Intercept Posts NSA Docs On Russian Election Hacking, DOJ Announces Arrest Of Leaker Hours Later

from the lifecomesatyoufast.gif dept

The Intercept has just published an NSA document [PDF] (mailed to it by a government contractor [more on that in a bit]) detailing Russian interference in the US election.

Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.

The document doesn’t exactly offer anything that hasn’t already been hinted at or suspected, but it does at least confirm a lot of the election hacking speculation. It also contradicts Putin’s claim the Russian government was uninvolved in the election hacking.

While there is no evidence the breached voting software supplier resulted in compromised votes, what’s suggested by the NSA document is something just as disruptive: an IRL denial-of-service attack that would affect American voters.

Pamela Smith, president of election integrity watchdog Verified Voting, agreed that even if VR Systems doesn’t facilitate the actual casting of votes, it could make an alluring target for anyone hoping to disrupt the vote.

“If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information,” she said. “This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot, or be required to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot — which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed.”

That being said, the US election process is somewhat hack-proof, though certainly not by design or as the result of security enhancements. Election hacking can apparently be somewhat mitigated by operational inefficiencies and this nation’s democratic process bottleneck. Voting databases are decentralized, with very little coordination/connection between county, state, and federal systems. To make things even more unpredictable, the Electoral College decides who gets to become president, rather than millions of votes cast through a vast variety of voting machines.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this leak is how quickly the government tracked the leaker down. The Intercept asked the government for comment on May 30th. By June 3rd, the government’s investigation had narrowed to one suspect: government contractor Reality Winner [emoji combining WTF/irony].

Although the government’s press release and affidavit [PDF] only refer to The Intercept as “News Outlet,” the dates of the document cited match up to those in the published document. How did the NSA track down Winner so quickly? Internal printer audits and email records.

The U.S. Government Agency conducted an internal audit to determine who accessed the intelligence reporting since its publication. The U.S. Government Agency determined that six individuals printed this reporting. WINNER was one of these six individuals. A further audit of the six individuals’ desk computers revealed that WINNER had e-mail contact with the News Outlet. The audit did not reveal that any of the other individuals had e-mail contact with the News Outlet.

In short, bad opsec and worse opsec. There’s more:

The U.S. Government Agency examined the document shared by the News Outlet and determined the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

These creases can plainly be seen in the document published by The Intercept.

According to the FBI, Winner has already confessed to these actions. And it’s tough to see this information as being of the whistleblower variety as it doesn’t expose any sort of surveillance overreach, but rather the sort of work we actually expect the NSA to be engaged in. The only possible motive for Winner’s decision to hand this document over to journalists is the (somewhat justifiable) fear the Trump Administration would do its best to ensure this information was never made public.

On the other hand, the document is clearly of public interest, seeing as it details apparently ongoing efforts by a foreign country to disrupt the election process. It also highlights just how many security holes remain unaddressed, despite years of warning by security researchers. Even if the Russian government never performs another election hack, it has already planted several seeds of doubt in the legitimacy of the system — something that will cause every election result going forward to be questioned by those who come out on the losing end.

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Comments on “Intercept Posts NSA Docs On Russian Election Hacking, DOJ Announces Arrest Of Leaker Hours Later”

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Anonymous Coward says:

What I want to know is exactly what in this document is top-secret worthy. Unless the redactions were performed by The Intercept before posting I don’t really see anything in there worth the security designation. Besides the evidence of Russian election meddling (which everyone pretty much knew already) there is simply an accounting of how it was done (again, something that everybody had a pretty good guess on).

Perhaps someone with better knowledge of the area can explain why they decided this needed to be top-secret. And note — “It would undermine our relations with Russia” is not an acceptable answer.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: The Pentagon Papers

It’s like the Pentagon Papers, back in 1971. There was nothing really new in that case, either. Everyone knew that the Vietnam War was a disaster. However, the Pentagon Papers provided official confirmation, and the attempt to suppress the Pentagon Papers tacitly admitted the seriousness of the allegations. President Nixon got substantially all of the American troops out of Vietnam in time for the 1972 election. And then came Watergate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The reason for the classification isn’t the content. We already knew that Putin-directed Russian hackers did everything they could to see that Trump was elected as part of a quid pro quo agreement.

It’s the sources and methods. Disclosure of this document will enable GRU to discern how this information was acquired and thus take countermeasures.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

How and if the quid pro quo worked is still an answer blowing in the wind.

That Russia would like to see Trump in the painted domicile rather than Clinton is indisputable. But it could be as much a question of how reckless and undependable he appeared towards international relations, as well as the fact that Clinton was running on an almost Mccarthyistic anti-russian platform.

That the people around Trump had very good relations with several oligarchs high up in Russias poitical feudal structure has never been in question. It is more a question of how the sides have acted to fulfill their common interest.

IRT propaganda: There is a very short path between believing USAs politicians are ruled by corporate overlords and wanting the puppet-masters to take over direct responsibility instead of having the puppets take the blame. The oligarchic system in Russia would in that case also appear more honest than democracy…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

A cursory analysis of the quid pro quo:

How are Russia’s interests best served?

By weakening NATO and the United States.

How might that be achieved?

By seeing that the US elects a dangerously unstable, uneducated, uninterested self-absorbed demagogue (who is, I might add, exhibiting very clear symptoms of frontotemporal dementia) who can be easily manipulated from within or without.

How are Trump’s interests served?

By gratifying his ego. That is his only interest in being President. He has little desire to actually perform the duties of the office and has spent far more time tweeting incoherent ramblings and playing golf than paying close attention to the PDB or crafting serious legislative agendas. He has alienated NATO allies and praised dictators, failed to fill hundreds of key positions (e.g., there are presently no US Attorneys), and appointed completely unqualified people to cabinet posts. None of which matters to him.

How are Trump’s cronies served?

Power and money. And there are plenty of both to be had.

Really the only open question at this point is how far into the GOP it goes. There are no doubt some who supported Trump out of political expediency, but there is equally no doubt there are some who supported him because they had a piece of the deal. It’s not clear which are which.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

By seeing that the US elects a dangerously unstable, uneducated, uninterested self-absorbed demagogue (who is, I might add, exhibiting very clear symptoms of frontotemporal dementia) who can be easily manipulated from within or without.

I thought Mrs. Clinton was fairly well educated, and that she was not elected. Otherwise, a spot on analysis of her many faults (although I think you downplayed some of the health problems a bit more than I would have).


Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

No. Russia’s interests are served by a hostile news media intent on attacking Trump regardless of the consequences. They’re acting like a KGB propaganda arm or sabotage squad. They’re the ones that contribute most to the perception here.

The NYT leak of information regarding the Manchester attack is a good example of this. Some of that stuff had no news value whatsoever, but it helped enrage Brits against Trump.

David (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: AC propaganda

Russia won.

The US is as big a mess as Russia. This is what Putin wanted: look they aren’t any better than we are. They lie, cheat, steal, put their family into high position for their own gain. POTUS is a clown, bumbling around, insulting friends, making enemies and losing esteem worldwide.

Why wouldn’t Putin want that?

PaulT (profile) says:


“There’s nothing in that report but pure speculation and bullshit”

I’m sure your detailed rebuttal is in progress and will be posted soon. Right?

“Russia’s government controlled hackers not only used gmail addresses but used their own personal phones.”

I’m sure your unimpeachable, wholly verifiable source for this will follow shortly. Right?

Richard (profile) says:

Look at the US

Everyone seems to believe that, whereas we know that the US government is in practice a rag bag of different agencies that are often in conflict with one another, the Russian government simply has to be a unified top down organisation where everything is in the control of the president.
Of course it isn’t true.

And btw as far as election interference goes – pot meet kettle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Already being done

I, for one, am glad she lost. One can only imagine the carnage she would have wrought. Unfortunately, I am also disappointed in the American voters for putting a mentally deficient tangerine in office. We are only beginning to witness his flavor of carnage.

Somewhere in the middle there is sanity and, sadly, too few voters to install a proper president. You wouldn’t know these people.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Already being done

This is what happens when you redefine “conservatism” to mean “far right nutter.”

Actual conservatism, i.e. caution where new ideas are concerned, hard-headed pragmatism, honouring the rule of law and respect for community and traditional values, would have produced different results.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Already being done

That’s the problem with politics as a team game. People don’t vote for their own interests or values, they just vote for whoever’s on “their team”. So, the victors feel free to go against the interests of their voter base, because they know they’ll get the vote no matter what they do.

I’m sad to say it seems to be infectious. I’m seeing far too many people who oppose most of May’s policies but still say they’ll vote for her today because they don’t want Corbyn in. The idea that they can vote for someone else who does actually reflect their values and interests doesn’t seem to enter their heads. They’ll probably then complain about everything she does over the next few years if she does win, never realising that they literally told her they supported doing those things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

NYPost sez: “It is ultimately unclear what came of the [alleged] cyberattack, but the [potentially phony] NSA report firmly states that the [alleged] Russians had been intent on “mimicking a legitimate absentee ballot-related service provider.”

You’re believing the NSA den of spies to be truthful here. Why? — Because more blame-the-Russians propaganda fits your biases.

Dissolves into “could have” innuendo, though leaves out NOTHING as a possibility.

So again, NOTHING BUT ALLEGATIONS. — Though, this time given “credibility” by being a “leak” with a definite “leaker” in jail, and to an allegedly non-mainstream-media outlet. But since speculation is valid, “patsy” and “willing stenographer” should be considered.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

“The new Tor browser sometimes gets through, is all.”

Yet, nobody else feels the need to use that just to post here. Perhaps there’s some other factor than just your IP address in place.

“Otherwise, I’m censored.”

So you claim. But, the only evidence provided is when you whine about posts that are freely visible by the time you’ve finished whining. That isn’t censorship, that’s a spam filter, which all of us regulars have come across occasionally (without whining about it).

Occam’s Razor – you’re not being censored, you’re just a thin-skinned person who can’t stand the fact that others can also state their mind.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

The new Tor browser sometimes gets through, is all. Otherwise, I’m censored.

I love the fact that you make a claim and then undermine it on your own in the space of two sentences. Very efficient.

Using Tor will result in your posts being caught by the spam filter. There is no ‘censorship’ involved unless you’re of the opinion that a spam filter is ‘censorship’, in which case I simply must applaud such a ‘unique’ take on the word.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

Sometimes if I write a post with a lot of links it gets held. Also, there have been a couple of times when I’ve written multiple posts that just said “What the fuck are you talking about?”

And while I believe those posts were entirely appropriate under the circumstances, I can see why writing the same post multiple times can get you held for moderation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

One of those moderation times was when my original reply appeared on the wrong thread. I quickly posted an “oops” comment after the mistake, then immediately tried to repost my original comment in the proper place. The third, rapid, repeated comment got held, even as its twin got through earlier, probably due to the conditions around its submission.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

>> Fun fact. You sound just like the paid Russian trolls. Maybe want try something new. Or at least demand payment in dollars this time.

Thanks! You mean rational like Glen Greenwald and the several others who’d already doubted above.

Your nasty trollings looks like Timmy Geigner. Are you the one who blocked that browser session right after I dodged the first block and use Tor’s Resend?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Only confirms that the speculation is speculation. NO actual "interference" is stated.

“Are you the one who blocked that browser session right after I dodged the first block and use Tor’s Resend?”

I love the fact that you’re still deluded enough to think that someone’s manually overseeing IP addresses and blocking you, rather than an automated process.

Admitting that there’s just an algorithm at play doesn’t feed into your persecution complex, so you have to invent a new reality.

D.C. Pathogen (profile) says:

She didn't get elected, get over it.

Why do we have to go around making up reasons that she lost the election, embrace the fact that she could not have one against anyone. Only long armpit hair feminists (LAHF) wanted that —- in office. Lets not forget the content of the exposed emails.

And S—H— only has 3.5 more years, how much damage can he really do…?

Anonymous Coward says:

Shocking competence from the government

This arrest seems to suggest they actually do know what documents people access/print, and with whom the government computers e-mail. Both of these should be easy for them to do, but it stands in stark contrast to the Snowden forensics, where they clearly had no clue what he had taken versus what he merely "touched" (often in the course of assigned duties). It also calls into serious question some of their FOIA-denial claims that it would simply be too burdensome to search for anything. Properly motivated, they very quickly figured out what their audit logs knew and applied that information competently.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Shocking competence from the government

Correct, but this also reflects extremely poorly on the opsec of the leaker and of the Intercept. Early reports are sketchy (as they often are) but it appears that the leaker emailed the Intercept from a work computer (!) and printed the document on a work printer (!). And the Intercept used the scanned image of the document rather than doing what they should have done, which is to retype it word-by-word.

Very sloppy all around. Certainly nobody with any sense will leak ANYTHING to the Intercept ever again.

kallethen says:

Re: Re: Shocking competence from the government

I agree that the Intercept should have been more aware of the watermarking (which has been known about for years) and taken measures against it, I doubt it would have protected Ms. Winner.

According to news reports, only six people had access to this document. Plus she had contacted the Intercept by email from her work computer. Really, she might as well have put a sign on her forehead that said, “I’m a leaker.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Shocking competence from the government

I agree that the Intercept should have been more aware of the watermarking (which has been known about for years) and taken measures against it

People in general should be taking measures. It’s why I won’t buy a color Xerox printer (or several other brands). Really, though, we need proper replacement firmware for all printer models so that we know user-hostile features don’t exist; and so we can add things like secure printing that’s actually secure.

Ars: How a few yellow dots burned the Intercept’s NSA leaker
Some Xerox programmer(s) cost a leaker their freedom.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wow. This lady is a basket of spiders* with a wacky name to boot, and you folks somehow think she’s a “decoy” or that the government had to work hard to catch her?

She called the Intercept from a work phone (logged), she printed out the document on a work printer (logged) and the pictures printed by the intercept showed creases in the paper where it had been folded, meaning that it was leaked as a hard copy, not transmitted electronically. Clown shoes, in espionage terms.

This is not a case of super duper detective skills OR of a criminal mastermind. It IS a case of illegal transfer of classified material which the government actually detected and investigated so let’s all celebrate some basic government competence and her going to jail.

*check out some of her social media posts – I’m actually shocked that someone like her got a security clearance to begin with. THAT was a major governmental blunder.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Wow – you’re a moron”

Perfect example of the first refuge of the left – start tossing personal insults when you don’t have a leg to stand on in an argument. Can’t weigh in with anything meaningful to counter? Time to start calling people names.

Yes, I called her a “basket of spiders” but I gave a REASON for doing so – her own words, in fact.

Chuck says:

America is no more "hack-proof" than it is "invasion-proof"

During WWII, the Nazis launched Operation Drumbeat. It was a series of raids on American shipping, well inside U.S. waters. When the Nazi U-Boat captains arrived at the American coast, they were shocked and amazed that the Americans had not gone dark, i.e. all the lights of the cities on the coast remained on. This gave them an excellent back light to identify and sink ships with.

It’s not that people within the U.S. Navy didn’t know better. It’s that people like the Mayor of NYC didn’t want to panic the citizenry. So the lights stayed on and merchant marines died by the hundreds. Many died right in the middle of New York Harbor.

It’s a sobering reminder that the government is far more interested in appearing secure than being secure. The TSA didn’t start this. It’s just the latest and most obvious example.

My mother ran for reelection (except, since she was appointed, we couldn’t say “reelection” because election laws are funny like that…because MURICA!) as a District Court Judge in Alabama back in 2000. In that election, she lost by 0.6%. Being the wonderful country that we are, she had to go sign the paperwork at the courthouse certifying that she lost. Who doesn’t like having that rubbed in, right?

When she got there, she asked the probate judge (the local-level election official who tallied all the votes) to show her 1,000 random ballots. On over 300 of them, some poor, innocent (and stupid…) voter had checked the party box at the top for Republican, but then checked my mother’s name. Under election law, this is a spoiled ballot. Meaning the machine used to tabulate it should reject it, then a polling worker has to explain to the voter that, if they wish to vote for my mother, and also for all the other republicans, they must check each box individually.

Instead all of those votes simply counted for her opponent. 47,000 votes cast, she lost by 0.6%, and roughly a third of the votes were just outright miscounted by badly programmed voting machines. And this is the same model of machine that’s still A) used today and B) used state-wide in over 90% of Alabama’s precincts.

Now, is any of that relevant to the topic at hand? Only partially. Here’s where it gets relevant.

When my mother went to certify the vote, the probate judge unpacked his PERSONAL LAPTOP. He opened up a MICROSOFT EXCEL SPREADSHEET. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how votes are counted in this country. An Excel Spreadsheet on a local election official’s personal computer is used to tally the votes, and then EMAILED to the Secretary of State.

Now ask literally any computer expert how many tens of thousands of ways THAT can be hacked.

You say the Russians sent 5,000 spear phishing emails? I say the election was stolen for certain. Bank on it. All it’d take is 5 people in the right counties clicking the right links and boom, Trump wins his 3 midwestern states and steals the election.

And unless we have the one and only non-tech-savvy probate judge in the entire country, I’d bet every penny I’ll ever make the rest of my life the ruskies got more than 5 clicks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: America is no more "hack-proof" than it is "invasion-proof"

LOL – move to Chicago – the dead have been voting here for the last century or so. Remarkably, they all vote Democrat…

Taking your point tho, doesn’t this kind of thing make voter identification and other associated improvements with the whole process more important? Or is it only important that certain nationalities (Russians, not Central Americans for instance) of non-residents be blocked from voting?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: America is no more "hack-proof" than it is "invasion-proof"

Cleaning up the voter rolls would be accomplished by modernizing and hardening the process in which they were created and maintained. Keeping ALL non-citizens from corrupting the election process in any way.

Isn’t that what everyone wants? Secure, fair elections where the process and outcome aren’t in question?

Jsaon says:

Anyone else notice how last week, before any of this became public, Putin changed the message from Russia didn’t interfere in the US election, to that of “patriotic hackers” might have taken it upon themselves to try to hack our election.

It’s as if he knew this leaked document was about to become public, and so he decided to get ahead of it. Being proactive instead of reactive. It’s never too early to start doing damage control, right?

It is also almost as if this information could be seen to harm the ongoing propaganda campaign Russia has been running against the US, so a new message was needed.

But don’t worry, be happy, and grab yourself a cup of the the vodka spiked Kool-Aid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So, you think that the Russians and the current administration are so clever, so tightly choreographed and so skilled that they can pull off a seamless ploy with this organized “change of message” in order to circumvent the potential of being embarrassed by the leaking of documents by a disgruntled anti-Trump zealot with a top security clearance? On top of covering up election collusion which for over six months has been hidden with no actual evidence whatsoever finding it’s way to the public during the most intense period of un-masking and media leaked confidential/insider information in recent history?

If you think that the Russians, and by extension Trump and his administration are THAT skilled and sophisticated, you must be the one swigging the Kool-Aid.

Yeah, yeah – you hate Trump. You hate the Russians. Hate solves so many problems and makes you feel warm inside. Wonderful. Go team hate.

Hate, no matter how genuinely felt on your part, doesn’t make governments smarter, more capable, or more sophisticated. Remember, the same evil geniuses that put together your nefarious plot are the same folks who gave Ms. Winning her security clearance, after all…

Jason says:

Re: Re: Re:

I didn’t mention Trump or his administration at all in my post. You are inferring a lot of information that is not present. The odds are the Russians are probably monitoring the communications of organizations such as Wikileaks and The Intercept in the hopes of easily obtaining raw classified documents. Having someone placed inside those organizations would give them possible access to any decrypted documents that would be sent, that they would be unable to decrypt without a key. I imagine it is a lot easier to infiltrate one of those organizations than say the NSA. Because of that ease, Putin coming forward with the information for damage control isn’t going to burn those assets, and in the event it does, placement of a new asset would be relatively easy.

An alternate theory is that they have someone in the NSA, but Putin coming forward like he did, would put that asset at risk and the time and energy required to get an asset placed in such a position would hardly seem to justify the risk of burning them for what only appears to be some damage control in a propaganda campaign.

I do find it rather telling, and you should as well, that your first instinct was to assume that the Trump administration must be working with the Russians.

Personanongrata says:

Thin Gruel

The document doesn’t exactly offer anything that hasn’t already been hinted at or suspected, but it does at least confirm a lot of the election hacking speculation.

The document proves absolutely nothing.

Although it is completely believable that Russian intelligence would act in such a manner (The US does the same).

What is the point?

How does it implicate the Trump administration as being beholden to Russia?

Even if the Russian government never performs another election hack, it has already planted several seeds of doubt in the legitimacy of the system — something that will cause every election result going forward to be questioned by those who come out on the losing end.

the legitimacy of the system was already in question way before 2016 as there have been dozens and dozens of well documented e-voting security vulnerability issues in the press for over the past decade.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Thin Gruel

How does it implicate the Trump administration as being beholden to Russia?

It doesn’t, in and of itself. As part of a pattern involving an unusual number of his campaign staff, cabinet, and family members having contact with representatives of the Russian government and state-owned bank, then lying about it, and Trump himself directly interfering with investigations of same, it’s suggestive. But it’s not proof. That’s what investigations are for.

But whether Trump or his campaign is involved or not, Russia interfering with US elections is an important story, and one that shouldn’t be partisan. "We do it too" is a true statement, and it’s fair to call out the hypocrisy of anyone who supports the US tampering with foreign elections but gets mad when it happens to us…but, as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. No, we shouldn’t be tampering with other countries’ elections. And no, other countries shouldn’t be tampering with ours.

The most important lesson from this leak, at this point, is that we need to do better at securing our voting systems (which, y’know, a lot of us already knew before this leak), whether that means voter rolls, voting machines, or anything else. Right now, as the article notes, our system is mostly "secure" by virtue of being an inconsistent, poorly-organized mess, but as security policies go that one’s not very good.

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