Russia has once again been accused of being behind the hackers who have penetrated several, mostly unnamed, Washington-based think tanks.
Cybersecurity company CrowdStrike blamed a group called COZY BEAR, or APT29, allegedly linked to the DNC hack, for breaking into the Washington-based think tanks’ servers.
The operation targeted “fewer than five organizations and 10 staffers researching Russia.”
CrowdStrike affirms, the “Russian group” has targeted think tanks in the past and has also gained access to unclassified networks at the White House, State Department and US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Defense One publication says many of the victims were former government officials that still advise the government. The mission was to look at their communications. The hackers lured victims to sending open messages by using fake emails from known think tanks and geopolitical consultancy groups.
Cyber vulnerabilities have become something of a crisis in the US government. Even America’s top cyber snooping organization, the National Security Agency, is in the midst of a hacking scandal in which it appears some of its top secret code was leaked or stolen. Every day US media outlets run stories about the “threat” and Russian interlopers supposedly invading US databases.
The new accusations come as United States security officials express concerns over the possibility of Russia allegedly attempting to influence the US elections via targeted cyberattacks, indicating that a cyberwar may indeed be brewing.
About 20,000 DNC emails were made public by WikiLeaks on July 22, revealing a close working relationship between the Democratic Party and some mainstream media figures, as well as collusion with the Hillary Clinton campaign to sideline Bernie Sanders, another presidential candidate running on the Democratic ticket at the time. The DNC said Russia was behind the hack and the leaks in an attempt to back Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. The US media outlets picked up the story to raise ballyhoo with “all signs point to Russia” spooks. Back then, the researchers at CrowdStrike concluded the breach was the work of two Russian intelligence agencies, or people working for or with them, possibly to disrupt the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Seasoned experts believe the allegations about Russia having anything to do with the DNC leaks do not hold water. According to a report prepared by cyber-security expert Jeffrey Carr, there is no way CrowdStrike (or anybody else) could definitively point to Russian “state actors” as the culprits in this or any other case because the procedure used is unreliable.
Tracing technical analysis of code and the utilized software cannot identify hackers. Even if Russian characters are discovered, it does not mean the Russian government has anything to do with it. “Just because you find an AK-47 at a crime scene doesn’t mean a Russian pulled the trigger,” says J.J. Thompson, chief executive of Rook Security, an Indianapolis-based firm.
The analysis prepared by cyber companies is based on assumptions that cannot be objectively verified. The expert says they deliberately exclude evidence that does not support the judgment that the Russian government is not responsible for illegal activities.
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, said that “there is no proof whatsoever” that Russian intelligence sources are responsible for hacking thousands of Democratic National Committee emails.
Edward Snowden, an expert in the field, who is well aware of the evidence-gathering capabilities of the US government, believes that if Russian intelligence did hack the DNC, the NSA would know for sure and make the information public.
Another former insider with knowledge of American and Russian intelligence capabilities, Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, agreed that it should be possible for the US to present proof if Russia was, in fact, responsible for the attack.
William Binney, the NSA executive who created the agency’s mass surveillance program for digital information, also questioned the allegations of Russia’s involvement.
According to him, the probability was that an insider provided the DNC data.
Similarly, former NSA employee, producer for ABC’s World News Tonight, James Bamford notes: “If Russia had stolen the hacking tools, it would be senseless to publicize the theft, let alone put them up for sale. It would be like a safecracker stealing the combination to a bank vault and putting it on Facebook. Once revealed, companies and governments would patch their firewalls, just as the bank would change its combination.”
According to an anonymous source cited by Motherboard on-line magazine, “We are 99.9 percent sure that Russia has nothing to do with this and even though all this speculation is more sensational in the media, the insider theory should not be dismissed.”
“We think it is the most plausible,” the source added.
Another former NSA source, who was contacted independently and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “it’s plausible” that the leakers are actually a disgruntled insider, claiming that it’s easier to walk out of the NSA with a USB drive or a CD than hack its servers.
The “hate Russia” campaign seems to have picked up speed. For instance, US political elite go as far as to blame Russia for Brexit.
With all the scandals and questionable deals involving it, the Clinton Foundation has also happened to be an alleged victim of Russia’s activities. As Bloomberg put it, “If the Democrats can show the hidden hand of Russian intelligence agencies, they believe that voter outrage will probably outweigh any embarrassing revelations.”
The same evidence-free rationale is utilized to validate the claim that Russia is to blame for hacking into the think tanks. With all the ballyhoo raised by US media, not a shred of evidence has been produced so far to support the allegations. But with so many media outlets reporting by and large the same concocted conspiracy stories, fiction turns into something many people take for granted. Reporters rely on insinuations such as a widespread agreement among cybersecurity experts and professionals that Russia is somehow responsible. That’s what propaganda campaigns are about.
It brings to mind the story about multiple “sources” who assured us that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” to make the United States breach international law and plunge itself into a never ending conflict with a huge death toll and a cost exceeding $2 trillion—the burden for the American taxpayers to shoulder. Looks like some people never learn.
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
Alex Gorka is a defense and diplomatic analyst.