The possibility that Russia is behind an information warfare operation to interfere in the U.S. election has sparked concern among administration officials, but it also generated skepticism that there is a Kremlin master plan to install Donald Trump in the White House, as some political operatives are now alleging.
Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an issue under investigation, said there is little doubt that agents of the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee, and the White House was informed months ago of Moscow’s culpability.
What is at issue now is whether Russian officials directed the leak of DNC material to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks — a possibility that burst to the fore on the eve of the Democratic National Convention with the release of 20,000 DNC emails, many of them deeply embarrassing for party leaders.
The intelligence community, the officials said, has not reached a conclusion about who passed the emails to WikiLeaks.
“We have not drawn any evidentiary connection to any Russian intelligence service and WikiLeaks — none,” said one U.S. official. Doing so will be a challenge, in part because the material may not have been passed electronically.
Also unclear, the officials said, is the motivation, even if Russia is behind the leak. It may be that the Kremlin wishes to disrupt and discredit the U.S. political process without seeking any particular result.
Michael V. Hayden, former CIA director, said, “Frankly, I don’t think they’re motivated by thinking they can affect the election itself.” He said the Russians, already masters at “information dominance” or using information as a political and military weapon, may be flexing their muscles “to demonstrate that they can — not necessarily to make Trump win or Hillary lose.”
If they are truly behind the email dump, he said, “they’re taking their game to another level.”
The email dump, current and former national security officials said, is highly troubling, regardless of its provenance. And it could warrant considering whether the elements of the electoral process should be raised to the level of “critical infrastructure,” such as power grids and key financial systems, which merit special protection from cyberattacks, some officials said.
“We’re not used to thinking of the election system as a critical infrastructure,” said one senior administration official. “But I could make the case that it ought to be considered that. We ought to start talking about that.”
Whoever shared the emails with WikiLeaks, the senior administration official said, “sure as hell didn’t do that for our benefit.”
And WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange promised Wednesday another significant release, but he did not specify when.
“There are more DNC emails and we will be publishing more related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” he told The Washington Post.
The WikiLeaks release — and the prospect of more to come — has presented the Obama administration with a fresh set of challenges. The 2014 North Korean hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment was another such unprecedented event. The attack not only damaged computer systems, but attacked free speech by seeking to coerce the film studio into pulling a movie that poked fun at the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
Then in 2015, U.S. officials discovered that the Chinese government hacked the Office of Personnel Management, exposing the data of more than 22 million current and former federal employees and their families. The intrusion upended the security clearance process and raised significant counterintelligence issues.
But an influence operation by Russia to interfere in a presidential election — if that is what happened — would be a bold move, even for President Vladimir Putin, analysts say. It would take what began ostensibly as traditional political espionage into a new category of information warfare.
“I’m deeply concerned because, if Russia is behind this, it would represent an unprecedented and alarming escalation of Russian willingness to interfere in our political process,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. It would be an effort “to help pick a candidate who is favorable to an adversary.”
Some of Trump’s positions — including raising questions about mutual defense among NATO members and potentially recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea, a part of Ukraine — would be applauded in Moscow, but the GOP candidate has said he has no connection to the Russian president.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike are calling on the administration to quickly figure out who is behind the leak — and if it is the Russians, to call them out.
“Mr. Putin’s Soviet-style aggression has escalated to levels that were unimaginable just a week ago,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “America is digitally exposed. The United States must take serious offensive and defensive actions now. Russia must face real consequences.”
If it is Russia, Schiff said, the administration should absolutely say so. “They should make it known publicly and forcefully,” he said. “Even if they’re not able to lay out the evidence because it would disclose sources and methods, they should make the attribution.”
The FBI, which has been investigating the hack for months, announced its involvement this week.
Forensic evidence linking the email dump by WikiLeaks to Russia came from a cyber-researcher and former Army intelligence analyst who on Tuesday concluded that the party that passed the material to WikiLeaks was part of a Russian information operation.
The party, who calls himself Guccifer 2.0 and who claimed to be Romanian, used a Russian company that provides a special type of service that helps mask the user’s true location, said Rich Barger, chief information officer at the Arlington, Va.-based ThreatConnect. Barger analyzed communications between Guccifer 2.0 and journalists that were shared with him by the reporters. He traced information in the emails to the Russian service, called a virtual private network. Guccifer also used an Internet address associated with a number of Russian online scams, he said.
“Determining with confidence who was behind it — if the Russians were the hackers, seeing them pass that data to WikiLeaks — is probably much more difficult than attributing it to the initial hacker,” said former National Security Agency Director Keith B. Alexander at an FBI cyber-conference at Fordham University this week. “That’s a tough one — especially because there are different ways of passing that information, not all electronic.”
The larger question, Alexander said, is “ ‘Why did they do this? And what were they trying to influence?’ That’s the real issue.”
Not everyone is convinced that the Russians, if they did it, meant to influence the election. “This is not Putin trying to help Trump,’’ said Leo Taddeo, a former FBI special agent in charge of cyber and special operations in New York. “I think they were messaging Hillary Clinton, telling her that they can get in the way of her election if she doesn’t show some flexibility in her position toward them.”
Some analysts actually think Putin would see his interests better served by a President Clinton, who is well known in Moscow. “If I’m in the Kremlin, I’d love to see Hillary in office,” said one former intelligence official. “She’s incredibly predictable and not willing to do confrontation. Trump is both unpredictable and confrontational. As a game theory person, I’d much rather play poker against Hillary. I’d win every hand.”
Julie Tate contributed to this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said the 2014 North Korean hack of Sony Pictures represented the first time a foreign government hacker targeted an American company. It was the first time such an attack was perceived to threaten free speech.