(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. said publicly for the first time that intelligence agencies are “confident that the Russian government directed” the hacking of American political groups and leaked stolen material in order to interfere with the Nov. 8 election.
"These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process," the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement on Friday. "We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities."
While intelligence officials had previously said privately that they blamed Russia for the attacks, Friday’s announcement puts pressure on President Barack Obama’s administration to respond even as relations with Moscow rapidly deteriorate over everything from Syria and Ukraine to nuclear cooperation.
"We should now work with our European allies who have been the victim of similar and even more malicious cyber interference by Russia to develop a concerted response that protects our institutions and deters further meddling," said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The official statement went on to say that the intelligence community isn’t in a position to confirm that the Russian government scanned and probed state election systems, even though the intrusions in “most cases originated in servers operated by a Russian company.”
While hacking has become a prominent issue in the U.S. presidential race, the agencies said "it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion."
Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly rejected accusations that the government hacks the U.S. The U.S. statement didn’t detail evidence to back up the charges against Russia.
"This is some crap again," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday when asked about the U.S. announcement. “There are tens of thousands of hackers attacking Putin’s website every day. Many are tracked to U.S. territory, but we don’t accuse either Washington or Langley every time,” he said, referring to the CIA’s headquarters near Washington.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has blamed Putin for the attacks and leaks that hit her party and suggested they’re intended to help her Republican rival Donald Trump. In the candidates’ first debate on Sept. 26, Trump, who has called Putin a strong leader, scoffed at that idea.
“I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC,” Trump said. “She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t -- maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
The intelligence community gained "high confidence" in attributing attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to Russia, said Timothy Barrett, spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence. U.S. intelligence "independently observed technical activity that is consistent with the forensic evidence identified by a private cyber-firm and is consistent with our general understanding of cyber activities by the Russian government," Barrett said. Although Barrett didn’t name the company, CrowdStrike Inc. released technical details earlier this year pointing to the attacks being carried out by the Russian government.
CrowdStrike said it found evidence that hacking attacks were carried out by two Russian government hacking groups. One that it calls Fancy Bear is believed to be an arm of Russia’s military intelligence agency. The other, which it calls Cozy Bear, is believed to be run by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor to Russia’s KGB, where Putin once worked.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said spying to find out what other countries are doing falls within the realm of acceptable and traditional intelligence-gathering. Where Russia crossed the line, according to U.S. officials, is leaking stolen material to influence U.S. elections. "At least some of the disclosures, including the disclosures of DNC and DCCC documents by Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks, and WikiLeaks from June to August 2016, are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts, thus suggesting Moscow is at least providing the information or is possibly directly responsible for the leaks," Barrett said.
The Obama administration will take action at a time and place of its choosing, but some responses might be kept secret, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
The U.S. may have limited options to respond, said John Bambenek, threat systems manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity Inc.
"Criminal prosecution is almost impossible in these situations," Bambenek said. "Our relationship is already deteriorating so there is no diplomatic incentive to pulling punches." But the announcement "does herald a situation in which escalations and tit-for-tat responses are likely and imminent," he said.
In a sign of how sour Russian-U.S. relations have become, the intelligence community’s statement was published hours after Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war-crimes investigation of Russia and Syria for what he called a deliberate campaign to terrorize civilians in the Syrian civil war.
Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Kerry’s statement was “another move in a very aggressive information war that the Americans are conducting against Russia.”
The U.S. formally halted talks with Russia over Syria after negotiations failed to revive a Sept. 9 cease-fire agreement in Syria that collapsed almost immediately. Soon afterward, Russia suspended a 16-year-old treaty meant to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said the military is revisiting a 2001 decision to close bases in Cuba and Vietnam, nations Washington has been reaching out to.
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov and Justin Sink
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