Obama's Russia report unlikely to silence doubters

Obama's Russia report unlikely to silence doubters
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A report issued Thursday by the Obama administration linking Russian intelligence to hacks on Democratic political organizations is unlikely to silence critics who say the government has no proof Russia was trying to meddle in the presidential election. 

On Thursday, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a joint analysis that they said contained forensic data that would help networks defend against Russian intrusions.

The 13-page report provided some technical details regarding tools and infrastructure used by Russian intelligence services and described in broad strokes how operatives were able to hack the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

But it was far from the “proof” that critics like President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE have called for.


“What they released doesn’t add anything to the discussion [about attribution],” said Rob Lee, founder of the critical infrastructure cybersecurity company Dragos.

The technical data in the report, security experts say, is a very basic footprint pointing to Russian intruders — and one that frequently turns out to be a false positive.

“What they released is what we would consider to be the lowest form of indicators of compromise,” Lee said.

Private security firms, like the company the DNC hired to investigate the hack, have gone much further in their published forensics analyses.

That evidence is very strong, outside experts say — making the government report a watered-down version of information that was already publicly available.

The FBI and DHS on Thursday said the work of private security firms correlated with their findings, claiming that the report “recognizes the excellent work undertaken by security companies and private sector network owners and operators.”

Another problem with the report, some critics say, is that it doesn’t achieve what the government says is the purpose of the document. 

The White House says the report is meant to help private networks defend against Russian hackers.

Instead, the document is largely a written assertion from the two agencies that two Russian intelligence agencies did, in fact, hack the DNC.  

Further muddling the picture, security experts say the technical indicators the government released aren’t related to that attribution.

“Said more simply: the written portion of the report has little to nothing to do with the intended purpose or the technical data released,” Lee said in a blog post.

Some intelligence experts note that the report’s sketchy attribution is probably intentional. Its purpose is preventative — not persuasive. 

"That [the DHS/FBI report] doesn't engage with the question of attribution seems, to me, to be quite deliberate,” Matt Tait, founder of the United Kingdom-based security consultancy Capital Alpha Security, said in an email.

“Its purpose is to act as a measure against Russia — by adding a U.S. stamp of approval to private sector information, and making life harder for [Russia] by exposing some of their malware — not to persuade the public that the DNC hack was by Russia.”

Discussing the report on Thursday, senior officials told reporters that the administration is “focused on providing network defenders with the tools they need to detect and disrupt Russian malicious activity targeting our country’s networks.”

The intelligence community is still in the process of preparing a more thorough, classified review of election interference that President Obama has ordered completed before Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

That report is expected to be given to Congress, but it’s unclear how much of the document will be made public.

“I suspect that this document will go into more detail about what the U.S. knows about Russian interference in the 2016 election, although even this I suspect won't satisfy skeptics,” Tait said.

The Obama administration has been under fierce pressure to release documentation backing up the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to interfere in the U.S. election.

Some Republicans have continued to deny Moscow’s involvement.

“We don’t know if Russia is 100 percent behind this. I’m not thoroughly convinced,” Rep. Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott Yoho7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Why AOC should be next to lead the DNC Ocasio-Cortez defends Biden's incoming deputy chief of staff amid blowback MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN Thursday evening.

“Until we know that, for this president to move, there’s going to be unintended consequences that the next president is going to have to deal with,” he added. 

The president-elect has denied reports that Russia was behind the attacks on the DNC and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSenate to vote Tuesday on Biden's secretary of State pick Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick MORE campaign chairman John Podesta, treating them as an attack on the legitimacy of his victory. 

In a brief statement issued Thursday night, he seemed to indicate that he might believe intelligence officials’ assessment after all — but that that the country should still “move on.”

“Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation,” Trump wrote.

Obama on Thursday announced a slate of retaliatory measures against Russia, including economic sanctions, in response to the alleged interference.

Senior administration officials and sanctions experts note that in order to issue those sanctions, the government must have evidence that can stand up in court.

“There’s no debate in the U.S. administration about the fact — and it is a fact — that Russia interfered in our democratic election,” a senior official said Thursday. “We’ve established that clearly to our satisfaction.”