The same hackers believed to have been behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta targeted employees at the conservative Heritage Foundation during the run-up to the 2016 election, The Daily Caller has learned.
The influential nonprofit worked closely with the Trump transition team both before and after the election, and was dubbed “Donald Trump’s think tank” by CNN. The Trump campaign relied on Heritage’s research for policy ideas, a fact that the nonprofit proudly promoted on its website.
Heritage alerted employees to the phishing attempts in an email just two weeks before the election, adding that the FBI had contacted Heritage about the phishing attempts.
“The same threat groups that have been releasing information about the DNC, Hillary Clinton, and recently John Podesta have been targeting specific people within Heritage via phishing campaigns,” the email, dated Oct. 24, 2016, said. “Our security monitoring tools and services show no signs of an active compromise. However, we were contacted by the FBI agent-in-charge regarding emails sent to Heritage staff in August and September.”
TheDC has obtained a copy of that email, and former Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint confirmed the phishing attempts to TheDC on Tuesday. DeMint added that the hacking attempts (to his knowledge) were largely unsuccessful. DeMint said that the hackers targeted employees who were “outside” of Heritage’s firewall. DeMint added that they never had any indication that Russian hackers ever infiltrated Heritage’s internal computer systems.
“The private sector like us have developed a lot better security systems than the government has and that was one of the things that frustrated me as one of the rankings members on [the Senate Commerce Committee], we were like 10 years behind in the government,” said DeMint, a former Republican senator.
“The private sector has gotten a lot better, but I still think that the Defense Department, the government and apparently the states with their voting booths are not very well protected.”
A Heritage spokesperson declined to get into specific details in a statement emailed to TheDC, but emphasized that the nonprofit is not aware of any successful infiltrations.
“Like other high-profile policy organizations, Heritage is the target of phishing attacks on a regular basis, some from sophisticated actors. We have extensive security measures in place and have not identified any unauthorized access of our systems. When appropriate, we share relevant information with law enforcement and the information security community,” the statement said.
U.S. intelligence services have identified Russian hackers as the ones who hacked Podesta and the DNC.
Podesta’s emails were infiltrated after he fell for a phishing scam that asked him for his email log-in information. The email appeared to fool one of the Clinton campaign’s computer technicians, who emailed Podesta saying the password request was “legitimate.” That staffer later blamed that bad advice on a typo and said he meant to say the email was “illegitimate.”
Heritage warned its employees that “Phishing attacks are using increasingly sophisticated methods to convince you to share your username and password information” and instructed them to never give away their log-in information if prompted.
This isn’t the first time that Heritage, which is considered to be one of the most influential think tanks in D.C., has been targeted by hackers.
Heritage was successfully breached in 2015 by hackers who stole emails and sensitive donor information. In October 2012, the organization claimed to have recently warded off hacking attempts by Chinese hackers.
DeMint, who took over Heritage in December 2012 before being ousted earlier this year, told TheDC that Chinese hackers had successfully infiltrated Heritage in the past, although he did not specify when those infiltrations took place.
“We have had a situation where we knew the Chinese were in our system, they had gotten past the first door and they were watching some of the papers we were doing,” he said. “We were fine with that, we would give them hard copies of everything they were looking at. We knew they were there and we didn’t try to do anything because we didn’t want them to change their strategy.”
That the DNC hackers apparently targeted the Heritage Foundation in August and September of 2016 is consistent with the intelligence community’s findings that the hackers’ original goal was to disrupt and undermine American civic institutions, before shifting their focus to helping Trump. Russia was believed to have later shifted tactics to undermining American electoral institutions once they believed Trump no longer had a chance at winning.
Then-FBI Director James Comey testified in January that Russian hackers also targeted the Republican National Committee, although he said they only gained “limited” access to old computer systems that were “no longer in use.”
Amanda Tidwell contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to include Heritage’s statement.