Last summer, cyber investigators plowing through the thousands of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee uncovered a clue.
A user named “Феликс Эдмундович” modified one of the documents using settings in the Russian language. Translated, his name was Felix Edmundovich, a pseudonym referring to Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the chief of the Soviet Union’s first secret-police organization, the Cheka.
It was one more link in the chain of evidence pointing to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the man ultimately behind the operation.
During the Cold War, when Soviet intelligence was headquartered in Dzerzhinsky Square in Moscow, Putin was a KGB officer assigned to the First Chief Directorate. Its responsibilities included “active measures,” a form of political warfare that included media manipulation, propaganda and disinformation. Soviet active measures, retired KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin told Army historian Thomas Boghart, aimed to discredit the United States and “conquer world public opinion.”
As the Cold War has turned into the code war, Putin recently unveiled his new, greatly enlarged spy organization: the Ministry of State Security, taking the name from Joseph Stalin’s secret service. Putin also resurrected, according to James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, some of the KGB’s old active- measures tactics.
On October 7, Clapper issued a statement: “The U.S. Intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Notably, however, the FBI declined to join the chorus, according to reports by the New York Times and CNBC.
A week later, Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC’s Meet the Press that "we're sending a message" to Putin and "it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact." When asked if the American public would know a message was sent, Biden replied, "Hope not."
Meanwhile, the CIA was asked, according to an NBC report on October 14, “to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging ‘clandestine’ cyber operation designed to harass and ‘embarrass’ the Kremlin leadership.”
But as both sides begin arming their cyberweapons, it is critical for the public to be confident that the evidence is really there, and to understand the potential consequences of a tit-for-tat cyberwar escalating into a real war. This is a prospect that has long worried Richard Clarke, the former White House cyber czar under President George W. Bush. “It’s highly likely that any war that began as a cyberwar,” Clarke told me last year, “would ultimately end up being a conventional war, where the United States was engaged with bombers and missiles.”
The problem with attempting to draw a straight line from the Kremlin to the Clinton campaign is the number of variables that get in the way. For one, there is little doubt about Russian cyber fingerprints in various U.S. campaign activities. Moscow, like Washington, has long spied on such matters. The United States, for example, inserted malware in the recent Mexican election campaign. The question isn’t whether Russia spied on the U.S. presidential election, it’s whether it released the election emails.
Then there’s the role of Guccifer 2.0, the person or persons supplying WikiLeaks and other organizations with many of the pilfered emails. Is this a Russian agent? A free agent? A cybercriminal? A combination, or some other entity? No one knows.
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