Like a reckless gambler whose roulette system has worked in the past, Vladimir Putin can’t resist trying to hack US elections. He’s at it once again, in the midterms, one source close to the intelligence community tells Cockburn. ‘The GRU [Russian military intelligence] is up to its usual tricks in the midterms but the NSA [the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic spying] knows and is mitigating.’ Our source says it’s the ‘usual Russian Intelligence playbook’ familiar from the presidential election: propaganda on social media with ‘some GRU active SIGINT [signals intelligence] collection, also known as hacking, in the mix’.
This is continuing today, six weeks out from voting, the source tells Cockburn, even after what seems to have been other Russian hacking attempts came to light in July. One was against Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. Emails were sent to the senator’s staff, saying their passwords were out of date. The staffers were directed to a fake page to re-enter their details. This was exactly how Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, was fooled. Senator McCaskill’s staff were smarter. ‘Russia continues to engage in cyber warfare against our democracy,’ she said at the time. ‘It is outrageous that they think they can get away with this…Putin is a thug and a bully.’
It wasn’t just Democrats. Another target, apparently, was the International Republican Institute. The IRI goes around the world trying to strengthen other people’s democracies. ‘The fact that the Kremlin finds this so threatening tells you everything you need to know,’ said a statement from the Institute. The hack was ‘clearly designed to sow confusion, conflict and fear among those who criticise Mr Putin’s authoritarian regime’.
The attempted hack on the IRI was found by Microsoft, which said there was a similar attempt against the Hudson Institute. In both cases, fake websites were set up to look like the real thing – something that’s often a prelude to an attack. Microsoft said that the Russian hackers known as Fancy Bear were behind this, the same group accused of attacking the Presidential election. Microsoft took down the two fake sites and 82 others set up by the hackers. ‘Democracy requires vigilance,’ Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said in a blog post.
If both Republicans and Democrats are being targeted, that’s because Putin doesn’t care who wins. He wants to undermine faith in the American system. He is personally directing his intelligence services to do this. These are not rogue operations. That’s what the US intelligence agencies believe, anyway, if not President Trump. Trump has previously blamed hacking in the presidential election on a ‘400 pound person’ sitting on their bed, or ‘someone living in New Jersey’. He has not spoken about the hacking attempts in the midterms.
Trump has, however, said that if Putin is helping anyone, it’s the Democrats. This presidential tweet is a typical piece of Trump verbal jiu jitsu: ‘I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!’
A smile was no doubt playing upon President Putin’s lips as he read that tweet. He can sit back and savour the chaos. But how will this end for the Kremlin puppetmaster? As with the Skripal poisonings, Putin has proved himself a tactical genius but a strategic idiot. Russia has a declining, aging population and a GDP less than a tenth of America’s. Texas alone makes more money than the Russian Federation. Putin may be ruthless, but he is a runt picking a fight with the big kid on the block. When the American public wakes up to what has been done, Cockburn predicts a fury will be turned against the Russian leader. ‘Don’t tread on me’ will become: ‘Don’t hack US.’