The boys at the Intercept, much to their chagrin, have scored a big scoop in the story of the Russian hacking of the 2016 American election. Yes, the same Intercept whose founder Glenn Greenwald has been running around for months trying to throw water on any story about Russia, lest it make their ideological comrades Putin, Assange and Snowden look bad in any way. The same Intercept where Greenwald explained, drawing on his best expertise about the SpyWorld, that the Steele Dossier is a buncha bullcrap because did you guys hear the sources in the dossier were anonymous? Pfffffft, everyone knows the first rule of international spy craft is that everybody wears name tags.
The Intercept has published a leaked top-secret report from the NSA that shows that, just a few days before the election, Russia was attempting to hack directly into United States voting systems. It doesn’t show that they were successful (or that they weren’t), but that, far more than a mere campaign of influence, or “putting a bunch of fake news on Facebook,” the Russians were trying to interfere directly with the will of American voters, calling the legitimacy of Donald J. Trump’s “election” into question even more than before:
RUSSIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.
The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light. […]
The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document.
Unequivocally! Russia! The GRU! Are we sure it wasn’t Seth Rich in the billiard room with the candlestick? Just kidding, that would be an “unhinged, fact-free” thing to say, the same words Glenn Greenwald used back in March to describe evidence that Team Trump colluded with Russia.
And they used spear-phishing! Except this time they weren’t after John Podesta’s risotto cooking secrets, but rather after the insides of computers belonging to election officials and employees of a voting software company. Can’t imagine the Russians would have had any use for THAT sort of information.
Or maybe we CAN imagine. The Intercept reports on VR Systems, a target of the attack, which makes “electronic voting services and equipment whose products are used in eight states”:
VR Systems doesn’t sell the actual touchscreen machines used to cast a vote, but rather the software and devices that verify and catalogue who’s permitted to vote when they show up on Election Day or for early voting. Companies like VR are “very important” because “a functioning registration system is central to American elections,” explained Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. […]
Pamela Smith, president of election integrity watchdog Verified Voting, agreed that even if VR Systems doesn’t facilitate the actual casting of votes, it could make an alluring target for anyone hoping to disrupt the vote.
“If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information,” she said. “This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot, or be required to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot — which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed.”
Why try to monkey around with actual vote totals when you can just delete people from the voter rolls? Of course, the NSA report doesn’t rule out the possibility that they could have fucked with vote totals too.
As the Intercept notes, the spear-phishing emails that started this operation were sent by the Russians on August 24, 2016. In September, President Barack Obama warned Vladimir Putin to cut it the fuck out with election tampering. However, this NSA report shows that, far from stopping, the Russians were able to create a fake Gmail account on October 27 “designed to appear as if it belonged to an employee at VR Systems,” and also executed another phase of the attack on October 30 or November 1, during the 11 days the election was being loudly derailed by former FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails:
The NSA assessed that this phase of the spear-fishing operation was likely launched on either October 31 or November 1 and sent spear-fishing emails to 122 email addresses “associated with named local government organizations,” probably to officials “involved in the management of voter registration systems.”
Was the election being derailed quietly that week, while we were all focused on the “SQUIRREL!” of Hillary’s emails? We just don’t know. In December, President Obama stated that after he gave his warning to Putin, U.S. officials didn’t see any more evidence of election meddling by the Russians. Guess they found some eventually!
A 25-year-old NSA contractor in Augusta, Georgia, named Reality Leigh Winner (ain’t shittin’ ya), has been arrested by the FBI for doing the leaking, giving the Trump administration its first win in a war on leaks, though it doesn’t seem like they worked very hard for their “win.” Ms. Winner (Winner Chicken Dinner), though some may deem her actions heroic, seems new at this “leaking” thing:
Last month, Winner allegedly “printed and improperly removed classified intelligence reporting, which contained classified national defense information” before mailing the materials to an unnamed online news outlet a few days later, according to prosecutors. […]
Investigators were able to tell from a copy of the report provided by the unnamed media outlet that the report had been printed, according to court filings. A computer search revealed that Winner had had email contact with the media outlet, according to an FBI affidavit.
Eek. She just printed it out on NSA computers and was emailing back and forth with The Intercept at work? We … don’t think that is Best Practices when it comes to whistle-blowing.
And it appears The Intercept wasn’t armed with the know-how to protect its source properly, sharing the document it received with the NSA in such a way that investigators were able to press a few buttons and identify the leaker pretty darn fast:
Rarely is it said, “Is our The Intercept learning?” And we’re not saying it now either! Here is a blog post that explains more about how easily trackable this leak was. NOTE TO WOULD-BE LEAKERS: If you have an important thing to leak, try the Washington Post or ProPublica.
However, we do give credit to The Intercept for going ahead and publishing this, as it DOES seem very important! We’ve been told for months to rest secure in the knowledge that, regardless of what the Russians or Team Trump did, there is NO EVIDENCE they were successful in changing the election result. OR WERE THEY? In the FBI’s eagerness to arrest and prosecute Ms. Winner, it basically confirms the authenticity of this report, and acknowledges that the Russians got so far with their hacking campaign that they were actually targeting voting systems, which just throws an even bigger cloud over the legitimacy of the 2016 election.
On the other hand, maybe this is not a big deal at all! Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, co-editors of The Intercept, do not have bylines on this piece. We imagine, considering their history on All Things Russia, that the Intercept journalists who got this leak required their bosses to recuse themselves from the story like a common Jeff Sessions and Devin Nunes.
Here are Greenwald and Scahill shitting on their own reporting on Twitter:
(It should be remembered, Scahill is a much better journalist than Greenwald and isn’t always an asscap.)
So what have we learned, class? For one, the Russians got much further than we ever knew (though we suspected as much). A young NSA contractor lady named Reality Winner — who actually seems like a pretty cool person, honestly — leaked this important document, and now she is in trouble, partially because even when The Intercept is awesome, it still manages to fuck it up, by burning its own sources.
And finally, as always, Glenn Greenwald sucks.
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