The US Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security have issued a joint statement today formally accusing Russia of attacking the Democratic National Committee and leaking some 20,000 emails to the press on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. The statement reads:
The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europa and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
Russia is generally known to employee online brigades of Internet trolls to warp public opinion and astroturf topics, as is China. The country has deployed its resources to spread FUD around its illegal occupation of the Ukraine and the destruction of flight MH17 by poorly trained, pro-Russian militia using a Russian SA-11 surface-to-air missile launcher.
The tactics the Russian government deploys online are an evolution of so-called “active measure” or aktivniye meropriyatiye. The term refers to a long-established Soviet doctrine of aggressively launching covert operations and propaganda campaigns, including disinformation campaigns. Putin, after all, is a former KGB agent. Such operations were a key component of anti-Western campaigns before the collapse of the USSR and they continue to form a critical component of the modern cyberwarfare battle. Russia is also being held responsible for hacking the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the leak of private email addresses and cell phone numbers of Democratic lawmakers.
Why it matters
Foreign interference in a US election should concern all citizens regardless of which candidate you support. Russia didn’t hack and release this data out of the goodness of its heart, or because it felt the United States citizenry deserved to know some critical piece of information. Trump is an open admirer of Putin and has made statements that imply America could withdraw from NATO under certain circumstances, which would permanently alter the balance of power in Europe. Today, news broke of a formal complaint Russia lodged with the UN last month over comments made by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN commissioner for human rights. Zeid’s comments criticized Trump’s stated support for torture, denounced demagoguery, and criticized populist leaders of far-right nationalist groups in Europe.
It is extremely unusual for a foreign power to make a formal complaint with an international body on behalf of a presidential nominee. There’s no evidence Trump knew about or requested Russia’s intervention, but I cannot recall the last time this occurred, if it ever has. That’s not to say that the CIA, KGB, and other government agencies have never tried to sway elections, but rarely so publicly or with such open disregard for potential consequences.