The FBI and the CIA can't agree on the motives of Russian hacks

The CIA and the FBI seemingly can’t agree over why Russian hackers targeted the inboxes of prominent Democrats and Democratic organisations in 2016.

In a secret assessment reported on last week, the CIA revealed that the Russians were working toward a specific goal: “to help get Trump elected.” The assessment said Russia was not just trying to undermine confidence in the US election process when they hacked into the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favour one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected” a senior US official briefed on the CIA report told The Washington Post. “That’s the consensus view.”

The FBI, however — while acknowledging that the hacking campaign originated in Russia — has been reluctant to align itself with the CIA and assign a motive to the cyberattacks. A senior FBI counterintelligence told the House Intelligence Committee last week that the bureau is still not sure whether Russia’s “specific goal” was to get Trump elected.

“There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,” a US official present at the hearing said.

The CIA report said the Russians had also breached the Republican National Committee but chose not to release any of the information, lending credence to the idea that the Kremlin made a specific and targeted effort to embarrass Democrats.

This summer, the leak of internal DNC email correspondences revealing a bias against Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — by WikiLeaks, an organisation founded by Julian Assange — divided the American left and led to
the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The FBI, meanwhile, has not yet said whether the RNC was targeted. Reince Priebus, the chair of the RNC and incoming White House chief of staff, denied any hack on the committee.

The FBI has gone after Russian hackers before, The New York Times has reported. But because it is a law-enforcement agency, it is required to produce more concrete evidence of criminal wrongdoing than the CIA, which is tasked with producing intelligence analyses.

Even so, Democrats at last week’s hearing were apparently frustrated by the FBI official’s reluctance to say that the hacking campaign had been designed to hurt Clinton and boost Trump.

The bureau — which was accused of meddling in the election after informing Congress weeks before the election that it was reviewing new Clinton emails found on disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop — is apparently exercising caution in drawing conclusions that could be politicized.

Republicans seemed to agree with the FBI official’s assessment that the CIA lacked evidence when it told a Senate panel last week that the Russians clearly preferred Trump to Clinton — and tried to damage the Democrats’ reputation accordingly.

“Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus,” a Republican lawmaker said during the hearing, according to an aide who was present. “We’re looking at the same evidence and drawing very different conclusions.”

President Barack Obama has since ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full review into the Russian hacking campaign and how it may have impacted the presidential election.

The CIA’s assessment came two months after the US intelligence community (USIC) first accused the Russian government of orchestrating a series of cyber attacks on US citizens and political organisations, stating that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorised these activities.”

“The US Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organisations,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement at the time.

The CIA, meanwhile, waited until after the election to put forward its independent assessment of Russian meddling.

Trump has extensively criticised the CIA report, saying the agency has no proof that the hacking originated in Russia. On Monday, he suggested that if he had lost the election and blamed it on a Russian imitative, he would be accused of promoting a conspiracy theory.

Russia’s fingerprints were all over the cyberattacks, cybersecurity officials concluded in the days and weeks following the breaches. But it has been difficult to prove that Moscow specifically ordered hackers to attack Podesta and the DNC. The hackers were apparently middlemen, rather than Kremlin employees.

It is unclear what the US government will do to retaliate against Russia. The Obama administration has been weighing various measures, from sanctions to authorizing covert action against computer servers in Russia, The New York Times reported. But Obama has yet to sign off on anything concrete.

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