American political candidates are once again being targeted, a Microsoft executive said Thursday, by the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the GRU.
At the Aspen Security Forum, a gathering of top-level government officials and industry experts, Microsoft’s Tom Burt, vice president for customer safety and trust, said that his team had uncovered evidence that three U.S. candidates running for election in 2018 had been targeted. The attacker, according to Burt, was identified as the advanced persistent threat known to Microsoft as Strontium—though the hackers are more commonly called Fancy Bear, the codename given to them by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. (See also: Sednit, Pawn Storm, Sofacy, Tsar Team, Group 74, APT 28, Swallowtail, and Iron Twilight.)
The names of the candidates who were allegedly targeted have yet to be released, but according to Burt, they are individuals who may have piqued Moscow’s interest “from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint,” he said.
The disclosure follows a whirlwind of Russia-related news that has immersed pundits and politicos since July 13, the day a U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, unsealed an indictment charging 12 Russian intelligence officers in absentia with conducting a months-long, covert campaign to undermine the Democratic Party—targeting, among others, then-candidate Hillary Clinton, in an attempt to sway the election in President Donald Trump’s favor, per an assessment long affirmed by the U.S. intelligence community.
The indictment paved the way for what was easily one of the most bizarre moments in the modern history of the U.S. presidency: Trump allowing his affinity for the former KGB officer and homophobic Russian autocrat, Vladimir Putin, to openly undermine the authority of his intelligence chiefs. That unprecedented moment preceded several days’ worth of puzzling self-contradiction on the president’s part after rank-and-file Republicans, seemingly pushed to their limit, began airing their disgust on live TV.
Even his attempts to clean up the mess resulted in further confusion and doubt over Trump’s position on the Russian election interference, whether Putin was directly responsible, and whether the U.S. is presently at risk. (According to a New York Times report published late Wednesday, Trump was shown evidence two weeks before his inauguration, including texts and emails “gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin,” documenting the Kremlin-directed cyberattacks.)
By Wednesday, it was obvious that Trump has placed more trust in the word of the world’s most powerful street thug—or has simply decided to believe whatever he wants, evidence be damned, because it’s politically convenient to do so—than anything he’s heard or seen in year’s worth of classified briefs. Every attempt to placate his party and top advisers by acknowledging publicly that Moscow did, in fact, interfere in the 2016 election was followed by a last minute ad-lib clearly intended to diminish the Putin’s culpability. (“Could be other people also.”)
The president’s attempts to walk back his walk-backs did not go over well with his GOP comrades. In the end, as Sen. Marco Rubio told Politico, “You can’t force anyone to say what you want them to say, especially the president of the United States.”
Trump is, if anything, his own one-man walking brain trust.
As Politico reported Wednesday, the nation’s ongoing efforts to secure state election systems against foreign cyberattacks or other forms of tampering are slow moving and unlikely to produce results before the midterm elections, less than four months away. The five states that rely solely on paperless electronic voting devices have “no plans to replace their machines before the election,” the news site reported. What’s more, fewer than a third of the states have reportedly undergone the security audits offered by the Department of Homeland Security.
That security experts have already detected attempts to meddle in the election is neither surprising nor profound. “We have seen Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the Senate intelligence committee five months ago. “There should be no doubt,” added Dan Coats, the Trump-chosen director of national intelligence, “that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
A week ago, Coats reiterated: “The warning lights are blinking red.”
Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to notice. Nor care.
Clarification: A lot of readers are commenting on the phrase “Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the GRU,” in the belief I misspoke. It’s my understand that the GRU, Main Intelligence Directorate, or Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye as it’s called in Russia, is now officially called simply Main Directorate (which would just be GU).
Although GRU is still widely used, it is no longer the official name of the department, to the best of my understanding.
Feel free to contact me by email if you’re a Russian expert and you think I’m wrong: email@example.com.