CIA: Russian Hackers Aimed To Help Trump Win

Intelligence suggests Russia hacked the Republican National Committee but didn't leak its data, a sign experts say is indicative of broader plans to sway US election results.

Kelly Sheridan, Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

December 12, 2016

4 Min Read

The CIA is confident Russia's goal was to help Trump win the 2016 US Presidential election, the Washington Post reports.

US officials say intelligence agencies have determined which individuals, who have ties with the Russian government, provided WikiLeaks with hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

Officials say these individuals are known within the intelligence community and participants in a broader Russian-driven effort to boost Trump's campaign.

"It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia's goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected," reported a senior US official who was briefed on an intelligence presentation to US Senators. "That's the consensus view." 

The CIA presented its latest findings to lawmakers last week. Its conclusion is partially based on knowledge that Russians infiltrated the Republican National Committee but didn't leak its data, as it did following a series of attacks on the Democratic National Committee.

Experts are confident the Russians also hacked the RNC. However, Trump dismissed the discovery as "ridiculous" in a recent interview, and the RNC has consistently denied its networks were attacked.

If RNC systems were compromised and no information was released, it prompts some key questions about Russia's role in the election. Security experts have expressed concern for how Russia may be executing on objectives to influence US politics.

"Donald Trump was clearly the candidate in the Presidential race least problematic for Mr. Putin's aggressive foreign policy agenda," says John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. "While it would be a stretch to say that Russian hacking gave Mr. Trump the election, it seems clear that it was designed to undermine Ms. Clinton and to enhance his chance of winning."

In the months leading up to Election Day, Russian nation-state hackers targeted the DNC and shared its documents via WikiLeaks, intelligence agencies confirmed. As campaigns came to a close, hackers reportedly associated with Russia targeted Hillary Clinton's campaign staffers with a series of phishing emails.

The DNC was able to catch bad actors with the help of security firm CrowdStrike, which implemented endpoint technology to monitor network activity.

"[We] were able to watch everything that the adversaries were doing while we were working on a full remediation plan to remove them from the network," explains CrowdStrike co-founder and CTO Dmitri Alperovitch.

President Obama has responded to the attacks on Democratic party websites with an order for US intelligence agencies to conduct a review of attacks related to the 2016 election. The goal is to understand what happened, take action, and share lessons learned with stakeholders.

It's a tall but important order, especially if foreign actors can exert this amount of control over a US election.

"US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have seen mounting evidence of an active Russian influence operation in the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election through cyber hacking and tampering," says Chenxi Wang, Ph.D., chief strategy officer at Twistlock.

Wang describes how this is "our new cyber reality" in which hacking and counter-hacking, whether for political or financial gain, is commonplace. This carries tremendous implications for a future of "digital weaponry" in which data may not be trusted.

"If we cannot trust the validity of electronic records (e.g., voting records), or if data is made to selectively favor one candidate vs. another, then it could very well threaten the foundation of our everyday lives," she explains. 

Wang, as well as government officials, says it's time for security officials to develop stronger defenses to address these risks.

"For years, foreign adversaries have directed cyberattacks at America's physical, economic, and military infrastructure, while stealing our intellectual property," reported the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services in a joint statement issued Dec. 11.

"Congress's national security committees have worked diligently to address the complex challenge of cybersecurity, but recent events show that more must be done," the Committee said.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Sheridan

Former Senior Editor, Dark Reading

Kelly Sheridan was formerly a Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focused on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial services. Sheridan earned her BA in English at Villanova University. You can follow her on Twitter @kellymsheridan.

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