The leak of 20,000 stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is almost certainly an attempt by the Russian government to influence the presidential election, security experts say.
Such a maneuver would be unprecedented and is stirring widespread speculation that Russia is trying to ensure that Republican Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE wins the White House.
“I think we are probably in full-scale, ‘Yes, this is Russia trying to influence the election so they can have the person they prefer at the top of the American government,’” said Jason Healey, a director at the Atlantic Council who has worked on cyber defenses at the White House.
The leak of the DNC emails last week was a bombshell, providing clear evidence that officials in the committee were actively working against the campaign of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (I-Vt.).
The controversy has marred the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and forced the DNC chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), to resign.
From the beginning, there has been little doubt that the breach of the committee's systems — exposed in June — was the work of Russian intelligence. Multiple security firms have conducted a forensic analysis of the committee’s systems and found strong evidence pointing to a pair of well-known groups affiliated with the Kremlin.
At the time, the breach looked like traditional intelligence gathering. Political committees are a high-value target for any government seeking to predict the outcome of a national election, experts say.
Some security experts then posited that the hack could be a bid by the Russians to influence the election in some way, but the underlying evidence was too tenuous to make a strong case.
But the timing of Friday’s email dump — on the eve of the Philadelphia convention — changed that assessment for many. Experts say they no longer have any doubt that Russia is trying to influence the outcome of November’s contest.
“The timing, the way this is being done, makes it obvious that this is an attempt to damage the Democratic presidential campaign,” said Scott Borg, director of the nonprofit research institute U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit.
The FBI on Monday said it has opened an investigation into the DNC hack “to determine the nature and scope of the matter."
“A compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously, and the FBI will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace,” the FBI said in a statement.
There are several reasons why it’s plausible Russian President Vladimir Putin would want a Trump victory, experts say.
The Russian leader has a notoriously icy relationship with the sitting Democratic president — tension that was on display in their repeated clashes over the two countries’ opposing positions in the Syrian civil war.
Trump, meanwhile, has advanced an “America First” platform that appears to include drawing back U.S. military activity abroad.
The Republican standard-bearer hinted last week that he might refuse help to some NATO allies should they be attacked by Russia. The statement sent shock waves through the foreign policy community, as the alliance has long served as a powerful check on Russian aggression.
“Donald Trump in the White House would provide enormous opportunities for Russia to increase their influence in the world,” Borg said.
Borg, Healey and other security professionals note that Russia has a history of trying to influence elections across Europe in a variety of ways — they just hadn’t turned those capabilities on the United States.
Such a blatant attempt by Russia to intervene in the election results of another major nation, and not just a satellite country, is unprecedented, they say. Some worry about how far Russia is willing to go.
Voting security is already shaky in many states, Healey said. Russian operatives might have the ability to hack voting machines to influence the outcome of the election.
“Even if they got caught, how much of that are we gonna have to do before we have Bush v. Gore all over again?” Healey said, referring to the Supreme Court case that ended the controversy over George W. Bush’s victory in Florida during the 2000 presidential election over his Democratic opponent, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE.
Clinton’s camp has already latched onto characterizations of the leak as a pro-Trump effort, perhaps in an attempt to avoid criticism that the primary race against Sanders was “rigged” in her favor.
"I don't think it's coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention here, and I think that's disturbing," Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Clinton has support from Capitol Hill Democrats, who are emphasizing “Trump's well known admiration for Putin and his belittling of NATO.”
“That foreign actors may be trying to influence our election — let alone a powerful adversary like Russia — should concern all Americans of any party,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Hillicon Valley — Hacking goes global Schiff calls on Amazon, Facebook to address spread of vaccine misinformation Spotlight turns to GOP's McCarthy in Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a Monday statement.
Trump has already pushed back on the supposition.
“The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me,” he tweeted early Monday morning.
The site that published the emails — the leaked information platform WikiLeaks — has also denied that the leak was designed to influence the election.
“Clinton campaign pushing lame conspiracy smear that we are Russian agents,” the publication tweeted on Sunday. “Get it right.”
It is unclear who provided the emails to WikiLeaks. But it is well documented that Putin has created a diffuse intelligence network that allows him to exert influence while maintaining plausible deniability.
Experts say it is highly unlikely the pages came from the Russian government directly. Instead, they would have been passed through multiple channels, perhaps by pro-Putin operatives believed they were operating independently to please the Russian president.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it was involved in the hack of the DNC — and perhaps it wasn’t, at least not directly.
“This is almost certainly a Russian effort. This Russian effort will almost certainly be an attempt to please Vladimir Putin and carry out his agenda,” Borg said.
“But that doesn’t mean that it’s being done directly by Putin or by what we refer to as the Kremlin.”