systems manager of Fidelis Cybersecurity, said it is unclear what new insight Obama is hoping to gain from the new review. “I’m not sure what the point of this investigation is other than to repeat what has already been claimed, that Russia hacked political entities in the United States in an attempt to use stolen emails and documents to paint a candidate in a poor light,” he said in a statement. 

It is likely that President Obama is trying to preempt Trump from deflecting the blame or casting doubt on the findings by the intelligence agencies, Bambenek added.

“The President’s decision to launch a full investigation into foreign efforts to hack political entities in the United States is unsurprising but welcome,” noted Michael Gottlieb, former associate White House Counsel and partner at Washington law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP in a statement. “All Americans should be concerned with attempted foreign interference in U.S. elections, regardless of which party or candidate is targeted,” said Gottlieb, who also represented Sony Pictures following the 2014 data breach at the company.

Meanwhile, in a separate but somewhat related development, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp this week sent a letter to DHS secretary Jeh Johnson demanding to know why an IP address associated with the DHS made an unsuccessful attempt to breach his office’s firewall. The systems that were targeted contained personal data on 6.5 million residents of Georgia as well as corporate and other information The Hill quoted the letter as saying.

Prior to the elections the DHS had offered to help state election bodies secure voting systems and databases against cyber attacks. But Kemp said his office had never granted DHS the permission to do penetration tests or security scans of its networks. He wanted an explanation from Johnson on why the agency had apparently illegally attempted to access its systems.

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