Russia's role in political hacks: What's the debate?

The US is wrestling with what we really know about hacks during the presidential campaigns. Here's why it's so hard to pin down -- and why it matters.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
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Laura Hautala
6 min read

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an event at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow in December.

Mikhail Svetlov, Getty Images

Never mind voters. In the 2016 US presidential election, the biggest force for change may have been hackers.

At least, that's the way things are shaping up as we learn more details about the hacks, which focused on publicly releasing emails and other strategy documents reportedly written by key Democrats and party officials, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Everyone, from the US's leading spy agencies and politicians to the public at large, is caught up in disagreement about who the hackers are and what they wanted to accomplish.

The past two weeks have brought five separate calls from Congress for investigations to learn how much the hacks really influenced the elections. Add to that public comments this week by the White House, the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of State on who knew Russia was involved and when. What's more, stories from the New York Times and Washington Post hint at disagreements between the CIA and the FBI over why Russia conducted the hacks.

To round it all off, one notable public figure is arguing we don't know for sure that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, were behind the hacks: President-elect Donald Trump. He maintains that opinion, even though the US intelligence community and the forensic experts who first examined the hacked systems are highly confident Russia is the bad guy here. NBC News reported Wednesday that US intelligence officials believe "with a high level of confidence" that Putin was personally involved in the effort to interfere in the election.

President Barack Obama has little doubt the Russians were behind the hacks. And in an interview with NPR published Friday, he said that the US would respond.

"When any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections ... we need to take action," Obama said. "And we will -- at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be."

The Russian government, in turn, has called the US accusations groundless. "They should either stop talking about that or produce some proof at last," said a spokesman for Putin, according to CNN, citing Russian state news agency Tass.

The debate has now shifted from what happened to why, with questions over how much a foreign power might have influenced this year's divisive and controversial presidential election. The thing is, we never learn all the details.

"There's no sign in a computer saying, 'Haha, we're the Russians -- we did it!'" said Sumit Argawal, a former senior adviser for cyber innovation in the US Department of Defense. Argawal now serves as vice president of product at cybersecurity company Shape Security. "There has to be an interpretation and a judgment rendered by experts."

Not up to speed on the election hacks? Here are a few of the questions being asked -- and what the political players have to say about them:

What exactly got hacked again?

The debate is focused on damage done by emails reportedly stolen from the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the personal email account of Hillary Clinton Staffer John Podesta, among others. (See below for what may have happened to Republicans.)

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post late Thursday, Podesta lambasted what he called the FBI's failure regarding the hacks and called for an independent investigation.

"The election is over and the damage is done," Podesta wrote, "but the threat from Russia and other potential aggressors remains urgent and demands a serious and sustained response."

For the record, there hasn't been any evidence found of hacked voting machines, according to election officials or security experts. Trump won the election because of the way the US voting system works, even though Clinton won the popular vote.

"They did not change the results of our voting machines to the best of our knowledge," said Josh Corman, a cybersecurity expert who directs the Cyber Statecraft Initiative, a program at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Was it Russia?

The theory that Russia orchestrated the hacks -- a notion now widely embraced by the US intelligence community -- was first proposed by a cybersecurity company called Crowdstrike, which also found evidence of Chinese hacks of US tech and drug companies. The DNC called in Crowdstrike earlier this year when it realized its systems had been compromised. In June, Crowdstrike published its analysis, naming Russian hacking groups as responsible for the breach.

In October, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security announced their shared assessment that the Russian government was responsible for the hacks. At the time, intelligence officials didn't say whether Russia was pulling for one candidate over the other, just that it was trying to "interfere" with the elections.

But is there any doubt it was Russia?

Trump is the lonely voice insisting we don't know if Russia was behind these hacks. He reiterated to Time magazine last week his claim that it could have been Russia, it could have been China, and it could have been some random guy.

That's not what US experts believe.

Trump based his claim on a distrust of US intelligence agencies. The CIA's history is filled with points of controversy, from its involvement in the Iran-Contra affair to its intelligence gathering leading up to the Iraq war. "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Trump said in a statement last week. (Washington Post fact checkers dubbed that statement "not quite right,' saying the George W. Bush administration played down disagreement among CIA analysts about whether Iraq weapons programs had ceased.)

In an interview on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it's fair to question assertions from the intelligence community. But, he added, "in my experience our men and women in the intelligence community ... are very careful and very deliberate, and if they weren't, they wouldn't be in the positions that they occupy."

Why did the Russians do it?

That's what members of Congress want to know. Senators and representatives have proposed five separate investigations -- four carried out by special committees -- into the hacks, their purpose and their impact.

Lawmakers have been briefed by both the CIA and the FBI. Those who have been briefed say the CIA is more confident the hacks were meant to favor Trump as a candidate, while the FBI believes it's clear the Russians wanted to undermine Americans' faith in the election system, according to the Washington Post.

The CIA's judgment is based partly on reports that hackers also struck the Republican National Committee but didn't leak the information they stole, according to a report Friday by the New York Times.

Wait, the Republicans were hacked too?

Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, denies the organization was hacked.

Will regular Americans ever know what really happened?

If a congressional investigation does take place, we could learn more about why the intelligence community is so confident about Russia's role in the hacks and whether the hacks were meant to favor Trump. But so far, Republican lawmakers aren't supporting the creation of any special panels to investigate the hacks.

Last week, President Obama's homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the president has ordered a report from the intelligence community on its investigations into the hacks. But we don't know whether the results of that review will be declassified. Cybersecurity experts with military and intelligence experience say this documentation is extremely important. But that doesn't mean it's vital for the public to know.

That's because for the intelligence community to show its work, it has to reveal how it conducts its spy operations. For example, it could be damaging to tell the world that American intelligence agencies are monitoring a server that Russian spies use for their hacking operations, said David Kennedy, a cybersecurity expert who worked in intelligence with the US Marine Corps in the early 2000s.

Spies call that burning your sources.

"Just know that it's going to weaken our country significantly because of that," Kennedy said.

First published at 5:55 a.m. PT.
Updated at 9:07 a.m. PT: Added comment from the Russian government.