Isaac Chotiner interviews Jack Goldsmith, a former member of President George W. Bush’s Justice Department: Isaac Chotiner: How credible is it that Russia was behind the breach?
Jack Goldsmith: Reports attributing the breach to Russia have been pouring out all day. The New York Times said that private researchers had concluded that this hack was done by the same Russian intelligence services that recently breached various U.S. government networks. It also said that meta-data in the emails indicated that documents passed through Russian computers. Other news services have said the FBI suspects the Russians. I have no basis to question these reports. But the truth is that there is no public evidence whatsoever tying Russia to the hack. Attribution for cyberoperations of this sort is very tricky and tends to take some time. Even if the hack can be linked to computers in Russia, that does not show that the hack originated there (as opposed to being routed through there). And even if it originated in Russia it does not show who was responsible. That said, it would not be surprising if the Russians were behind this. In addition to today’s reports, the director of national intelligence warned months ago about intrusions into campaign networks, and Russian intelligence services and criminal networks have reportedly infiltrated important U.S government networks in the last year. But to repeat, there is no public evidence yet — all we have are reports by private firms and anonymous government officials.
How often do you think America engages in this kind of thing?
It depends on what you mean by “this kind of thing.” One of the first ever CIA covert operations was designed to influence the Italian elections of 1948 to ensure that the Communists did not win, and there are several now-public examples of U.S. covert operations to influence foreign elections over the years. The United States is also a global leader in espionage and data theft in foreign governmental networks. And all major powers, including the United States, engage in information operations in various contexts. Note that a few months ago Putin attributed the Panama Papers disclosures to the United States: “We now know from WikiLeaks that officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this.”
Is the election aspect of this hack unique?
There have been reports in recent years of cyberattacks or cyberoperations in computer networks in other countries related to elections. Still, if this if a Russian (or some other foreign governmental) operation, I know of nothing parallel on this scale, with this impact. And yet, as I wrote this morning, “the Russian hack of the DNC was small beans compared to the destruction of the integrity of a national election result.” Presumably the DNC email hack and leak involve genuine emails. But what if the hackers interspersed fake but even more damning or inflammatory emails that were hard to disprove? What if hackers break in to computers to steal or destroy voter registration information? What if they disrupted computer-based voting or election returns in important states during the presidential election? The legitimacy of a presidential election might be called into question, with catastrophic consequences. The DNC hack is just the first wave of possible threats to electoral integrity in the United States — by foreign intelligence services, and others. [Continue reading…]