Russian hackers seek to embarrass the U.S. this election season

In February 2014, the Obama administration was embarrassed when a secretly recorded phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine and Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, was posted on YouTube.

The two officials could be heard privately picking who should be in the new government in Kiev, and at one point, Nuland used a four-letter word to dismiss slow-moving diplomats at the European Union.

The intercepted call, which U.S. officials traced to Russian intelligence, created friction between U.S. and EU envoys.  But its real significance is only now clear — Russia was publicly willing to use the fruits of espionage to upend U.S. foreign policy.

“Instead of using their capability to write secret memos, they decided, ‘Well, let’s see what happens if we release it,’” said Stewart Baker, former general counsel to the National Security Agency.

Russia’s government, he added, has “decided that getting fingered isn’t all that bad.”

That analysis helps explain Russia’s apparent efforts to influence the U.S. presidential campaign: Under Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet-era KGB officer, spying once done in secret is increasingly public.

U.S. intelligence officials don’t believe Russian hackers can swing Tuesday’s election by covertly changing returns or meddling with the counting. The country’s 9,000 voting districts are highly decentralized and have backup counting procedures.

But they don’t rule out Russian-sponsored service denials or other disruptions that could undermine confidence in the official tallies, especially given Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the election system is rigged.

Russia’s attempts to interfere with Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not in doubt, according to U.S. officials.  It appears to be driven in part by a personal animus against the former secretary of State, officials say, as well as an effort to raise doubts about the validity of U.S. democracy and leadership around the globe.

On Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Intelligence Community — which comprises the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies — said they were confident that Russia’s government was responsible for stealing and leaking tens of thousands of emails from accounts used by Democratic National Committee staff and from the private account of John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign.

“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the joint statement declared. It didn’t name Putin, but added, “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities."

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The stolen emails, which were published by WikiLeaks and other websites, added fodder to allegations that Democratic Party officials worked with Clinton operatives to defeat rival Bernie Sanders during the primaries, and that the Clinton family benefited financially from the Clinton Foundation global charity.

Moscow denied any responsibility. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the U.S. claims “nonsense,” while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the “public bickering with Russia” was a “smokescreen” to divert attention from America’s domestic problems.

"It's flattering, of course, to get this kind of attention — for a regional power, as President Obama called us some time ago," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on CNN. "We have not seen a single fact, a single proof.”

Intelligence agencies regularly try to infiltrate foreign political parties, steal data and influence elections. Analysts scrutinize stolen phone calls and emails from potential leaders and their aides for useful intelligence or potential weaknesses they can exploit.

Whether the Russian-backed hackers in this case were careless or defiant is not clear. What’s important, U.S. analysts say, is that Putin’s government got caught — and didn’t stop.

“There is no cost,” said Michael Allen, former staff director for the House Intelligence Committee and a senior national security aide in the George W. Bush White House.

“They are acting out because their risk tolerance is so high and the consequences are so low,” Allen said. “Right now there is no cyber deterrence… There is no payback.”

Although the White House has asked for retaliation options, U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t been ordered to launch a robust response to the leaks, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. 

Possible responses include slapping new sanctions on Russia’s government or officials involved in the hacking, launching a U.S. cyberattack on Russian networks or expelling Russian diplomats and suspected intelligence operatives from the U.S.

Whatever the results on Tuesday, Putin stands to gain from the disorder of this campaign cycle, according to Garry Kasparov, the former Russian chess grand master and Putin opponent who now heads the Human Rights Foundation in New York.

If Trump succeeds, the leaks will have helped a candidate who has repeatedly praised Putin and who has publicly dismissed a classified U.S. intelligence judgment about the Russian hacking.

If Clinton wins and Trump urges his supporters to challenge the results, Moscow has grist for propaganda that U.S. democracy is adrift and its elected leaders can’t be trusted.

“If Trump wins, it will be the biggest prize they can dream of,” Kasparov said. “If he loses, [doubt] will drag on for a long time, accusations about the election being rigged.”

Putin has made no secret of his dislike of Clinton, according to Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian expert at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va.

Months of mass street protests broke out in Moscow after Putin’s party, United Russia, won disputed parliamentary elections in 2011. He blamed U.S.-funded pro-democracy organizations for fomenting the unrest.

Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time, called for a “full investigation” into Russia’s election irregularities, saying the U.S. government had “serious concerns” about the voting.

Putin also saw a U.S. hand when protests erupted in Ukraine in 2014, forcing the Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, to flee the country. Putin used the chaos to annex Crimea and has since backed rebels in eastern Ukraine against the U.S.-backed government in Kiev.

Relations with Washington have gone downhill ever since — including in cyberspace.

“It’s not so much they are more willing to take active measures,” Gorenburg said, using a Soviet-era term for using disinformation, forgeries and front groups to influence political events. “They were always doing active measures [against] their neighbors. Now they are also willing to target the U.S.”

To be sure, Russian hacking of U.S. government computers is not new.

In 1998, technicians saw unusual activity in restricted computer networks at the Pentagon, NASA and the Department of Energy, as well as at research universities and defense contractors. 

An FBI investigation, code-named Moonlight Maze, found the cyber attacks had originated in Russia and had lasted almost two years. Hackers had gotten access to thousands of unclassified but sensitive maps of military installations, military hardware designs and troop planning documents.

FBI investigators concluded the Russian government was behind the breaches in part because most of the intrusions occurred between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Moscow time and dropped off during Russian holidays.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Follow me @ByBrianBennett on Twitter

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