Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election wasn’t as one-sided as Special Counsel Robert Mueller charges in his latest indictment. The Russian military spy agency that Mueller says hacked the Democratic National Committee also penetrated the computer systems of the Republican National Committee using fake emails in a phishing scheme, U.S. officials say.
This evidence challenges the narrative, now reinforced by Mueller’s indictments, that Russia’s scheme was solely aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton.
“RNC emails were stolen through the same spear phishing scams used against Democrats,” a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the investigation told RealClearInvestigations. “In fact, prominent Republicans were targeted and similarly victimized by the disclosure of sensitive emails during the campaign.”
The indictment acknowledges this on page 13: “The Conspirators also released documents they had stolen in other spear phishing operations, including those they had conducted in 2015 that collected emails from individuals affiliated with the Republican Party.”
But that is the only mention of Russian attacks against Republicans in the 29-page indictment that focuses on the targeting and victimization of key Democrats, including the chairman of the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, as well as Democratic institutions, such as the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Unlike information detailing attacks on Democrats, the indictment does not detail the “manner and means” by which the Russian conspirators allegedly carried out the theft against Republicans. Nor does it name the defendants said to be directly involved in those crimes as it does in the case of the various Democratic breaches.
Moreover, the reference makes it seem as if only individual Republicans, not the GOP’s headquarters in Washington, were targeted and that those attacks occurred before the 2016 election campaign.
In fact, U.S. intelligence officials say the attackers penetrated GOP organizations at both the national and state levels, as well as the individual level, and successfully “exfiltrated” Republican emails during the 2016 election cycle. They add that Trump officials themselves were targeted by Russian intelligence late in 2016, often by phishing schemes, in which fraudulent emails seemingly from trusted sources (e.g. the government, banks or Google) are sent to gain access to personal information.
Mueller’s office would not say whether the criminal breaches of GOP organizations carried out by the same bad Russian actors were investigated by his team with the same level of forensic analysis and scrutiny as the Democrat-related cybercrimes.
“We’ll decline to comment beyond the indictment,” Special Counsel’s Office spokesman Peter Carr said.
The Justice Department, which is working with the Mueller investigation, has compelled congressional committees investigating Russian election interference to redact information about Russian intrusions at the RNC and other Republican targets from their reports, claiming it is classified at the highest levels.
Responding to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who asked “Was the Trump campaign hacked by the Russians?” Comey replied, “I want to be thoughtful about what I say in open setting, but there was evidence that there was hacking directed at state-level [Republican] organizations, state-level [Republican] campaigns, and the RNC.”
Comey added, “There is no doubt that they hit an RNC [email] domain.” However, he testified Russian actors were not able to collect “current” emails, suggesting more valuable RNC data was better protected from such cyberthreats than those secured by the DNC.
Russian hackers “got far deeper and wider into the DNC than the RNC,” Comey testified, even though they used similar methods of infiltration. “Spear phishing techniques were used in both cases,” he said, “but there’s no doubt they were more successful in [penetrating] the DNC.”
President Trump said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “I heard that they were trying, or people were trying, to hack into the RNC too. The Republican National Committee. But we had much better defenses. I’ve been told that by a number of people. We had much better defenses, so they couldn’t.”
Reince Priebus, RNC chairman at the time, said that the Russian efforts against the GOP were less effective because his operatives did a better job of securing their computer networks (although Comey testified that Russians did succeed in stealing and releasing current information from state GOP offices in 2016).
Mueller’s indictment alleges that the Russian defendants’ phishing operation to steal victims’ passwords and gain access to their computers “targeted over 300 individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign, DCCC and DNC.” The highest ranking was Podesta, who saw more than 50,000 of his personal emails dumped into the public domain after he clicked on a phony security notification from Google. (The alleged Russian spoof instructed him to change his password by clicking the embedded link, thereby opening the door to his account.)
U.S. officials say Russian efforts went far beyond attacks on party officials. All told, they say, Russia’s cyber espionage operation targeted more than 4,000 other American victims during the 2016 election cycle using the same technique.
One of them was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who fell for the same “Google” email phishing scam that tricked Podesta and whose subsequently leaked emails contained negative characterizations of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The Mueller indictment also states flatly that the hacking entity calling itself Guccifer 2.0 and a website called DCLeaks.com are both Russian government fronts. But it does not mention that in June 2016, just before the GOP convention in Cleveland, Guccifer 2.0 released 237 pages of damaging information on Trump, including opposition research accusing the Republican frontrunner of raping his ex-wife. The hacked research, titled the “Donald Trump Report,” delved into Trump’s personal life and portrayed him as a “misogynist.”
Although the Obama administration’s intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 election asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hacking operations “with the goal of hurting Clinton’s candidacy and ultimately helping to elect Trump,” it also acknowledged in passing that Republicans were likewise targeted.
The Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) published in January 2017 found that Russian hackers targeted “both major US political parties” and collected against both “primary campaigns,” adding, “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets.”
Led by the FBI and CIA, the Obama administration also assessed that Moscow was targeting the incoming Trump administration for additional hacking. The last page of its ICA report revealed that Moscow continued its “spear phishing campaign” after Trump won the election by targeting “U.S. government employees” with the likely purpose of gathering intelligence “on the incoming administration’s goals and plans.”
Details about the Russian targeting of Trump and Republicans have been systematically buried, Hill sources say, even in congressional reports released by Republicans. For instance, the Justice Department classified evidence of GOP intrusions and thereby shielded it from public view in nearly eight fully blacked-out pages of the House Intelligence Committee’s recently released “Report on Russian Active Measures.” The heavily redacted material is contained in the section titled, “Russia Attacks the United States.”
Hill sources say Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, is seeking to declassify the material. They maintain the information is being hidden because “it undermines the key assumption” undergirding the Trump-Russia “collusion” narrative.
The special counsel appears to be contributing to this “cover-up,” a House investigator for the Republican majority said, speaking only on condition of anonymity. Even as Mueller’s indictment confirms Russian hackers targeted Republican “individuals,” it stops short of saying they attacked the Republican campaign along with the Democratic campaign.
While focusing on Russian efforts against Democrats, Muller’s latest indictment does not support the notion promulgated by the Obama administration that Putin sought “to help Trump win.” Rather, Mueller simply found that “the object of the conspiracy was to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Officials close to the investigation say that is because Mueller’s office has found no solid evidence to support the notion that Moscow meddled in the election to aid Trump. They note that as in past U.S. elections where Russia ran influence operations — dating back to the 1990s — its aim primarily has been to sow discord and create chaos in the American political system, and not necessarily to favor one candidate over another.