The leaders of the U.S. government, including the President and his top national-security advisers, face an unprecedented dilemma. Since the spring, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have seen mounting evidence of an active Russian influence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election. It is very unlikely the Russians could sway the actual vote count, because our election infrastructure is decentralized and voting machines are not accessible from the Internet. But they can sow disruption and instability up to, and on, Election Day, more than a dozen senior U.S. officials tell TIME, undermining faith in the result and in democracy itself. The question, debated at multiple meetings at the White House, is how aggressively to respond to the Russian operation. Publicly naming and shaming the Russians and describing what the intelligence community knows about their activities would help Americans understand and respond prudently to any disruptions that might take place between now and the close of the polls. Senior Justice Department officials have argued in favor of calling out the Russians, and that position has been echoed forcefully outside of government by lawmakers and former top national-security officials from both political parties.
… Putin’s history of using influence operations against opponents begins, appropriately enough, with himself. As he was rising quickly through the Kremlin ranks in 1999, one of his main opponents, Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, was caught on tape having sex with two women in a hotel room in what Skuratov later claimed was a Putin-run espionage operation traditionally known as a “honey trap.” Putin, who had risen from a Soviet-era KGB operative to head the country’s intelligence services, denied he was behind it but said on TV that his agents had confirmed that the man in the grainy video was Skuratov. Putin went on to win the presidency the next year. Skuratov, who ran against him, got less than 1% of the popular vote.
With the expansion of the Internet in the decade that followed, the Russians adopted cyberweapons as a standard tool of political meddling. Nowhere has their tactic of spreading chaos around a vote been clearer than in Ukraine, where three days before the presidential election on May 25, 2014, the computer systems of the Central Electoral Commission went dark. “The servers wouldn’t turn on. The links to the local election authorities were cut off,” says Victor Zhora, director of the cybersecurity firm Infosafe, which had been hired to defend the system. “Literally, nothing worked.”
As Zhora and his team worked successfully to restore the system in time for the vote, they became convinced that the collective behind the hack, known as CyberBerkut, was a front for Russian security services. The malware that crashed the system was not available on the market and had been built from scratch. And the effect of the attack supported Russia’s strategic goal of undermining the validity of the election. The hackers could have manipulated the outcome of the vote, Zhora says, but “their main goal was to take out the system itself, to destroy the data, to wipe out the hard drives before the elections started.” Moreover, the CyberBerkut efforts appeared to be coordinated with Russian state propaganda. Zhora and his team stopped a subsequent effort by CyberBerkut to post false voting results on the election commission’s website that would have showed a far-right militant ahead in the polls. But a screenshot of the fake web page appeared anyway on Russia’s main state-run news network as the vote was still going on.
Full Article: How Russia Wants to Undermine the U.S. Election | TIME.