There were several critical mistakes that led to the massive hacking of both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and chief Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta’s emails, and the blame rests squarely with American leadership at the highest levels, according to reports.
Russia’s infiltration of the communication systems of the DNC and Podesta was possible because of “The Perfect Weapon,” according to an expansive Tuesday article at The New York Times.
The weapon was only so perfect, it turns out, as the multiple security protocol lapses of the political and law enforcement institutions show.
The FBI, for example, did not bother to warn the DNC that it knew for months it was a target of a Russian cyber attack. FBI agents met with DNC officials several times to discuss the committee’s network security, but failed to mention it was investigating potential Russian espionage into the DNC’s systems, according to Reuters.
When Special Agent Adrian Hawkins of the FBI discovered vulnerabilities in the DNC’s system, he was reportedly transferred to DNC’s help desk, specifically tech-support contractor Yared Tamene. After the initial communication, Hawkins tried to call back a number of times, but Tamene did not pick up due to fears that Hawkins was not a legitimate law enforcement agent.
“I had no way of differentiating the call I just received from a prank call,” Tamene wrote in an internal memo, obtained by The Times.
Not only did Hawkins not go directly to the DNC headquarters — which is only around a mile away from FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building — after he couldn’t completely relay the warning, but the DNC (perhaps automatically) directed Hawkins to the lowest level of assistance.
While there were desires to bolster protections, the DNC complained they didn’t have sufficient funds to hire cybersecurity support or install advanced software to protect its servers. The organization said its nonprofit status made it dependent on donations and that it didn’t have the budget of an equally-sized corporation.
“There was never enough money to do everything we needed to do,” Andrew Brown, the technology director at the DNC, told The Times.
The DNC raised a total of $369,374,155 during the 2016 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.
So the DNC’s poor operational structure played a huge part in critical information about a breach on its system failing to be addressed and so did its inability to take cybersecurity seriously.
Somewhat ironically, WikiLeaks released emails from Podesta’s account that show there was only urgency once a cyber intrusion already occurred.
“This is a legitimate email. John needs to change his password immediately, and ensure that two-factor authentications is turned on his account,” says an email with the subject line, “Re: Someone has your password,” from Charles Delavan, a Clinton campaign aide. (RELATED: Advanced Cybersecurity: The Simple Password May Soon Be Obsolete)
The Podesta emails caused the Democratic member of Congress and then-Chairwoman of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and other top party aides, to resign in disgrace.
Then there’s the White House, which is in some degree tasked, among another litany of other duties, with protecting democratic institutions from foreign espionage.
President Barack Obama chose not to retaliate against Russia for hacking America’s critical infrastructure for fear of disrupting negotiations with Russia over the Syrian civil war.
“The Administration arguably should have come out earlier and harder in publicly attributing the attack as Russian,” Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at New America, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The early announcements came via the victim and the cybersecurity firm investigating the breach. It wasn’t until October that the US government went public. This was too close to the election itself. The irony is that they kept quiet, fearing looking like they were being partisan, but the result of the silence was to have that effect.”
Ryan Hagemann, technology and civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, doesn’t believe all of the onus should be on Obama.
“The responsibility for protecting American political institutions from espionage and hacking primarily falls to the NSA, CIA, and other agencies with cyber expertise,” Hagemann said, adding that these agencies are supposed to report to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which reports to the president.
“While the President is indeed the commander-in-chief, his ability to make informed decisions relies on the expertise of specialists and practitioners who work below him,” Hagemann continued.
The Times likened the whole DNC hack to the Watergate scandal, drawing comparisons in the respective burglaries of information — one direct and remote. Perhaps a more appropriate historical analogy would be the intelligence sharing (or lack thereof) prior to the September 11th attacks, where different intelligence, law enforcement agencies and institutions failed to collaborate properly and take signals and warnings with the utmost seriousness.
Delavan told The Times that a typo in the email he sent urging Clinton’s campaign staff to change their passwords played a huge part in private conversations becoming publicized.
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