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Election Hacking Bombshell: Putin Personally Involved, Voting Machine Overseer Hacked

The agency charged with ensuring that voting machines meet security standards was itself penetrated by a hacker after the November elections. The news comes as new spy information allegedly shows that Russian president Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB in the Soviet era, personally became involved in the covert Russian campaign to interfere in the election.

On Friday, the news also broke that the FBI now agrees with the CIA's assessment that Russia mounted a wide-ranging covert operation to interfere with the US Presidential election.

Just as President Obama yesterday reiterated his commitment to digging into Kremlin ties to election-season hacking in the United States, Recorded Future said in an APB that it was monitoring underground Dark Web markets and discovered a Russian-speaking actor offering log-on credentials for access to computers at the US Election Assistance Commission.

The revelation is the latest in a series of attacks believed to be carried out by Russian state-sponsored hackers. While attribution is always tricky, US intelligence agencies say that they have “overwhelming” evidence that the Russian state was behind the hack on the Democratic National Committee and others, and that it was a clear attempt to embarrass Hillary Clinton and sway the outcome of the US election in favor of Donald Trump.

Another bombshell came this week when US intelligence officials said that they now believe with "a high level of confidence" that former spy-master Putin was pulling the strings in the proceedings. Two senior officials with direct access to the materials told NBC News that new information from diplomatic sources and spies working for US allies shows that Putin personally directed how hacked material from Democrats was leaked and otherwise used.

They added that what began as a "vendetta" against Clinton became a broader effort to show corruption in American politics and to "split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn't depend on the US to be a credible global leader anymore.”

Meanwhile, Trump has many times expressed his glowing admiration for Putin. Also, many of his cabinet picks, including his nomination for Secretary of State, Rex “T-Rex” Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, have cozy relationships with him. Tillerson in fact was given the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin, which is the highest honor Russia can bestow on foreign citizens. He also publicly opposed sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, because it interfered with an Exxon Mobil oil deal worth billions.

Some have cast doubt on Russia being behind the hacks—including, predictably, Putin himself, who called the accusations “unseemly.” Trump, for his part, has belittled the situation, saying that the allegations are “ridiculous.” His supporters also seem unconcerned—polls and focus groups of Trump voters indicate that the information that came out of the hacks was worth the price of a foreign government meddling in the US democratic process.

However, many GOP leaders have broken ranks with Trump on this, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The Russians are not our friends," he said this week. He added, "I hope that those who are going to be in positions of responsibility in the new administration share my view" about Moscow.

Appearing on CNN this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “I do believe the Russians hacked into the (Democratic National Committee). I do believe they hacked into (John) Podesta’s email account. . . . I do believe that all the information released publicly hurt Clinton and didn’t hurt Trump. I don’t think the outcome of the election is in doubt. What we should do is not turn on each other but work as one people to push back on Russia.”

He also weighed in on Tillerson, in an appearance on FOX News: “I want [him] to come forward and say whether or not you believe they interfered in our elections, they’re interfering in other democracies. If you say they are not, I will be troubled by your judgment. Do you support new sanctions? And if he doesn’t, it would be very hard for me to vote for him because you’re giving a green light for this behavior.”

While the information that the CIA says that it has is classified and therefore not made public, the Senate's intelligence panel, led by Richard Burr, R-N.C., will conduct a bipartisan inquiry, according to McConnell, who also expressed support for a related probe by the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has also released a statement backing an investigation the House Intelligence Committee has already started on cyber threats posed by foreign countries and extremist groups. He called any Russian intervention "especially problematic because under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests." He did however reiterate that any conclusion made will not cast the election results into doubt.

Speaking to NPR public radio yesterday, Obama made no bones about his plan to bring Russia to task: "I think there's no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact on the integrity of our elections, that we need to take action and we will, at a time and a place of our own choosing,” he said. “Some of it may be explicit and publicized. Some of it may not be. Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it."

As for the latest revelation of hacking the entity which is mandated to ensure the integrity and security of electronic voting machines, Recorded Future said that the breach appeared to include more than one hundred access credentials, including some with the highest administrative privileges. These administrative accounts could potentially be used to access sensitive information as well as surreptitiously modify or plant malware on the EAC site, effectively staging a watering hole attack utilizing an official government resource.

“The breach at the US Election Assistance Commission is another example of discovering that attackers broke into a network, worked methodically to gain access to important assets, stole them and was never discovered until long after the theft or damage occurred,” said Kasey Cross, director of product management at LightCyber, via email. “This cycle of complete failure on the part of security must end.”

Nathan Wenzler, principal security architect at AsTech Consulting, a San Francisco-based security consulting company, told us, “Had the EAC done some basic security review of their applications, they may have been able to identify this flaw and remediate it before they were compromised. Now, with law enforcement involved, the scope of the damage may be more far reaching than just the attack on the EAC itself, but potentially the results and details of the electronic voting machines being tested may be compromised.”

He added that this could open up questions as to the integrity of the election itself. “With the increasing number of reports and speculation taking place around election fraud and outside influences upon voting systems, this very basic flaw exploited by the hacker may serve to add a large amount of fuel to the fire on this discussion,” he warned. “Further, if it is confirmed that any voting systems were outright compromised because of the information leaked in this attack, an entirely new discussion will be created questioning the validity of any results gathered by these electronic voting systems.”

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