BY KATIE BO WILLIAMS, JOE UCHILL AND MORGAN CHALFANT – 03/30/17 09:41 AM EDT
Senate Intel Committee kicks off rare open hearing on alleged Russia interference
Video at link.
The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday is holding its first open hearing in its investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.
Thursday’s two-part panel — at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. — will first question academics on Russian influence operations, then turn to a cybersecurity company that confirmed the original hack of the Democratic National Committee last summer.
Panel wraps up
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) adjourned the hearing so senators could participate in votes.
Guccifer 2.0 is Russian, professor says
Asked point blank by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) whether or not Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian operative or operatives, Thomas Rid, professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, said he was “confident” Guccifer 2.0 was Russian.
Guccifer 2.0 leaked documents to several sites, including The Hill, and repeatedly claimed that “he” had leaked emails to Wikileaks.
Rid noted that Guccifer 2.0 also provided a password unknown to the public to the Russian-linked, Russian-apologist leaks site DCLeaks to The Smoking Gun.
Rid: ‘It doesn’t matter’ if WikiLeaks knew what it was doing
Twice throughout the hearing, Thomas Rid addressed whether WikiLeaks was an unwitting asset of the Russian government or a knowing conspirator.
“It doesn’t matter,” Rid said, describing WikiLeaks as an effective asset either way.
Mandia: Russia usually leaks under 1 percent of documents
Though he could not say anything specifically about the Democratic National Committee hacks, in Kevin Mandia’s experience, Russian attacks of this nature release “under 1 percent” of the total documents they might have harvested from an attack.
Rid: Mainstream news is probably safest
Thomas Rid, professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, noted that a good way to tell if a news article is fake is to evaluate the trustworthiness of the source. Mainstream news may be wrong, but it isn’t propaganda, he noted.
“If it’s in The New York Times, it is not fake news,” he said.
King: We need a cyber doctrine
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) reiterated a complaint often made by Republicans, especially Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“We need a cyber doctrine and our enemy needs to know what it is,” he said, referring to a feeling that American response to cyber threats was haphazard under the Obama administration.
Former National Security Agency head Keith Alexander added the U.S. should also consider formalizing rules of engagement.
What does Twitter know?
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked Thomas Rid, professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, how the Senate could work with social media networks to aid the fight against weaponized fake news.
“You could write a letter to Twitter to provide heuristics,” the professor responded, referring to data on bot usage. Rid noted one can only guess at the depth of the problem without better information.
Earlier on the exchange, Heinrich stressed the importance of two-factor identification in cybersecurity. Two-factor identification adds a second check besides a password to make sure a user is actually who they say they are.
“The last month of the campaign would have looked different if John Podesta had two-factor authentication,” Rid said.
Cornyn asks about a controversial component of surveillance law
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked former-NSA director Keith Alexander about Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act section 702, the section that allows warrantless surveillance of foreign citizens off American soil. Section 702 is controversial, because it allows of inadvertent surveillance of American citizens who contact those foreign citizens and slip through measures to filter out U.S. persons.
“I think that’s the most effective program we have,” said Alexander, pointing to Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested by the FBI on his way to take part in a New York subway attack.
Wyden: Mobile hacking is also a problem
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) brings up his recent work with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) to push for the FCC to focus on a phone protocol vulnerable to attack. Signaling Signal 7 (SS7) is used to allow different cell networks to communicate with each other, allowing cell phones to roam between networks and other tasks.
In 2014, a German researcher noticed that if a hacker could break into a system with access to SS7, SS7 would allow that intruder to turn phones into surveillance devices, place phone calls on another account and other attacks. Lieu famously appeared on a “60 Minutes” segment where a hacker took over his phone in a controlled environment (the hacker was given access to SS7 by a phone company). Stealing that access is a non-trivial task.
Thomas Rid, noting SS7 is not his primary research focus, advises that worried people can mitigate some of the problem by using encrypted chat apps.
Rubio: Members of my campaign have been, are still being targeted by Russians
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says members of his former presidential campaign staff have been targeted for breaches by unknown Russian internet addresses as consistently and as recently as the past day.
It is worth noting that not all hackers in Russia represent the government. There is a thriving criminal hacking community in Russia as well. Another caveat: Rubio’s claim that staffers were targeted might range from simple scans of computer networks – usually seen as the background noise of the internet and often mistaken for attacks – to full blown, advanced threats.
Warner asks the question
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) asks the critical question. “Based upon your expertise and knowledge, do any of you have doubts it was Russia?”
All three say the attacks were likely Russian. Kevin Mandia notes that FireEye has been observing Russian hacking campaigns for a decade.
“It absolutely stretches credulity to say they were not involved,” he said.
‘The more polarized the country, the more vulnerable it is to cracks’
Thomas Rid notes that the United States was rife for an information warfare campaign, due to its polarization.
Burr welcomes hearing back to session
“The level of cyber expertise in front of us is truly remarkable,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) of the afternoon panel.
The second set of witnesses includes Kevin Mandia, chief executive of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, former General Keith Alexander, ex-director of the NSA, and Thomas Rid, professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Mandia opened by talking about the evolving tactics of Russia. Having tracked cyber threats since his time in the military, he described his shock in 2014 when Russia ceased trying to evade companies like FireEye. Until then, if they saw a firm tasked to kick hackers out of a network, they would flee the network to protect their methods. Started in 2014, they became more brazen and kept working inside a network until someone kicked them out.
FireEye played a unique role in the DNC investigations. While rival firm Crowdstrike did the initial attribution, Crowdstrike took the unprecedented step of having a second firm, Fidelis, confirm its results. FireEye – Crowdstrike’s cheif rival – triple checked the work. All three came to the same conclusion, that Russia was behind the attacks.
Russians hit a ‘goldmine’ with DNC hack: expert
Russian hackers “hit a goldmine” when they were able to exfiltrate the Democratic National Committee emails, Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told lawmakers.
Asked by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) whether the Russians had simply gotten lucky with an “average, ordinary Russian phishing expedition,” Watts said Russian intelligence operatives cast a wide net — and “whatever the best nuggets that come out of that is what they run with.”
With the DNC cache, he said, “they hit a whale.”
Lawmakers cautioned about deeming Russian hacks ‘act of war’
A former intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council cautioned lawmakers about using the phrase “act of war” to describe Russia’s interference in the presidential election.
“I think we should be careful of using terms of an ‘act of war,’” said Eugene Rumer, now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He answer came in response to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who asked the witness panel if Russia’s hacking and influence campaign was an act of war.
“It’s not kinetic, but its definitely part of the Cold War system we knew,” replied Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
Some Democrats have described Russia’s actions as warfare, and former Vice President Dick Cheney said this week that the election hacking campaign would be considered an act of war “in some quarters.”
The U.S. government does not currently have a formal definition of what actions in cyberspace would warrant a military response.
Expert says Russian bots target Trump when he’s online
A cyber expert and former FBI special agent told lawmakers that Russian Twitter bots tweet at President Trump when they know he is online in an effort to push conspiracy theories.
Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, made the comments in response to Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Later, Watts said that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security should set up a website to immediately refute fake news and conspiracy theories when they appear online.
“If it goes on too long, it gets into mainstream media,” Watts said.
The expert also encouraged the FBI to, in the event of a cyberattack, immediately look at what was stolen and figure out how hackers were planning to “weaponize” the data.
Watts said that Russia’s election interference is proof that the United States is dealing with a nation “acting it its own war-like manner,” in response to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
“My biggest concern right now is I don’t know what America’s stance is on Russia,” he added.
Dem senator urges panel to ‘follow the money’
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) emphasized the need to “follow the money” and assess whether President Trump or his associates have financial ties to Russia.
Wyden said that information on Trump’s finances, including details from his tax returns, which he has not released, “may lead to Russia.”
“The committee needs to follow the money wherever it leads,” said Wyden, who is also the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Wyden on Wednesday wrote to the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee urging them to investigate any ties between Trump and Russia as part of its ongoing probe.
The senator went on to question the expert witnesses on the history of corruption in Russia.
Experts back conclusions of intelligence community
Experts testifying before the Senate panel signaled their agreement with the intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia aimed to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process and damage Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and had established a “clear preference” for Republican Donald Trump.
The experts were responding to questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who described these as the “key judgement” of the intelligence community’s report released in January.
Roy Godson, a professor of government emeritus at Georgetown University and a former consultant to the National Security Council, said that Russia likely laid the groundwork for the influence campaign before 2016.
“One needs to have an infrastructure abroad to be able to do this,” Godson said. “It would be extraordinary if they hadn’t prepared a lot of the ground to do this.”
Both Eugene Rumer, a former intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, signaled agreement with the intelligence community’s conclusions.
Watts said that he has seen evidence that the Russian government likely had a “one year buildup” to the presidential election, laying the groundwork for the influence campaign in August 2015.
They all agreed that Russian influence operations are not new. Watts indicated that the 2016 campaign surrounding a British referendum to leave the European Union may have been targeted by Russia.
“The have a history of doing this well before this and they find it a successful use of their resources,” Godson added.
Intel panel leaders pledge nonpartisan review
Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning underscored their commitment to leading a bipartisan probe into Russian election interference, striking a similar tone of their press conference a day prior.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) did not mention President Trump during his opening remarks and underscored that “we are all targets.”
“The takeaway from today’s hearing [is] we are all targets of a capable and sophisticated adversary,” Burr said, noting that a whole-of-government approach is needed to deal with such actions by Moscow.
Burr commended Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) for his work on the investigation.
“If we politicize this process, our efforts will likely fail,” Burr said.
Warner likewise stressed the committee’s bipartisan cooperation and noted that future Russian campaigns could target Republicans rather than Democrats.
“While it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another,” Warner said. He also said that the committee’s investigation is not about “whether or not you have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to your name” or about “relitigating” the presidential election.
Warner did, however, underscore the need to unearth any contacts between Moscow and associates of Trump, making reference to former adviser Roger Stone, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Warner also knocked Trump for making “wild and uncorroborated” claims about former President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower, saying that it gives him “grave concern.”
Burr said that the American public should expect more open hearings on Russia’s election meddling, though he noted that most of the panel’s work will take place behind closed doors in a classified setting.
Panel kicks off amidst show of bipartisanship
Committee leaders have sought to distance themselves from the partisan furor in the House Intelligence Committee’s concurrent investigation, publicly vowing cooperation and bipartisanship.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) gave a joint press conference to that effect Thursday, and rank-and-file members made the rounds on the morning shows Thursday to tout the same message: We’ve got this.