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Inside Russian hacking of Democrats’ opposition research on Trump

For nearly a year, Russian hackers have been penetrating Democratic National Committee computers and stealing, among other things, research compiled on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Gwen Ifill talks to Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike and Sasha Issenberg of Bloomberg Politics for more on the stunning sophistication of these breaches and the reasons behind them.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first: The Democratic National Committee said today Russian government hackers have penetrated its computer network. Breaches by two separate groups allowed hackers to access e-mails, internal chats, and opposition research Democrats have compiled on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

    Hackers may have had access for a year. The Washington Post reported that computer networks for Hillary Clinton and Trump were also targeted.

  • We get some insight on how this happened and why from Dmitri Alperovitch. He is the co- founder of CrowdStrike, the intelligence company that investigated the breach for the DNC. And Sasha Issenberg, a contributor for Bloomberg Politics and author of the book “The Victory Lab:

    The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”

    Dmitri Alperovitch, how significant an intrusion was this into the Democratic Party’s file?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, Crowdstrike:

    This was a pretty scary intrusion.

    And, in fact, there were two intrusions in place here. Two separate Russian government-affiliated actors, we believe, that are part of the intelligence services of Russia infiltrated the network first in the summer of last year and were able to get access of the communications service at the DNC, essentially giving them the ability to monitor the e-mail traffic that was going through their servers, and a completely separate actor that penetrated that network in April of this year and went straight for the research department of the Democratic National Committee, specifically looking for the opposition files on the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How did the DNC find out? How were they alerted to this intrusion, and how were you?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Well, in early May, they discovered that there was something off on the network that was highly suspicious. And they called us in.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Their internal I.T. people?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Their internal I.T. people determined that something may be off. They didn’t yet know if it was a breach. They asked us to come in and evaluate.

    And, within 24 hours, we were able to ascertain with our software deployed on all their machines there was in fact two breaches from two separate Russian intelligence services that were inside that network.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Sasha Issenberg, you wrote a book about how dependent campaigns have become on data and the things needed to support that amount of data, specifically about the 2008 Obama campaign. So, in this case, what kinds of things exist in this — in these records?

  • SASHA ISSENBERG, Contributor, Bloomberg Politics:

    Yes, you know, parties at this point are largely hubs of information.

    They gather intelligence on the electorate, on — data on individual voters that they use the make tactical decisions, and then they’re kind of a permanent research operation, especially at times like this, where there are open primaries within a party, and you don’t know who the nominee is going to be.

    And the DNC basically says to the Clinton campaign or Sanders or O’Malley campaigns, we will spend the year building resources for you that we can hand to you when you’re the nominee. In this case, a dossier on Donald Trump, probably the DNC has more information in its files on its servers than any other organization that has been researching Donald Trump for an hour — for a year — pardon me — and not just Trump, but his circle, his advisers, his staffers.

    And so a foreign intelligence organization that wants to understand who those people are, the relationships they have, potential points of leverage or influence would probably find that the DNC has more of it sitting around than anyone else.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, Sasha, it should be said that Clinton’s campaign says that they were not compromised, which doesn’t mean that information that they, as you point out, have on file with the DNC wasn’t compromised, but we’re not talking about financial or donor records here, are we?

  • SASHA ISSENBERG:

    From what we quarter from the reports — and, as Dmitri says, it seems like there was a goal to go to the opposition research department.

    Somebody like Hillary Clinton, who has been in public life for a while, you have to imagine that foreign intelligence gathering operations have tried to gather information on her, so that they can try to game out how she thinks and how she approaches things and who her contacts are.

    Donald Trump is sort of new to the world as a political figure. And so for foreign governments that want to assess risk, geopolitical decision-making or potentially understand how to get at him, you imagine that the DNC just has that information available. A lot of this is stuff that is in the public domain, stuff from court filings from…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But it’s all in one place.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • SASHA ISSENBERG:

    It’s all in one place and they have done a lot of the legwork for you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Alperovitch, why do we think Russia is behind this?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Well, we actually believe that it’s not just Russia, but two specific intelligence agencies within Russia.

    One is the military intelligence agency called the GRU, and the other possibly the FSB, which is the successor to the Soviet KGB. It’s actually interesting, because we saw no collaboration whatsoever between those two threat actors.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One hand didn’t know what the other was doing?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Not only did they not know what they were doing. They were actually doing some of the same things repeatedly, not knowing that someone already had that information that they were after.

    And this is actually not unusual for Russia. They have a very aggressive competition between their intelligence agencies. They’re always trying to one-up one another, to look better in front of Putin, to get more budget, more power.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But how — what use is this kind of information, especially if a lot of it is in the public record anyhow? What use is it to foreign governments like Russia?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Well, one, they really want to understand what is Donald Trump thinking. No one knows really. He doesn’t have a long history in politics. He said some complimentary things of Putin. Is that something that he’s going to continue if he’s president following that policy?

    But the other thing is that is interesting is they probably didn’t know what they would find. They didn’t know that all this information was public. In the Russian — in Russia, you have political parties engaged in all kinds of nefarious activity. And they may just assume that in America it works the exact same way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And what do you do to stop it from happening again?

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Well, this weekend, we actually did a complete remediation of that network. We cleaned it up. We kicked out both adversaries simultaneously.

    So as of this week, that network is now clean, and DNC actually asked us to monitor it with our software going forward, because we are pretty certain that the Russians are going to try to regain access to that network. Their interest in the political system of the United States certainly is not going to go away.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, Sasha, what do campaigns do as they become more and more dependent on this kind of electronic web of information to protect themselves?

  • SASHA ISSENBERG:

    Well, you know, we saw a different type of data breach at the DNC six months ago, when a Bernie Sanders staffer was found to have been able to access information that the Clinton campaign had developed on individual voters.

    You know, that type of tactical information, you imagine, is not of much use to foreign governments. And I suspect that foreign governments will find that a lot of the information that they would get through an opposition research department isn’t particularly strategically valuable.

    And the goal of opposition research ultimately is to get this stuff into the public eye. And so if the DNC thought that it was revealing about Donald Trump, they would probably be similarly angling to get it out into the public. This is not information that’s designed to be kept under wraps for too long if it’s tasty.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And the RNC should be worried as well, I imagine.

    Sasha — Sasha Issenberg of Bloomberg Politics and author of “The Victory Lab,” and Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, thank you both very much.

  • DMITRI ALPEROVITCH:

    Thank you.

  • SASHA ISSENBERG:

    Thanks, Gwen.

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