Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election was much worse than originally suspected. While government agencies have tried to downplay Moscow’s meddling, leaked NSA files and interviews with sources close to the investigation into the cyber attack have begun to reveal a much broader campaign than previously reported.
"Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter," reports Bloomberg News. "In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said."
Russian-backed hackers targeted nearly everything they could get their hands on in an apparent attempt to sow chaos.
"In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data," notes Bloomberg. "The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database."
U.S. intelligence officials have disclosed information about Russia’s cyber attacks gradually over the course of the last few months. In early January, the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified report that confirmed Russia’s hacking attacks targeting both the DNC and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The report reads in part:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.
The public’s understanding of Russia’s meddling was largely framed by this report. We thought that was it. But it wasn’t.
In the summer of 2016, Obama administration officials went into overdrive to assess the sheer extent of Russian cyber intrusion into U.S. civic infrastructure.
"Last year, as we detected intrusions into websites managed by election officials around the country, the administration worked relentlessly to protect our election infrastructure," Eric Schultz, a spokesman for former President Barack Obama told Bloomberg. "Given that our election systems are so decentralized, that effort meant working with Democratic and Republican election administrators from all across the country to bolster their cyber defenses."
Things got so bad that administration officials used a back channel to contact Moscow directly and chastise the Kremlin for what amounted to an all-out cyber assault on the integrity of the U.S. electoral system.
As a result of Russia’s aggressive hacking efforts, the Department of Homeland Security took the unprecedented step of delcaring the electoral system as "critical infrastructure."
"The designation — which will put election equipment in the same category as the power grid or financial sector — came the same day that intelligence agencies released an unclassified report that concluded Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a hacking campaign against Democratic organizations and officials that eventually aimed to help elect Donald Trump," reported Politico in early January. "…DHS head Jeh Johnson insisted it would make protecting polling places, election machines, voter databases and other information technology a formal cybersecurity priority for the department."
In hindsight, the DHS’ bold move should have alerted us to the fact that the Russian’s didn’t just stop at Hillary Clinton’s emails or John Podesta’s memos. This was a multi-faceted, full-scale operation aimed at disrupting the electoral process and tampering with the results.
It’s important to note that there is no clear evidence that Russia successfully hacked into any voting machines or changed any vote counts. For all intents and purposes, the 2016 was clean, despite the Kremlin-backed trolls bombarding social media feeds with "fake news" and disinformation. The actual voting process was not disrupted or affected in any substantive way.
Nevertheless, the fact that Russian hackers were able to infiltrate voting databases only raises more questions than answers.
Here’s more from Bloomberg:
One of the mysteries about the 2016 presidential election is why Russian intelligence, after gaining access to state and local systems, didn’t try to disrupt the vote. One possibility is that the American warning was effective. Another former senior U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the classified U.S. probe into pre-election hacking, said a more likely explanation is that several months of hacking failed to give the attackers the access they needed to master America’s disparate voting systems spread across more than 7,000 local jurisdictions.
Such operations need not change votes to be effective. In fact, the Obama administration believed that the Russians were possibly preparing to delete voter registration information or slow vote tallying in order to undermine confidence in the election. That effort went far beyond the carefully timed release of private communications by individuals and parties.
Looking ahead to the 2020 election, we need to ask some tough questions about how this was able to happen. Russian hackers are only getting more and more sophisticated, so unless we keep apace and use both defensive and counteroffensive measures to blunt future cyberattacks (and they will come), then we may be looking at the prospect of a rigged election in the near future.