Did Russia really swing the US elections?

RK Raghavan | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 14, 2016

Putin's shadow: On US politics

CIA’s charge that cyber attacks were carried out to help Trump cannot be proved. But India should be wary of such possibilities

The US Democratic Party, still licking its wounds after the shock defeat at the recent Presidential election, is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his officials had worked overtime to support Donald Trump.

Citing the alleged cosy relationship between the two leaders, the Democrats have gone to town to say that Russia had interfered in the election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer systems, collecting valuable information and passing it on to anti-secrecy outfits such as DCLeaks and Wikileaks to spread misinformation about their candidate.

While the systems of both parties were possibly targeted, the charge is that information collected in respect of the Democrats alone was leaked. This is why the latter are convinced that Putin was trying to help Trump and favoured the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Even as the FBI was investigating the charge, President Obama reportedly directed the CIA also to probe this and submit a report before he lays down office in January. According to a Washington Post report, the CIA has come to the preliminary conclusion that the charge against the Russians was very credible.

This was at variance with what the FBI was said to have found. How the CIA had no doubt about Russian culpability here is anybody’s guess.

A complex web

While computer hacking is universally a very complex charge to prove, in this case, it is particularly hard because it is not an individual but a powerful government that was being investigated.

This is why a categorical assertion by an intelligence agency, however competent it may be, fails to impress. Unlike the FBI which is mostly an investigating agency, with a high accountability, the CIA has the advantage of not having to put down its conclusions on to paper or to convey its findings to a court of law. It can make any statement which will not be subjected to judicial scrutiny.

This explains the variance between the reports of the two agencies.

Having said this, it must be remembered that like China and North Korea, Russia has a dubious past record of hacking into systems belonging to hostile governments. It is generally known that either Russian government officials get directly involved in such attacks, or they engage private hackers to cause cyber disruption.

In the recent instance relating to the U.S Presidential election, two Russian organisations are mentioned. One of them — Cozy Bear or otherwise known as APT 29 — is believed to have remained inside DNC computers for several months prising out data.

The other — Fancy Bear or APT 28 — is said to have created two outlets to make DNC documents public through the channels of DCLeaks and WikiLeaks.

Incidentally, APT 28 is widely known to be the brainchild of GRU, the Russian Federation’s general intelligence organisation. The October 5 arrest of a Russian hacker in Prague, who is credited with several past assaults against US targets, is mentioned as one instance to prove Russian intentions and capacity in the area of cyber aggression.

This particular arrest was the result of a joint operation conducted by the FBI and Czech authorities.

Hard to prove

Cyber attacks triggered by a political motive are extremely sophisticated and too complicated for even the sharpest spy agency or a criminal investigation outfit to come out with plausible findings with regard to the aggressor. One reason for this is that the offensive is generally carried out from a third country, preferably from a large city.

Also, the culprit is one well settled in the region. Rarely is the computer(s) used for the crime is physically available to the investigator for a forensic examination.

This is a major handicap in establishing guilt. In my view a finding by an investigating agency like the FBI is more acceptable because the latter is a professional outfit that is capable of sustained enquiries across the globe, and has no secrecy concerns to bother about.

The above episode has its relevance to India faced with a mischievous neighbour. We do not have any open material on the capacity of agencies in Pakistan. Prudence however demands that we do not to underrate them. China’s excellent relations with that country and its known cyber prowess compel us to be prepared for a major cyber attack on our assets.

The writer is a former director of the CBI

Published on December 14, 2016
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