The “Russian Hacking” Story Changes Again

Today at 9:30 am, senior U.S. intelligence officials face questions at a Senate hearing that will be dominated by the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the presidential election to help Donald Trump win. Participating will be James R. Clapper, Jr., Director Of National Intelligence. Marcel J. Lettre II, Under Secretary Of Defense For Intelligence and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, USN, Commander, United States Cyber Command. 

The Armed Services Committee’s cyber threats hearing on Thursday comes a day before the president-elect is to be briefed by the CIA and FBI directors — along with the director of national intelligence — on the investigation into Russia’s alleged hacking efforts. Trump has been deeply critical of their findings, even appearing to back controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s contention that Russia did not provide him with hacked Democratic emails.

The committee’s session is the first in a series aimed at investigating purported Russian cyber-attacks against U.S. interests and developing defenses sturdy enough to blunt future intrusions. “We will obviously be talking about the hacking, but the main thing is the whole issue of cybersecurity,” the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said ahead of the hearing. “Right now we have no policy, no strategy to counter cyberattacks.”

More importantly, however, the hearing comes hours after Reuters reported overnight that U.S. intelligence agencies obtained what they considered to be conclusive evidence after the November election that Russia provided hacked material from the Democratic National Committee to WikiLeaks. However, in the latest change of the narrative, this time the allegation is that Russia provided the hacked data through a third party, three U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Wikieaks was quick to highlight that according to the report, US officials admitted that the Wikileaks “source” was not Russia, and that the goal posts now shifted to the source’s source:

In keeping with the theme of providing no proof to the general public, the officials declined to describe the intelligence obtained about the involvement of a third-party in passing on leaked material to WikiLeaks, saying they did not want to reveal how the U.S. government had obtained the information. So just trust them, please.

The shift in the narrative is curious because as a reminder, officials had concluded “months earlier” that Russian intelligence agencies had directed the hacking, but had been less certain that they could prove Russia also had controlled the release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. It now appears that along with lack of evidence, the attention has shifted to an “intermediary” as being the responsible party .

In an interview with Fox News, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he did not receive emails stolen from the DNC and top Hillary Clinton aide John Podesta from “a state party.” Assange did not rule out the possibility that he got the material from a third party.  

Trump on Wednesday sided with Assange and again questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia tried to help his candidacy and hurt Clinton’s.

Concern by U.S. officials over the hacking first spiked in August, when intelligence agencies concluded that Russian intelligence, with the direction of President Vladimir Putin, had been trying to disrupt and discredit the presidential and congressional elections. Obama in August rejected recommendations from some of his advisors to disclose the Russian link and take some limited covert action as “a shot across Putin’s bow to knock it off,” one official with knowledge of the matter said. Instead, Obama warned Putin privately, arguing that a similar private message to Chinese President Xi Jinping had reduced Chinese hacking into U.S. agencies and companies.

Ultimately, the additional intelligence informed U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to retaliate on Dec. 29 by expelling 35 suspected Russian spies and sanctioning two Russian spy agencies, four intelligence officers and three companies, a decision that capped four months of debate at the White House about how to respond.

So far not a shred of evidence has been provided confirming the Kremlin’s involvement in the matter, aside from some Ukrainian malware code exposed in a 13-page joint DHS/FBI report which could be purchased by anyone online.

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