Russian Cyber Warriors Still Aiding Trump

Moscow's hackers also infiltrated the US power grid years ago and are still there, experts warn

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Imagine the lights going out in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles on election night. People panicking. Voters scattering from endless lines at polling stations. Voting machines down.

That’s a nightmare that keeps cybersecurity experts like Richard Clarke up at night—years after the first warnings that the Russians had gotten inside our power grid—and on top of newer worries that armed extremists are mobilizing to intimidate Democratic voters at the polls.

Clarke, White House counterterrorism chief for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, warns that Russian government hackers have a broad ability to intervene on election day, going further than they did during the 2016 campaign to push for the reelection of Donald Trump, by once again breaking into voting systems and even interrupting portions of the U.S. electrical grid.

“I think it’s very clear that you can take down parts of the power grid,” Clarke said on the Unconventional Threat podcast, which debuted Sunday. Clarke noted that in 2018 Dan Coats, the then-director of national intelligence, warned that the Russians had infiltrated the control systems for the U.S. power grid and natural gas pipelines and stayed there. “The lights are blinking red,” he said.

“People used to say I was crazy when I said you could bring down the electric grid through hacking, and then the Russians did in Ukraine, and then they did it again in Ukraine,” Clarke said.

Russian hackers have also launched cyberattacks in the Black Sea nation of Georgia and in Estonia, the former Baltic Soviet state. The Russian GRU military intelligence agency is well positioned to escalate attacks here if it wants.

Indeed. A little over a year ago Congress’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, reported that the U.S. electric grid "is becoming more vulnerable to cyberattacks,” with industrial control systems playing major roles in the growing risk.

Knock, knock

Clarke said campaign computer systems are hardly more secure than they were in 2016, despite repeated warnings. In February, Senate Republicans shot down three election security bills proposed by the Democrats.   

 “The truth is that they're not much better off than they were four years ago,” Clarke said. “Only one campaign on the Democratic side that I know of has a full time chief information security officer.”

As for the Democratic National Committee, where Russian cyberattacks did great damage to the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, its computer systems are still vulnerable, Clarke said. 

“If the GRU wants to get into the DNC, if it wants to get into any of these campaigns, it's a cakewalk.” 

But campaign computers were only one part of the equation, Clarke told Peter Eisner, co-host of the Unconventional Threat podcast (and a SpyTalk contributing editor). “The second part is the voter data lists, the registries. 

“Is your name on the voter list? And does it have your right address and the right precinct? Because, you know, you cannot go to the wrong voter precinct, the wrong fire station. You have to go to the right one,” he said. In 2016, he added, the Russians “tried to...get in to voter data registration [lists] in almost all the States. And if that sounds like an extreme statement, you can back that up with a lot of facts, a lot of details.”

In his new book Rage, author Bob Woodward reported that the CIA and National Security Agency discovered that the Russians had placed malware in the election registration systems of at least two Florida counties, St. Lucie and Washington. While it did not seem to have been activated, Woodward wrote, it was sophisticated enough to erase voters from rolls in specific districts. 

Florida’s voting system vendor also has contracts in other states.  

Woodward said the information he gathered remains classified.

“The American public deserved to know that Russians were in a position to change vote tallies in 2016,  Jennifer Cohn, an election security advocate, attorney and writer, said on Twitter. “Had voters known, they would have demanded a full investigation & opposed any concession without one.”

Last summer Trump confirmed an earlier report in The Washington Post that in 2018 he had authorized a U.S. covert cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based troll factory that led Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Look, we stopped it,” the president told columnist Marc A. Thiessen.

But on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that for six days last week a flurry of fake Twitter accounts posing as Black Trump supporters appeared, reaching untold thousands of potential voters.

“Many of the accounts used profile pictures of Black men taken from news reports or other sources. Several of the accounts claimed to be from members of groups with pro-Trump leanings, including veterans, police officers, steelworkers, businessmen and avid Christians,” The Post reported. 

The attacks had all the hallmarks of the Internet Research Agency.