Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
The Obama White House’s December surprise, a new intelligence agency probe into Russia’s hidden hand in influencing the presidential election, has already yielded two new revelations.
The Washington Post reported late Friday that a secret CIA assessment has already found the Russians helped Trump. The New York Times reported Saturday that the Russians hacked into Republican National Committee computer systems, but did keep that data—unlike the release of damaging communications from the Democratic National Committee during the primaries and emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, during the general election.
Republicans, from the Trump transition team to the RNC, denied that that they were helped or hacked by the Russians, with Trump’s team, saying, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction… It’s now time to move on.”
Significantly, the White House probe will not be conducted by the FBI, whose director, James Comey, announced in late October that the bureau was going to look at newly found emails from Clinton’s private accounts while she was Secretary of State—for classified materials—and then days before the election announced that there was nothing there. That “October surprise” broke Clinton’s slowly growing momentum after the three presidential debates.
“The FBI investigation was looking at specific acts that we saw over the summer and fall of this year,” White House Spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday. “So, as you know, they looked at the hacks at campaign committees like the DNC and other malicious cyber activity that we were detecting. At the time, they determined that this is activity that could have only been directed from the highest levels of the Russian government. So, yes, this [intelligence agency probe] is going to put that activity in a greater context. That’s going to look at the pattern of this happening from foreign actors, dating all the way back to 2008.”
Schultz reminded the White House press corps that in 2008, it was Chinese hacking attempts that targeted that year’s presidential campaigns. He said that Russia has a more recent history of trying to sabotage elections in surrounding counties, “and then, of course, in 2016, our intelligence community determined that there was malicious cyber activity intended to interfere with our elections. In the high confidence assessment that was released this past October, the intelligence community made very clear that this was activity directed by the highest levels of the Russian government.”
The WaPo report that grabbed headlines—that the CIA had already concluded that Russia was trying to help Trump—hardly seems like a surprise. While WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has repeatedly said that “no state parties” gave them Podesta’s stolen emails, the Times said intelligence circles had no doubt “Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.” What the Times report didn’t raise, but seems more significant in light of the depth of communications taken from Democrats, is what information do they have on the incoming Trump administration that could be used to Russia’s advantage?
While more disclosures are expected from the White House probe, they are likely to fall into the cyber-security fold, Schultz’s statements suggest, but not challenge Trump’s ascension to the presidency in January.
“This is not an effort to challenge the outcome of the election, that we have acknowledged who won the election,” he said. “It wasn’t the candidate that the President campaigned for. And so the President has actually gone out of his way to make sure that we are providing for a seamless transition of power. So we’re not calling into question the election results. We are taking seriously our responsibility to protect the integrity of those elections.”
Schultz said federal agencies did not see a cyber attack on state election systems on Election Day, and considered that matter closed.
“What we determined in mid-November, a few weeks ago now, is that state election systems did not—the federal government did not detect any increased malicious cyber activity on Election Day or related to the administering of the elections,” he said. “So we’ve already made that determination, and that’s something we’ve announced publicly from here. But in terms of what this review will look at, this is going to be a review that’s conducted by the intelligence community.”
Computer scientists involved in the Green Party presidential recount would disagree with the White House spokesperson’s premise—saying hackers place malware in targets long before the attacks are carried out and can be pro-programmed on triggering events.
The White House said it wants its new probe done before Trump is sworn in as president. But the matter is not likely to go away.
Several members of Congress want to investigate Russian interference in the election. Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-CA and Elijah Cummings, D-MD, sponsored legislation to create a bipartisan, independent commission. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, who previously called on Congress to investigate, also wants to head up a review.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights, campaigns and elections, and many social justice issues.