Democrats’ new warning: Leaks could include Russian lies
Cory Bennett, Politico, Aug 17 2016
Democrat leaders are putting out a warning that could help inoculate Hillary Clinton against an October cyber surprise: Any future mass leaks of embarrassing party emails might contain fake information inserted by Russian hackers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is among those sounding that alarm, echoing security experts who say Russian security services have been known to doctor documents and images or bury fictitious, damaging details amid genuine information. For hackers to resort to such tactics would be highly unusual, but security specialists say it’s a realistic extension of Moscow’s robust information warfare efforts. Pelosi aired her concerns during a Saturday night conference call with Democrat Congress critturs and aides who had been stung by a dump of their emails and phone numbers, according to a source on the call. Democrat strategists say the party would be wise to trumpet warnings about faked leaks as it braces for the possibility of hackers releasing damaging information about Clinton or other candidates close to Election Day. Preemptively casting doubt on the leaks may be easier now than trying to mount a full response days before voters go to the polls. Anita Dunn, who was White House communications director in the early part of Obama’s first term, said:
It is certainly a valid issue to raise, because clearly the people who are doing these attacks have a political agenda that’s against the Democrat Party.
If Russia is indeed attempting to destabilize Clinton’s candidacy through the widespread digital assault on Democrat institutions, as many researchers believe and Democrats are alleging, but Moscow strongly denies, Dunn, now a partner at communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, asked:
Why wouldn’t you want to raise the potential? I think it’s only prudent for people to raise that possibility.
Republicans say Democrats are just trying to distract the public from the most important issue: the content of the leaks. They say the Democrats already tried to do that with the first batch of 20,000 DNC emails that leaked in July, which forced the resignation of Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz after showing that some DNC staffers had favored Clinton over primary rival Bernie Sanders. Matt Mackowiak, a veteran Republican strategist, said:
First, they made it all about Russia instead of the substance of what was actually in the emails. Now, if there is a massive trove of emails or documents relating to the Clinton campaign or the Clinton Foundation … they may just say, ‘Look, the authenticity of the emails hasn’t been confirmed.’
Intelligence officials, including NSA Director Rogers and DNI Clapper, have long argued that data manipulation more broadly is a disturbing possibility, and potentially the next front in both cybercrime and the budding digital warfare between countries. Last month, a bipartisan group of 32 national security experts at the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group warned of a specific type of fakery following the DNC hack, arguing that the suspected Russian hackers who struck the DNC and the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee could “salt the files they release with plausible forgeries.” In Saturday’s call, Pelosi was underlining a point made by cyber experts at CrowdStrike, the firm the party has hired to investigate the breaches at the DNC and the DCCC. The conference call was prompted by the late Friday release of DCCC spreadsheets containing nearly all House Democrats’ and staffers’ personal emails and phone numbers, which led to a flood of harassing emails and phone calls over the weekend. In total, the hackers have reportedly infiltrated more than 100 party officials and groups, leaving progressives fearful that the entire Democrat Party apparatus is potentially compromised. During Saturday’s call, House critturs in competitive races voiced concerns about what damning information might be out there. But hacking specialists say the most harmful information might not even be genuine. CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch told Politico:
You may have material that’s 95% authentic, but 5% is modified, and you’ll never actually be able to prove a negative, that you never wrote what’s in that material. Even if you released the original email, how will you prove that it’s not doctored? It’s sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Several Democrat operatives said they even expect fake information, though mixed with enough truth to cause damage. Craig Varoga, a DC-based Democrat strategist, said:
The most powerful lie contains truth. Whether it’s the devil or it’s Russian intelligence services, they traffic in things that are true in order to put across a greater lie.
Historically, it’s not unprecedented for intelligence agencies, including those in Pindostan, to release fake reports for propaganda purposes. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program infamously used forged documents and false news reports to discredit or harass dissenters during the 1950s and 1960s, including civil rights leaders, anti-war protesters and alleged communist organizations. Hackers have adopted similar strategies. In 2013, Syrian hackers backing Assad hijacked AP’s Twitter account, tweeting out falsified reports of two explosions at the White House that had injured Obama. The Dow plummeted in minutes, wiping out $136b in market value, according to Bloomberg. It stabilized shortly thereafter, once the report was revealed to be a hoax. Russia has long been known for engaging in such propaganda warfare, going back to the days of the Soviet Union, when the KGB spread conspiracy theories about the FBI and CIA’s involvement in the JFK assassination. In the 1980s, the KGB planted newspaper articles alleging that Pindostan had invented HIV during a biological weapons research project. The security agency also secretly helped an East German journalist write a book, “Who’s Who in the CIA,” that accurately outed numerous undercover CIA agents but also intentionally included a raft of people who were simply Pindosi boxtops stationed overseas, according to a former top Soviet security official. In the weeks since the DNC email leaks, cyber specialists on Twitter have been circulating a passage from the memoirs of a former East German spymaster who wrote about the “creative” use of forgeries in conjunction with genuine leaks. Markus Wolf, who had headed East Germany’s foreign intelligence division for more than three decades, wrote:
Embarrassed by the publication of genuine but suppressed information, the targets were badly placed to defend themselves against the other, more damaging accusations that had been invented. On the other hand, my principle was to stick as close to the truth as possible, especially when there was so much of it that could easily further the department’s aims.
In recent years, the Kremlin has adapted these tactics for a digital age. The Kremlin was caught in 2014 manipulating satellite images to produce “proof” that Ukraine had shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight that was downed over Ukraine, killing 298 passengers. Last year, a Russian lawmaker’s staffer was exposed filming a fake war report, pretending to be near the front line in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has seized territory. James Lewis, an international cyber policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said via email:
Standard Russian modus operandi. They’ve done it before in the Baltics and other parts of Europe: Leak a lot of real data and slip in some fakes, or more often, things that have been subtly modified rather than a complete fake.
Digital forensics experts even noted that the metadata on some of the early documents leaked from the DNC, which included opposition research files, had been altered, although it didn’t appear that any content was compromised. But the discovery showed how easy such an edit would be. Steve Ward, director of communications for digital security firm FireEye, which tracks many Russian hacking groups:
They have information warfare as a core tenet of what they do form a geopolitical perspective. It’s really in their wheelhouse.
But Ward and other digital security experts acknowledge that the exact scenario Pelosi was discussing would be novel, and that so far, hackers have had little incentive to manipulate leaked data. As anonymous digital actors, hackers already have the deck stacked against them when trying to expose information. Ward said:
You’ve got to suspend disbelief and trust the bad guys when you’re looking at this stuff. If they make just one discredited leak, hackers are effectively losing the value of the operation by creating distrust with the data.
This leads many cyber experts to suspect that any release of faked emails, if it comes at all, would probably not come until days before the Nov 8 election. At that point, the Democrats wouldn’t have time to definitively prove a forgery. So it makes sense, strategists said, for Democrats to put the concept in the public’s mind now. Brad Bannon, a longtime Democrat consultant, said:
What Pelosi is doing is making the response now. Democrats do have their antenna up over this thing. They are anticipating.