How Russia pulled off the biggest election hack in U.S. history


Thomas Rid writes: On an April afternoon earlier this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin headlined a gathering of some four hundred journalists, bloggers, and media executives in St. Petersburg. Dressed in a sleek navy suit, Putin looked relaxed, even comfortable, as he took questions. About an hour into the forum, a young blogger in a navy zip sweater took the microphone and asked Putin what he thought of the “so-called Panama Papers.”

The blogger was referring to a cache of more than eleven million computer files that had been stolen from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm. The leak was the largest in history, involving 2.6 terabytes of data, enough to fill more than five hundred DVDs. On April 3, four days before the St. Petersburg forum, a group of international news outlets published the first in a series of stories based on the leak, which had taken them more than a year to investigate. The series revealed corruption on a massive scale: Mossack Fonseca’s legal maneuverings had been used to hide billions of dollars. A central theme of the group’s reporting was the matryoshka doll of secret shell companies and proxies, worth a reported $2 billion, that belonged to Putin’s inner circle and were presumed to shelter some of the Russian president’s vast personal wealth.

When Putin heard the blogger’s question, his face lit up with a familiar smirk. He nodded slowly and confidently before reciting a litany of humiliations that the United States had inflicted on Russia. Putin reminded his audience about the sidelining of Russia during the 1998 war in Kosovo and what he saw as American meddling in Ukraine more recently. Returning to the Panama Papers, Putin cited WikiLeaks to insist that “officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this.” The Americans’ aim, he said, was to weaken Russia from within: “to spread distrust for the ruling authorities and the bodies of power within society.”

Though a narrow interpretation of Putin’s accusation was defensible—as WikiLeaks had pointed out, one of the members of the Panama Papers consortium had received financial support from USAID, a federal agency—his swaggering assurance about America’s activities has a more plausible explanation: Putin’s own government had been preparing a vast, covert, and unprecedented campaign of political sabotage against the United States and its allies for more than a year.

The Russian campaign burst into public view only this past June, when The Washington Post reported that “Russian government hackers” had penetrated the servers of the Democratic National Committee. The hackers, hiding behind ominous aliases like Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks, claimed their first victim in July, in the person of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC chair, whose private emails were published by WikiLeaks in the days leading up to the Democratic convention. By August, the hackers had learned to use the language of Americans frustrated with Washington to create doubt about the integrity of the electoral system: “As you see the U. S. presidential elections are becoming a farce,” they wrote from Russia.

The attacks against political organizations and individuals absorbed much of the media’s attention this year. But in many ways, the DNC hack was merely a prelude to what many security researchers see as a still more audacious feat: the hacking of America’s most secretive intelligence agency, the NSA.

Russian spies did not, of course, wait until the summer of 2015 to start hacking the United States. This past fall, in fact, marked the twentieth anniversary of the world’s first major campaign of state-on-state digital espionage. In 1996, five years after the end of the USSR, the Pentagon began to detect high-volume network breaches from Russia. The campaign was an intelligence-gathering operation: Whenever the intruders from Moscow found their way into a U. S. government computer, they binged, stealing copies of every file they could.

By 1998, when the FBI code-named the hacking campaign Moonlight Maze, the Russians were commandeering foreign computers and using them as staging hubs. At a time when a 56 kbps dial-up connection was more than sufficient to get the best of and AltaVista, Russian operators extracted several gigabytes of data from a U. S. Navy computer in a single session. With the unwitting help of proxy machines—including a Navy supercomputer in Virginia Beach, a server at a London nonprofit, and a computer lab at a public library in Colorado—that accomplishment was repeated hundreds of times over. Eventually, the Russians stole the equivalent, as an Air Intelligence Agency estimate later had it, of “a stack of printed copier paper three times the height of the Washington Monument.” [Continue reading…]


Trump sides with Putin over U.S. intelligence

Politico reports: Donald Trump angrily insisted on Wednesday night that he is not Vladimir Putin’s “puppet.”

But at a minimum, in recent months he has often sounded like the Russian president’s lawyer—defending Putin against a variety of specific charges, from political killings to the 2014 downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine, despite the weight of intelligence, legal findings and expert opinion.

Wednesday, for instance, Trump dismissed Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Russia was behind the recent hacking of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emails.

“She has no idea whether it’s Russia or China or anybody else,” Trump retorted. “Our country has no idea.”

As Clinton tried to explain that the Russian role is the finding of 17 military and civilian intelligence agencies, Trump cut her off: “I doubt it.”

On Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a joint statement saying that the U.S. intelligence community “is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” That finding has also been relayed directly to Trump in the classified national security briefings he receives as a major party nominee. [Continue reading…]


How hackers broke into John Podesta and Colin Powell’s Gmail accounts

Motherboard reports: On March 19 of this year, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta received an alarming email that appeared to come from Google.

The email, however, didn’t come from the internet giant. It was actually an attempt to hack into his personal account. In fact, the message came from a group of hackers that security researchers, as well as the US government, believe are spies working for the Russian government. At the time, however, Podesta didn’t know any of this, and he clicked on the malicious link contained in the email, giving hackers access to his account.

Months later, on October 9, WikiLeaks began publishing thousands of Podesta’s hacked emails. Almost everyone immediately pointed the finger at Russia, who is suspected of being behind a long and sophisticated hacking campaign that has the apparent goal of influencing the upcoming US elections. But there was no public evidence proving the same group that targeted the Democratic National Committee was behind the hack on Podesta — until now.

The data linking a group of Russian hackers — known as Fancy Bear, APT28, or Sofacy — to the hack on Podesta is also yet another piece in a growing heap of evidence pointing toward the Kremlin. And it also shows a clear thread between apparently separate and independent leaks that have appeared on a website called DC Leaks, such as that of Colin Powell’s emails; and the Podesta leak, which was publicized on WikiLeaks.

All these hacks were done using the same tool: malicious short URLs hidden in fake Gmail messages. And those URLs, according to a security firm that’s tracked them for a year, were created with Bitly account linked to a domain under the control of Fancy Bear. [Continue reading…]


Wikileaks emails provide Left fodder for challenging Clinton policy and appointments

Politico reports: Donald Trump is pointing to a stream of hacked emails as proof that Hillary Clinton would be a compromised president, but a surprising number of progressives are drawing similar conclusions — albeit for a totally different reasons.

Some of the left’s most influential voices and groups are taking offense at the way they and their causes were discussed behind their backs by Clinton and some of her closest advisers in the emails, which swipe liberal heroes and causes as “puritanical,” “pompous”, “naive”, “radical” and “dumb,” calling some “freaks,” who need to “get a life.”

There are more than personal feelings and relationships at stake, though.

If polls hold and Clinton wins the presidency, she will need the support of the professional left to offset what’s expected to be vociferous Republican opposition to her legislative proposals and appointments.

But among progressive operatives, goodwill for Clinton — and confidence in key advisers featured in the emails including John Podesta, Neera Tanden and Jake Sullivan — is eroding as WikiLeaks continues to release a daily stream of thousands of emails hacked from Podesta’s Gmail account that is expected to continue until Election Day.

Liberal groups and activists are assembling opposition research-style dossiers of the most dismissive comments in the WikiLeaks emails about icons of their movement like Clinton’s Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders, and their stances on trade, Wall Street reform, energy and climate change. And some liberal activists are vowing to use the email fodder to oppose Clinton policy proposals or appointments deemed insufficiently progressive. [Continue reading…]


The obliteration of Aleppo and the fate of Syria

A conversation between Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel on the Syrian catastrophe and what should be done about it. Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Together they are the co-editors of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011), The Syria Dilemma (2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (forthcoming in early 2017).



Syria: Aleppo attack ‘pause’ ridiculed by rebels

Al Jazeera reports: The Syrian military said on Thursday a unilateral ceasefire backed by Russia had come into force to allow people to leave besieged eastern Aleppo, a move rejected by rebels who say they are preparing a counter-offensive to break the blockade.

Rebels say the goal of Moscow and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to empty opposition-held areas of civilians so they can take over the whole city.

“They talk about humanitarian corridors, but why are they not allowing food into besieged eastern Aleppo to alleviate our suffering? We only need the Russian bombers to stop killing our children. We don’t want to leave,” said Ammar al-Qaran, a resident in Sakhour district.

Syrian state-owned Ikhbariyah television said rebels had fired a mortar barrage near to where ambulances had been heading to take patients from the besieged parts of the city for treatment in government-held areas.

Also on Thursday, a UN aid official for Syria said Russia agreed to extend daily pauses in military action against rebel-held eastern Aleppo for four more days. [Continue reading…]


European leaders threaten new sanctions against Russia

The Washington Post reports: Furious over Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo, European leaders warned the Kremlin on Thursday that it could face consequences if it maintains its offensive against the besieged rebel-held part of the Syrian city, although they fell short of the unity required to impose new sanctions.

The sharp rhetoric was a substantial departure for European leaders, who have long been focused on when they can dial back existing sanctions on Russia, not ramp them up. Instead, Russian actions in recent weeks have upended the conversation. From the Russian-backed pummeling of Aleppo to the shipment of nuclear-capable missiles to ­Kaliningrad, the recent steps have galvanized Western anger and plunged relations to fresh depths. The warnings came as leaders gathered in Brussels for a summit in part to discuss relations with Russia.

Europe’s toughened stance marks a partial victory for Washington, which has struggled to maintain European unity on sanctions and has long taken a harder position on Russia than its partners across the Atlantic. The stand also reflects the toll of Russia’s actions in Syria, where it has partnered with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a punishing campaign that has made little distinction between combatant and civilian. [Continue reading…]


How ISIS is spinning the Mosul battle

Charlie Winter writes: It is vastly outmanned and outgunned and, much as it would prefer otherwise, Mosul’s fall in the next few months is near inevitable. No matter how much social-media savvy the Islamic State possesses, this is an unsavory truth that its propaganda machine cannot spin.

But contrary to some reports, this does not pose an existential threat to the Islamic State. For some time, the group has been preparing for this very moment and others like it (the recent loss of Dabiq, for example), proactively but subtly shifting its overarching narrative away from divine aggression and towards steadfast resistance, reshaping it in order to allow for defeat, even the most catastrophic sort. While leaders of the Islamic State were already hinting at such a shift last year, this pivot first began to manifest properly following a May 2016 statement, directed at the coalition, by late spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. “Would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition?” (“Certainly not!” was the answer he provided, in case you were wondering.)

In the ensuing months, the notion that the caliphate was on the cusp of downsizing — from proto-state to proto-insurgency — and that this was perfectly fine, received more attention from Islamic State media, notably from, among others, the al-Naba newspaper editorial board. This re-framing — casting the staggering loss of territory as a simple expression of God’s divine project — first really came to bear in June 2016, when Fallujah fell to Iraqi forces. Before this setback, the Islamic State had a clear-cut policy for dealing with defeat: Look the other way. When, for example, the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad fell to a coalition of Kurdish and Free Syrian Army fighters in June 2015, propaganda coverage was notably lacking, with many Islamic State supporters asserting that it was nothing more than a tactical retreat in the absence of an officially delineated line. Likewise, other significant losses, like Tikrit, Ramadi, and Palmyra, were more or less overlooked by the propaganda factory.

This obfuscation worked in some places, but it could never work with Fallujah. This would have been too big a loss for the Islamic State to simply sweep under the rug. It owed a lot to the city, which it had largely controlled for two and a half years. Its roots there, symbolic and logistical, ran far deeper than they did in any of the above towns. Losing it would have strong reverberations.

Recognizing this conundrum, the Islamic State’s leaders considered their next steps with care. First, they embraced the battle for Fallujah wholeheartedly, producing a constant flow of operational reports, short videos, newspaper articles, and photographic essays, not to mention high-spec documentaries like “Fallujah of the Resistance” and “Signs of Victory,” all of which, at least initially, depicted the battle as epic, heroic, and distinctly undecided. However, as Fallujah’s imminent capture by Iraqi forces became apparent just two weeks into the offensive, the Islamic State slowed the flood to a trickle, but not before making sure to frame its loss appropriately.

Since its Fallujah test run, the Islamic State’s media mavens appear to have continued in this vein, deeming it a better bet to prioritize long-term inevitability over short-term triumphalism. This shift, something of a tactical retreat, enabled them to reframe territorial loss as a confirmation of the nearing apocalypse, rather than evidence of a failing insurgency. [Continue reading…]


Duterte’s split with the U.S.? Not so fast, say Philippines officials

CNN reports: Philippines officials have gone into damage control mode after controversial President Rodrigo Duterte said the country’s long-term alliance with the United States was over.

Philippines Trade Minister Ramon Lopez told CNN the country “would not stop trade and investment with the US.”

“(Duterte) has decided to strengthen further and rekindle the ties with China and the ASEAN region,” Lopez said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

There was widespread shock after Duterte announced his “separation” from the US, suggesting he would cut both economic and military ties, in favor of moving closer to Beijing.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” President Duterte told business leaders in Beijing on Thursday.

“And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

In a statement Friday, Duterte’s office said the Philippines had no intention to renege on treaties or agreements with established allies.

The President’s comments were “an assertion that we are an independent and sovereign nation, now finding common ground with friendly neighbors with shared aspirations in the spirit of mutual respect, support and cooperation,” the statement said. [Continue reading…]


Government alleges former NSA contractor stole ‘astonishing quantity’ of classified data over 20 years

The Washington Post reports: Federal prosecutors in Baltimore on Thursday said they will charge a former National Security Agency contractor with violating the Espionage Act, alleging that he made off with “an astonishing quantity” of classified digital and other data over 20 years in what is thought to be the largest theft of classified government material ever.

In a 12-page memo, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and two other prosecutors laid out a much more far-reaching case against Harold T. Martin III than was previously outlined. They say he took at least 50 terabytes of data and “six full banker’s boxes worth of documents,” with many lying open in his home office or kept on his car’s back seat and in the trunk. Other material was stored in a shed on his property.

One terabyte is the equivalent of 500 hours’ worth of movies.

Martin, who will appear at a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Friday, also took personal information about government employees as well as dozens of computers, thumb drives and other digital storage devices, the government memo said.

The government has not alleged that Martin passed any material to a foreign government, but contends that if he is released on bail he could do so. [Continue reading…]


Our slow, uncertain brains are still better than computers — here’s why

By Parashkev Nachev, UCL

Automated financial trading machines can make complex decisions in a thousandth of a second. A human being making a choice – however simple – can never be faster than about one-fifth of a second. Our reaction times are not only slow but also remarkably variable, ranging over hundreds of milliseconds.

Is this because our brains are poorly designed, prone to random uncertainty – or “noise” in the electronic jargon? Measured in the laboratory, even the neurons of a fly are both fast and precise in their responses to external events, down to a few milliseconds. The sloppiness of our reaction times looks less like an accident than a built-in feature. The brain deliberately procrastinates, even if we ask it to do otherwise.

Massively parallel wetware

Why should this be? Unlike computers, our brains are massively parallel in their organisation, concurrently running many millions of separate processes. They must do this because they are not designed to perform a specific set of actions but to select from a vast repertoire of alternatives that the fundamental unpredictability of our environment offers us. From an evolutionary perspective, it is best to trust nothing and no one, least of all oneself. So before each action the brain must flip through a vast Rolodex of possibilities. It is amazing it can do this at all, let alone in a fraction of a second.

But why the variability? There is hierarchically nothing higher than the brain, so decisions have to arise through peer-to-peer interactions between different groups of neurons. Since there can be only one winner at any one time – our movements would otherwise be chaotic – the mode of resolution is less negotiation than competition: a winner-takes-all race. To ensure the competition is fair, the race must run for a minimum length of time – hence the delay – and the time it takes will depend on the nature and quality of the field of competitors, hence the variability.

Fanciful though this may sound, the distributions of human reaction times, across different tasks, limbs, and people, have been repeatedly shown to fit the “race” model remarkably well. And one part of the brain – the medial frontal cortex – seems to track reaction time tightly, as an area crucial to procrastination ought to. Disrupting the medial frontal cortex should therefore disrupt the race, bringing it to an early close. Rather than slowing us down, disrupting the brain should here speed us up, accelerating behaviour but at the cost of less considered actions.

[Read more…]


Music: Dominic Miller — ‘Do You Want Me’