Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the
Democratic National Committee and gained access to the entire
database of opposition research on GOP presidential candidate
Donald Trump, according to
committee officials and security experts
who responded to the breach.
The intruders so thoroughly compromised the DNC’s system that
they also were able to read all email and chat traffic, said DNC
officials and the security experts.
The intrusion into the DNC was one of several targeting American
political organizations. The networks of presidential candidates
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were also targeted by Russian
spies, as were the computers of some GOP political action
committees, U.S. officials said. But details on those cases were
A Russian Embassy spokesman said he had no knowledge of such
Some of the hackers had access to the DNC network for about a
year, but all were expelled over the past weekend in a major
computer cleanup campaign, the committee officials and experts
The DNC said that no financial, donor or personal information
appears to have been accessed or taken, suggesting that the breach
was traditional espionage, not the work of criminal hackers.
The intrusions are an example of Russia’s interest in the U.S.
political system and its desire to understand the policies, strengths
and weaknesses of a potential future president — much as
American spies gather similar information on foreign candidates and
The depth of the penetration reflects the skill and determination of
the United States’ top cyber adversary as Russia goes after
strategic targets, from the White House and State Department to
political campaign organizations.
“It’s the job of every foreign intelligence service to collect
intelligence against their adversaries,” said Shawn Henry, president
of CrowdStrike, the cyber firm called in to handle the DNC breach
and a former head of the FBI’s cyber division. He noted that it
is extremely difficult for a civilian organization to protect itself
from a skilled and determined state such as Russia.
Trump calls Putin ‘strong,’ but insists
‘strong doesn’t mean good’
Donald Trump has repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a “strong”
leader, but toes a fine line on praising the Russian president.
(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
“We’re perceived as an adversary of Russia,” he said. “Their job
when they wake up every day is to gather intelligence against the
policies, practices and strategies of the U.S. government. There are
a variety of ways. [Hacking] is one of the more valuable because
it gives you a treasure trove of information.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken favorably about
Trump, who has called for better relations with Russia and
expressed skepticism about NATO. But unlike Clinton, whom the
Russians probably have long had in their spy sights, Trump has
not been a politician for very long, so foreign agencies are playing
catch-up, analysts say.
“The purpose of such intelligence gathering is to understand the
target’s proclivities,” said Robert Deitz, former senior councillor to
the CIA director and a former general counsel at the National
Security Agency. “Trump’s foreign investments, for example, would
be relevant to understanding how he would deal with countries
where he has those investments” should he be elected, Deitz said.
“They may provide tips for understanding his style of negotiating.
In short, this sort of intelligence could be used by Russia, for
example, to indicate where it can get away with foreign
Other analysts noted that any dirt dug up in opposition research is
likely to be made public anyway. Nonetheless, DNC leadership
acted quickly after the intrusion’s discovery to contain the damage.
“The security of our system is critical to our operation and to the
confidence of the campaigns and state parties we work with,” said
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman.
“When we discovered the intrusion, we treated this like the serious
incident it is and reached out to CrowdStrike immediately. Our
team moved as quickly as possible to kick out the intruders and
secure our network.”
A Clinton campaign official said, “We have no evidence that our
information systems have been compromised.” A spokeswoman for
the Trump campaign referred questions to the Secret Service.
DNC leaders were tipped to the hack in late April. Chief executive
officer Amy Dacey got a call from her operations chief saying
that their information technology team had noticed some unusual
“It’s never a call any executive wants to get, but the IT team
knew something was awry,” Dacey said. And they knew it was
serious enough that they wanted experts to investigate.
That evening, she spoke with Michael Sussmann, a DNC lawyer
who is a partner with Perkins Coie in Washington. Soon after,
Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor who handled computer crime
cases, called Henry, whom he has known for many years.
Within 24 hours, CrowdStrike had installed software on the
DNC’s computers so that it could analyze data that could indicate
who had gained access, when and how.
The firm identified two separate hacker groups, both working for
the Russian government, that had infiltrated the network, said
Dmitri Alperovitch, CrowdStrike co-founder and chief technology
officer. The firm had analyzed other breaches by both groups over
the last two years.
group, which CrowdStrike had dubbed Cozy Bear, had gained
access last summer and was monitoring the DNC’s email and chat
communications, Alperovitch said.
The other, which the firm had named Fancy Bear, broke into the
network in late April and targeted the opposition research files. It
was this breach that set off the alarm. The hackers stole two
files, Henry said. And they had access to the computers of the
entire research staff — an average of about several dozen on any
The computers contained research going back years on Trump. “It’s
a huge job” to dig into the dealings of somebody who has never
run for office before, Dacey said.
CrowdStrike is not sure how the hackers got in. The firm
suspects they may have targeted DNC employees with
“spearphishing” emails. These are communications that appear
legitimate — often made to look like they came from a colleague
or someone trusted — but that contain links or attachments that
when clicked on deploy malicious software that enables a hacker to
gain access to a computer. “But we don’t have hard evidence,”
The two groups did not appear to be working together, Alperovitch
said. Fancy Bear is believed to work for the GRU, or Russia’s
military intelligence service, he said. CrowdStrike is less sure of
whom Cozy Bear works for but thinks it might be the Federal
Security Service or FSB, the country’s powerful security agency,
which was once headed by Putin.
Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the