Since hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and dispersed them across the internet last summer, the world has waited for a parallel leak of Republican secrets. Now on the other side of the election, that second reveal still hasn’t materialized. But FBI director James Comey has now told Congress new details of the Republican prong of those political intrusions, which US intelligence now believe were carried out by the Russian government: The attackers penetrated GOP organizations, and also stole Republican National Committee emails, albeit ones less current than those stolen from the DNC.
In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday, Comey offered a few fresh scraps of information about Russian hackers’ targeting of Republican organizations along with Democratic ones, noting that state-level GOP targets and a disused RNC email domain were penetrated, while also confirming for the first time that the FBI doesn’t believe Trump’s campaign itself was hacked. “There was evidence that there was hacking directed at state-level organizations and the RNC, but old domains of the RNC, that is, email domains they were no longer using,” Comey told the Senate committee. “Information was harvested from there, but it was old stuff. None of that was released.”
Comey noted that spear-phishing, a tactic of targeting carefully spoofed emails to trick victims into giving up sensitive credentials or passwords, was “no doubt” used against the Republicans, just as it was used against the Democrats. He later added that he didn’t know whether the hackers had attempted intrusions on the RNC’s newer communications or the Trump campaign, and also didn’t say how old the stolen emails were.
That Russian hackers did penetrate some Republican servers but never leaked that information was one factor that led US intelligence agencies to conclude that the Kremlin’s hacking operation was expressly intended to help elect Donald Trump, according to director of national intelligence James Clapper.
“Does the [intelligence community]’s conclusion that the Russians sought to assist President-elect Trumps campaign depend on an assessment, then, that the Russians covertly collected information primarily from Democratic sources but some Republican sources as well, but only chose to release the derogatory information from the Democratic sources?” asked Senator Susan Collins.
“That’s correct,” answered DNI Clapper.
But Comey went on to note that classified evidence, which he said he couldn’t detail in the public setting of Tuesday’s hearing, provided other clues about Russia’s intention to boost Trump’s chances. One possible additional tip-off? Intelligence agency leaks have hinted that US spies observed Russian senior officials celebrating Trump’s win in November.
The question of whether the RNC hack was in fact penetrated by the same attackers who breached the DNC came back into the political spotlight over the last week, as Trump has shifted tactics from altogether denying intelligence agencies’ reports that Russia hacked Democratic targets to criticizing the DNC’s cybersecurity measures. “Somebody hacked the DNC but why did they not have ‘hacking defense’ like the RNC has,” he wrote last week, before adding over the weekend, “Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!”
The RNC’s Chairman Reince Priebus and spokesperson Sean Spicer, both now part of Trump’s transition team, have both claimed that the RNC was never hacked. Comey’s statements about hackers harvesting older emails from the RNC, however, show that those claims are half-true at best.
What’s still not clear, of course, is what the RNC’s stolen emails might contain. But the group would be wise to review its older servers for potential scandals. The election may have passed without an RNC leak, but Russia’s intelligence agencies could still be holding onto a few secrets of America’s ruling party.