Helsinki Summit: Trump Faces Major Test After Russians Charged Over Election Hacking
12 Russian military officers have been indicted over interfering with the US election. What should Trump do when he meets with Putin?
Should President Donald Trump meet with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, following the indictment of Russian military officers for interfering with the 2016 US election?
Trump is scheduled to have a summit with Putin in Helsinki later today amidst demands for the meeting to be scrapped. The president is ignoring these demands and is likely to meet with Putin – even apparently labelling the EU as a greater foe than Russia.
If he does proceed with the summit, the president should demand that Putin extradite these hackers. Here’s why.
What do the latest indictments allege?
The Department of Justice indicted 12 Russians for crimes including unauthorised access, computer fraud, money laundering (including via bitcoin), and conspiracy. The object of the conspiracy was ‘to hack into protected computers’ connected ‘with the administration of the 2016 U.S. elections in order to access those computers and steal’ information. The theft of information included 500,000 voters’ names and driver’s license numbers.
The Russians are alleged to have used techniques such as spear-phishing to steal victims’ passwords and access IT equipment starting around March 2016. They targeted over 300 persons connected with the Hilary Clinton Campaign, DCCC, and DNC. For instance, they used spear-phishing to target Hilary’s campaign chairman and stole over 50,000 emails from the chairman’s email account. They also targeted others with emails ‘spoofed to appear to be from Google.’
It is alleged that in April 2016, they conducted technical searches of DNC equipment and then ‘hacked into the DCCC computer network … [and] installed and managed different types of malware to explore the DCCC network and steal data.’ Between April-June 2016, they installed their ‘X-Agent malware on at least ten DCCC computers, which allowed them to monitor individual employees’ computer activity, steal passwords, and maintain access to the DCCC network.’ Information was then transmitted to a GRU server in Arizona where they used the ‘X-Agent’s keylog and screenshot functions in the course of monitoring and surveilling activity on the DCCC computers.’ The Russians were able to use these techniques to know every keystroke of DNC employees and the content on their computer screens. They then hacked into DNC servers using stolen credentials and by June 2016, obtained ‘access to approximately thirty-three DNC computers.’
The X-Agent malware was also installed on these computers and captured valuable information including the DCCC’s online banking details, files on “Benghazi Investigations,” opposition research, and fieldwork plans.
Although the DNC learned about the intrusion in May 2016, the Russians managed to stay in the system until October 2016.
In order to release the stolen information, the Russians created an anonymous website called ‘Dcleaks,’ and claimed it was established by a group called “American hacktivists.” They funded the purchase through an online cryptocurrency service. Dcleaks.com had over 1 million views before it was shut down in March 2017. They also created fake Twitter, Facebook, and other online personas including the now infamous ‘Guccifer 2.0.’
Guccifer 2.0 disseminated information to a candidate for election to Congress; about 2.5 gigabytes ‘to a then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news;’ and data to a reporter about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Their activities were not confined to the US and Russia: the conspirators used bitcoin to lease a server in Malaysia, and then hosted the Dcleaks site there.
The indictment alleges that much of the information was transferred to “Organization 1.” This is apparently Wikileaks. One of the interesting tidbits is an email from Organization 1 saying, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary . . . so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” This raises questions about the actual impact of the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
On July 22, 2016, Wikileaks published over 20,000 emails and other documents about three days before the start of the DNC – clearly intended to maximise their impact. Over 50,000 other documents were released between October and November, including stolen emails from the campaign chairman.
The GRU is alleged to even have mined bitcoin to pay for its illegal activity. They also used ‘one or more third-party exchangers who facilitated layered transactions through digital currency exchange platforms …[to get] heightened anonymity.’
Who are the Russians indicted?
The Russian dozen are military officials of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (“GRU”). The GRU allegedly had multiple units, including Units 26165 and 74455, that engaged in cyber operations designed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Unit 26165 had ‘primary responsibility for hacking the DCCC and DNC, as well as the email accounts of individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign.’ The actions of these officers are exemplified by defendant 2, Antonov, who headed a department ‘dedicated to targeting military, political, governmental, and non-governmental organizations with spearphishing emails and other computer intrusion activity.’ Another defendant, Sergey Morgachev, was a Lieutenant Colonel who was part of Unit 26165, and he headed a department ‘dedicated to developing and managing malware, including a hacking tool used by the GRU known as “X-Agent.”’ The others played assisting roles in the conspiracy.
What should Trump do?
Crucially, no US citizen has been indicted. The Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein stated that there is no evidence that any Americans knowingly participated in illegal activities identified in this indictment. Rosenstein also stated that there is no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign in the crimes alleged here.
So, does this exonerate Trump? Thus far, there is no evidence of any collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians. At this point, it is unclear whether Mueller will indict anyone connected with the president for collusion.
Trump has already blamed President Obama for these indictments, tweeting:
"The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration. Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?"
Although, the hacking was under Obama’s watch, Trump should demand action from Putin because the election interference is a violation of US sovereignty. Although it may not rise to the status of an armed attack, this cyber-attack is a severe violation, and may generate a right to a counter-attack in self-defence.
There is now virtually no doubt that Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, and such malign activity cannot be ignored by the person responsible for faithfully executing the laws of the US.
Given that those indicted are currently beyond the reach of US law enforcement, Trump could demand that Putin turn them over. This is necessary because Russia and the US do not have an extradition treaty.
To be sure, Putin is unlikely to turn over 12 of his military officials. Nevertheless, Trump must make the demand as POTUS – ignoring the advice of people such as John Bolton. Next, he must put those names on sanctions lists and demand that US allies arrest and extradite them if they enter their territory. He could also ask allies to seize their assets. These measures are necessary for Trump’s own credibility.
To conclude, the summit has the potential to thaw US-Russia relations and deliver beneficial outcomes in Syria, Yemen, etc., where the two countries are pursuing adverse actions. None of this will matter unless Trump enforces US law first as the Chief Magistrate under the US Constitution. He has to demand that respect from Putin.