(Bloomberg) – Vladimir Putin said the hacking of thousands of Democratic National Committee emails and documents was a service to the public, but denied U.S. accusations that Russia’s government had anything to do with it.
“Listen, does it even matter who hacked this data?’’ Putin said in an interview at the Pacific port city of Vladivostok on Thursday. “The important thing is the content that was given to the public.’’
U.S. officials blame hackers guided by the Russian government for the attacks on DNC servers earlier this year that resulted in WikiLeaks publishing about 20,000 private emails just before Hillary Clinton’s nominating convention in July. The documents showed attempts by party officials to undermine her chief Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, and led to the resignation of the head of the DNC, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
Putin, in power since 2000 and facing re-election in 18 months, has had an acrimonious relationship with Clinton since her failed attempt to “reset” relations as secretary of state in 2009. Putin in 2011 blamed her personally for stoking the biggest protests of his rule by sending an activation “signal” to “some actors” inside Russia. Clinton has compared his annexation of Crimea in 2014 to actions taken by Adolf Hitler before World War II.
“There’s no need to distract the public’s attention from the essence of the problem by raising some minor issues connected with the search for who did it,” Putin said of the DNC breach. “But I want to tell you again, I don’t know anything about it, and on a state level Russia has never done this.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has high confidence that the government in Moscow was behind the theft at the DNC and other Democratic Party organizations seeking to propel Clinton to victory over Republican Donald Trump in November, a person familiar with the findings has said. Trump has praised Putin as a great leader and the billionaire’s former campaign chairman spent years working for the Kremlin ally who was ousted from Ukraine’s presidency in 2014.
Clinton’s campaign struck back at Putin on Friday for characterizing the cyber intrusions at Democratic Party groups as a public service and accused him of endorsing the disruption of the U.S. vote.
“Unsurprisingly, Putin has joined Trump in cheering foreign interference in the U.S. election that is clearly designed to inflict political damage on Hillary Clinton and Democrats,” Clinton spokesman Jesse Lehrich said in an email. “This is a national security issue and every American deserves answers about potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Kremlin.”
In a two-hour conversation near Russia’s eastern fringe, Putin touched on subjects ranging from the war in Syria to oil prices and trade with China. It came just two days before Putin, Barack Obama and other world leaders gather at a Group of 20 meeting in Hangzhou.
An internal DNC probe by CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity company, traced the DNC break-in to two groups it says are linked to Russian intelligence services. One, Cozy Bear, it says is affiliated with the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, while the other, Fancy Bear, it says is tied to the Main Intelligence Directorate, a branch of the Defense Ministry.
James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Russia’s “track record” of state hacking goes back at least a decade, so Putin’s denials aren’t credible.
“Nice try, but no goal,” Lewis said.
The digital net cast by the hackers has widened almost weekly -- security experts say it now includes congressional staffers, NATO generals, Washington think tanks and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- adding another unpredictable element to a highly unusual election. The subsequent leaks have included the mobile number of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said she was barraged with “obscene” calls within hours.
Putin also took a dig at the U.S. campaign and what he saw as an obvious party bias in favor of Clinton, saying he “couldn’t imagine” that the information leaked from the DNC would be newsworthy for “American society -- specifically that the campaign headquarters worked in the interest of one of the candidates, in this case Mrs. Clinton, rather than equally for all of the Democratic party candidates.”
Alexander Gostev, the chief expert at Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based software security firm, said of all the Russian-speaking hacking groups targeting governments, Fancy Bear “is the most notable.”
Malware linked to Fancy Bear was widely detected in Ukrainian government computers during the elections that were held after the country’s Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed, Gostev said, adding that “six or seven” groups may be tied to the Russian government.
At the same time, Russia has come under attack by viruses linked to U.S. and U.K. intelligence services, Gostev said, adding that hacking efforts from China against Russian defense and nuclear agencies have intensified in the past year.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed U.S. surveillance secrets, said on Twitter last month that Russia, where he lives in exile, may have been behind the hack of NSA-linked malware that was made public. The reason, Snowden said, may have been to “influence the calculus of decision-makers wondering how sharply to respond to the DNC hacks.”
Putin said that even if Russia did want to try to influence the U.S. election through leaked secrets, it doesn’t have the nuanced understanding of American politics required to succeed.
“To do that you need to have a finger on the pulse and get the specifics of the domestic political life of the U.S.,” the Russian president said. “I’m not sure that even our Foreign Ministry experts are sensitive enough.”
Putin, 63, said the state of hacking is so sophisticated that it’s impossible to know the identities or locations of the people ultimately behind them.
“You know how many hackers there are today?” Putin said. “They act so delicately and precisely that they can leave their mark -- or even the mark of others -- at the necessary time and place, camouflaging their activities as that of other hackers from other territories or countries. It’s an extremely difficult thing to check, if it’s even possible to check. At any rate, we definitely don’t do this at a state level.”
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