ASPEN, Colorado — Pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to publicly identify the source of a cyber attack against the Democratic National Committee, which law enforcement and intelligence officials say has been traced to Russia and appears to be part of a campaign to meddle with the presidential election.
This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers—as well as former intelligence officials, retired military officers, and security experts—urged President Obama to call out Russia for the hacking campaign. After all, these experts say, that’s what he did when North Korea was blamed for a damaging cyber attack against Sony Pictures in retaliation for a satirical film.
That hack was seen as an assault on core American values of freedom of expression. Similarly, the breach of the DNC is viewed as an affront to the U.S. electoral process that cannot go unanswered.
Officially, the White House and intelligence agencies have taken no public stance on who is behind the attack, which was first revealed in June and took on new urgency when DNC staff emails were leaked last week, showing that the organization tried to undermine the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign amid the scandal. And the email leak cast a shadow over the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week.
But six U.S. officials and security experts have told The Daily Beast that the evidence linking Russia to the hack appears conclusive. Obama himself stepped closer to pinning the hacks on Russia when he told NBC News that “experts have attributed this to the Russians” and that it was “possible” the leak was designed to help the Trump campaign.
Three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that it is too early to discuss possible retaliation against Russia, noting that the FBI is still investigating the breach.
But privately, the officials said, there are discussions underway about a response that is at least as public and as aggressive as the U.S. response to the Sony hack, in 2014.
“The Russians may do this to other countries, but they cannot be allowed to do it to us,” a former senior U.S. official told The Daily Beast, speaking privately because of the sensitivities surrounding ongoing discussions about when and how to publicly blame the Russian government.
In an unprecedented move after the Sony hack that many now see as a model, Obama called a press conference at the White House and publicly denounced North Korea. FBI Director James Comey later revealed sensitive technical information about how the U.S. knew the Hermit Kingdom was to blame. The evidence was gleaned from classified U.S. intelligence operations tracking the North Korean hackers.
In January 2015, the U.S. placed sanctions on North Korean businesses and officials. And as The Daily Beast reported, the U.S. also launched retaliatory cyber attacks on North Korean computer networks.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said this week that the FBI and the National Security Agency, which monitors global computer networks and has the authority to launch offensive cyber operations, are in the lead on the DNC hack investigation.
The question of how and when to respond took on new urgency on Friday with news that a DNC computer system also used by the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had been compromised.
“An analytics data program maintained by the DNC, and used by our campaign and a number of other entities, was accessed as part of the DNC hack,” Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill said in a statement late Friday after the breach was reported by Reuters. “Our campaign computer system has been under review by outside cyber security experts. To date, they have found no evidence that our internal systems have been compromised,” Merrill said.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises money for House races, had also been compromised. Hackers were able to divert donors away from the DCCC’s website to one that the hackers controlled. It’s not clear if the operation was intended to gather information on the donors.
“This wave of attacks is absolutely unprecedented. This is quickly transitioning from a partisan problem, to a national security emergency,” Justin Harvey, the chief security officer of computer security company Fidelis, told The Daily Beast. The company has analyzed the attack on the DCCC system and found that it traces back to Russia.
“I am hoping that the FBI will share the threat intelligence it collects with the public and cybersecurity firms so we can help other organizations that may have been affected by these actors,” Harvey said.
In an interview at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Brennan on Friday warned of “foreign actors” looking to “manipulate the foundation of our democracy, which is an election.” He declined to say who was behind the attacks on the DNC and others.
Russian officials have denied being behind the attack. Earlier this week, while meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Laos, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to the allegation by saying: “I don’t want to use four-letter words.”
“It is so absurd it borders on total stupidity,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reportedly said.
On Thursday, a group of 32 former intelligence officials who have served in Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as retired military officers and security experts called on President Obama to “ensure that the attacks are attributed and take prompt actions sufficient to hold those responsible accountable and deter foreign actors from pursuing such tactics in the future.”
The experts, many of whom convened with top U.S. officials in Aspen, Colorado, this week for an annual security forum, warned that the hacking of a political organization could presage an attempt to skew election results by attacking electronic voting systems.
“Election officials at every level of government should take this lesson to heart: our electoral process could be a target for reckless foreign governments and terrorist groups,” wrote the members of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group.
Earlier this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees wrote to Obama urging the administration to “consider declassifying and releasing, subject to redactions to protect sources and methods, any Intelligence Community assessments regarding the incident, including any that might illuminate potential Russian motivations for what would be an unprecedented interference in a U.S. Presidential race…”
The lawmakers also asked for intelligence about why Putin “could potentially feel compelled to authorize such an operation, given the high likelihood of eventual attribution.”
The statement presupposed that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as private computer security companies, would be able to determine who was behind the attacks, and that such information wouldn’t stay secret for long.
Security, law enforcement, and intelligence officials haven’t reached a consensus on whether the hack and subsequent leak of DNC emails was intended to benefit one presidential candidate over another, current and former U.S. officials involved in the deliberations said. That lack of clarity is making administration officials move cautiously in holding Russia to account.
But with new hacks being announced by the day, it seems only a matter of time before Obama is compelled to call out Moscow for its mischief.
Ironically, the call for disclosure from former intelligence officials and top lawmakers is mirrored by Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker now living in Moscow. “During the #Sony hack, the FBI presented evidence,’ he tweeted. “Evidence that could publicly attribute responsibility for the DNC hack certainly exists at #NSA.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman