Hack unites unlikely pair: Trump and Assange

Despite the duo's resistance, there are reasons to believe that Russian intelligence was behind the leaks

Hack unites unlikely pair: Trump and Assange

Just a year ago, they might have seemed the oddest of couples. But now American president-elect Donald Trump and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, have formed a united front against the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russian intelligence used hacked emails to interfere in the presidential election.

Assange, long reviled by many Republicans as an anarchist lawbreaker out to damage the United States, has won new respect from conservatives who appreciated his site’s release of Democratic emails widely perceived to have hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And Trump has been eager to undercut the conclusion of the FBI, CIA and other agencies that those emails were provided to WikiLeaks courtesy Russian government hackers.

In a lengthy interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News aired on Tuesday night, Assange repeated earlier denials that WikiLeaks had received the hacked emails from Russian intelligence. “Our source is not the Russian govern-ment,” Assange said. “And it is not a state party.”

Trump picked up on Assange’s claim on Twitter on Wednesday morning, referring to the main targets of the hacking, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D Podesta: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14-year-old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”

But Assange has said in the past that, on principle, WikiLeaks does not try to investigate the provider of leaked documents and sometimes does not know a source’s identity. In this case, it is highly unlikely that anyone approaching WikiLeaks with the emails obtained by Russian government hacking would acknowledge the source, so it appears that Assange cannot be sure of the ultimate origin of the emails.

Nor did Assange mention two mysterious internet sites that, like WikiLeaks, also distributed the hacked emails. The US officials believe those sites, DCLeaks.com and a blog calling itself “Guccifer 2.0,” were created by Russian agents. Following up on his first Twitter post, Trump also seemed to bond with Assange over their shared disdain for the media. He noted that Assange had called American media coverage “very dishonest” and added, “More dishonest than anyone knows.”

Though the celebrity businessman and the champion of leakers are both showmen sometimes derided by critics as narcissists, they might seem to have little else in common. In this instance, however, their interests may coincide. Assange would like to counter the impression that WikiLeaks made itself a passive tool for the geopolitical machinations of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Trump would like to erase the impression that he got Russian help in defeating Clinton. But Trump’s repeated public rejection of the intelligence agencies’ conclusion on the election-related hacking has raised the stakes for a briefing on the matter he will receive on Friday in New York from the FBI director, James B Comey, and the director of national intelligence, James R Clapper Jr.

Democrats jumped at the chance to highlight the president-elect’s public dismissal of the intelligence agencies he will soon command. “With every conspiracy theory-laden tweet and erratic off-the-cuff comment, the president-elect does damage to our national security, while raising new concerns about his capacity to grow into the job,” Representative Adam B Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“When he belittles the reputation of the brave and hardworking professionals in the intelligence community, he impairs our national security and the prospects for the success of his own administration.”

Vice president-elect Mike Pence, who will attend Friday’s briefing, countered that in view of past intelligence failures, Trump’s approach was justified. “I think that the president-elect has expressed his very sincere and healthy American scepticism about intelligence conclusions,” Pence said at a news conference with House Republican leaders at the Capitol.

Despite Trump’s and Assange’s resistance, there are many reasons to accept the idea that Russian intelligence was behind the hacks and leaks that affected the election, even if the public case is not yet airtight, experts say. Sleuths across the intelligence agencies believe the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, is behind the group blamed for the email hacking, variously known as Fancy Bear and Advanced Persistent Threat 28.

Their views are presumably based not just on analysing the malware and other features of the hacks, but on spy work, including intercepted communications, human agents and software implants in Russian computer systems. Most, though not all, researchers in private industry agree with the conclusion.

Espionage operation

The Russian APT 28 group is blamed not just for taking emails from the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Podesta, but also making them public. It was that second step, turning a traditional espionage operation into an attempt to influence the election, that prompted President Barack Obama to expel 35 suspected Russian intelligence agents and to close Russian diplomatic facilities in New York and Maryland.

“There’s overwhelming evidence that the Russian government carried out these operations,” said Christopher Porter, a manager of analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. He said that while some individual hacks might have been carried out by any number of actors, the overall pattern of attacks attributed to APT 28 pointed directly at the Russian government.

“Some targets for APT 28 are a niche interest for the Russian government,” he said — for instance, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which has cracked down on Russian athletes, and certain institutions in Eastern Europe. When the same tools and patterns were used on the US election targets, the connection with Russia seemed indisputable, he said.

Porter, a former CIA cyberspecialist, said the government had bungled the public case that Russia was behind the hacking. A report the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI put out last Thursday included a long list of malware it said was evidence of Russian hacking, when some of the malware is used by non-Russian attackers.

“That list included a distressingly large number of false positives,” he said. The inaccuracy does nothing to undermine the agencies’ conclusion about the election-related hacking, but it underscores the importance for the government of making a clear, public case, he said.

Jeffrey Carr of 20K League, a cybersecurity firm in Seattle, is most prominent among the small number of sceptical experts on the intelligence agencies’ findings. He said he believes APT 28 could be simply Russian-language hackers “who don’t happen to like Hillary Clinton” but do not take orders from the Kremlin.

“Of course it could be the Russian government,” Carr said. “But when it comes to one nation accusing another nation, we should demand a public case that’s logically consistent and excludes other actors. In this case, I don’t think that’s happened.”

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