US releases detailed look at Russia's election hacking

Posted at 9:52 PM, Dec 29, 2016

The U.S. on Thursday released its most detailed report yet on Russia's efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election by hacking American political sites and email accounts.

The 13-page joint analysis by the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was first such report ever to attribute malicious cyber activity to a particular country or actors.

It was also the first time the U.S. has officially and specifically tied intrusions into the Democratic National Committee to hackers with the Russian civilian and military intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, expanding on an Oct. 7 accusation by the Obama administration.

The report said the intelligence services were involved in "an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens." It added, "In some cases, (the Russian intelligence services') actors masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online personas designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack."

Over the summer stolen emails from Democrats were posted by an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0, believed by U.S. officials to be linked to Russia. Outrage over documents that appeared to show favoritism for Hillary Clinton forced the DNC's chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign.

The U.S. released the report as President Barack Obama sanctioned the GRU and the FSB, the GRU's leadership and companies which the U.S. said support the GRU.

Thursday's sanctions were the administration's first use of a 2015 executive order for combatting cyberattacks against critical infrastructure and commercial espionage. Because election systems aren't considered critical infrastructure, Obama amended the order Thursday to allow for sanctions on entities "interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions."

One of those sanctions includes closing a Russian compound in Centreville, Maryland. The state department said the 45-acre site was purchased by what was then the Soviet Union in 1972. It was used as a vacation spot for diplomats. 

The U.S. government is revoking access beginning at noon Friday. Another site in New York will also be shut down. 

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin released a statement on the sanctions Thursday, which said in part,

"Now is not the 'time to get on with our lives,' but take an appropriate response in line with the ongoing threat that Russia poses to our democracy and global security interests. I welcome and support the new sanctions announced by the administration today - it is a good start."

Representative Elijah Cummings also released the following statement,

"The President’s actions send a strong signal that interference by Russia—or any foreign power—in our electoral processes is intolerable. To do nothing or worse—to try to sweep it under the rug as President-elect Donald Trump has proposed—suggests that this unacceptable affront to our democracy is somehow normal, and it invites future attacks. Every American—Democratic, Republican, and Independent—should condemn Russia’s attempt to degrade our democracy and support our call for a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate these attacks and offer recommendations to prevent them in the future.”

The retaliation against Russia, just weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, culminated months of political handwringing about how and whether to respond to Moscow's meddling. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia's goal was to help Trump win -- an assessment Trump has dismissed as ridiculous. Trump said Thursday he would meet with the intelligence community's leaders next week for an update on the situation.

The report did not go far beyond confirming details already disclosed by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which was hired to investigate the DNC hacks.

It described the intelligence services' use of "spearphishing" -- fake emails intended to trick victims into typing in their user names and passwords. At least one person opened attachments with malicious software. The report noted that actors "likely associated" with Russian intelligence services are continuing to engage in spearphishing campaigns, including one launched just days after the U.S. election.

The DNC was infiltrated by the FSB in summer 2015 and again by the GRU in spring 2016 using spearphishing emails that often appeared to come from legitimate or official organizations, the report said.

Russian officials have denied any involvement in hacking U.S. political sites and emails.

The report provides clues for cybersecurity workers in the private sector to identify compromised systems and prevent more intrusions. The Homeland Security Department said it has already included this information within its own cyber threat information-sharing program, which automatically flags threats in real time for participating companies and agencies.

U.S. officials also provided antivirus vendors with two malicious software samples used by Russian intelligence services.

**WMAR Staff contributed to this report.

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