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Cloak and Dagger: On Espionage and Intelligence Services. Part 2 (November 2020): Cyber Espionage

Christopher C. Lovett

Cyber Espionage

Although cyber espionage is new, there were warnings decades before the Russian’s 2016 cyberattack or their test runs in Ukraine and the Baltic States. If not the first, at least one of the first was Cliff Stoll’s The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage, published in 1989. While working at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, California, on an astronomy grant, Stoll discovered by mistake an unauthorized entry into a highly classified computer system. His book reads like a spy thriller written by John Le Carré, except it was a true warning of what was yet to come. As the entire world community became more dependent on the internet and smartphones for personal and professional communications, criminals and intelligence services saw opportunities. John P. Carlin, a former attorney general for national security in the Obama administration, reviews the checkered record of hackers, hacktivists, and cyber spies in Dawn of the Code War. From the Conficker worm that exploited a Microsoft vulnerability to the online disinformation operations by the Russians and other malefactors, Carlin warns readers of the online dangers that lie ahead for the world.

Mark Bowden chronicled the dangers posed by cyber malefactors even before Putin’s Internet Research Agency came into play, in Worm: The First Digital World War. Bowden describes how once the Conficker worm, called a botnet, was unleashed, it was capable of gaining control over other computer systems, allowing it to overwhelm banking and other high-profile systems. By sheer luck computer experts managed to control the damage the worm caused, but worse was yet to come, particularly when state actors became involved in weaponizing similar computer tools. In Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, Fred Kaplan, a respected national security expert, builds on Bowden’s work, reiterating Bowden’s earlier warnings. He informs readers that it was Ronald Reagan who first authorized the development of an American cyberwar capability and its later use against Iraq. Following the domestic terrorist attack in Oklahoma City in 1995, Bill Clinton then issued Presidential Decision Directive 39 to ascertain grave threats posed to critical American infrastructure, enabling the US to face a cyber Pearl Harbor. Dark Territory was a warning for what the future would bring if Western democracies were not prepared for cyberwarfare. Even David Sanger, the national security correspondent for the New York Times, agrees in The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age. The sheer scope and acceleration of cyberattacks is a clear harbinger of things to come, he notes. 

Perhaps because of his training as a KGB officer, Putin believed there was a hierarchical structure to the internet and that it must operate for the sole purpose of empowering the main enemy, an old KGB term for the US. Two courageous Russian journalists, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, examine Putin’s use of the internet to enhance his political authority and expand Russian power abroad in The Red Web: The Kremlin’s War on the Internet. Initially, they note, Putin feared the internet and the dangers it posed to his regime, fears that were justified during the 2011–12 Moscow protests, which threatened his hold on power. He even believed it was weaponized by George Soros and the United States Agency for International Development to undermine his regime, and he conducted a denial-of-services attack on one of the leading Russian dissident newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, in response. More importantly, Soldatov and Borogan detail how Putin weaponized the internet to weaken Russia’s near neighbors, namely Ukraine. Looking at the 2016 election, they note that the Russian security services neither tampered with the American election infrastructure, though they could have, nor changed any voting machine tallies. What Putin and the GRU did was hack the Democratic National Committee servers and arrange for the release by WikiLeaks of critically sensitive emails that benefited the Trump campaign. Robert Service, a leading Russian scholar familiar with the unfolding events of 2016, believes there was a clear connection between Trump and Russia, demonstrated in Kremlin Winter by a quote from Donald Trump, made during a rally in Springfield, Ohio, on October 27. When Trump raised Hillary Clinton’s name, he said, “She speaks very badly of Putin, and I don’t think that’s smart,” (p. 307).

How then did those WikiLeaks releases play out in the US during the 2016 election campaign? What academics and average readers fail to comprehend is how espionage has evolved. Spies and foreign intelligence services have sought to gain access to an enemy’s state secrets by a variety of methods from their inception. Much like a pathogen that metastasizes into a deadlier illness, espionage has evolved into more insidious methods over time. For instance, Corera notes that Russian sleeper cells that once ran agent networks and collected vital national secrets in the 1930s and 1940s have now shifted to manipulation. As he outlines in Russians among Us, the Russian illegals operating in 2016 “were everywhere in America and nowhere,” all coordinating their operations with the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading observer of political trends, studies what happened in her thought-provoking volume Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President. Although the full effect of the Russian operation on the 2016 election remains unclear, Jamieson and her colleagues believe that the Russian efforts were effective after analyzing polling data, troll activities, and how the media handled politically hacked materials in 2016. Their warning is obvious: if no precautions are taken, there will be a repeat. 

Before the revelations about Facebook and Twitter became public, journalists were on the trail. Luke Harding gained access to Christopher Steele, a retired MI6 officer stationed in Moscow, who was hired to investigate Trump’s Russian connections for Fusion GPS, a Washington-based opposition research company run by two former Wall Street Journal investigative journalists. Harding writes in Collusion that Steele was so concerned with his findings that he contacted the FBI. However, Steele’s report, better known as the “dossier,” was not released until well after the election, and once it was other journalists sought answers. Soon, Michael Isikoff and David Corn, two respected investigative reporters, published Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, which set off a firestorm. Trump repeatedly attacked all allegations of Russian interference as fake news. Even legendary journalist Bob Woodward became involved. Unfortunately, Fear: Trump in the White House is nothing more than a series of disjointed vignettes that provide no answers to what happened. Continued attacks by Donald Trump and his allies became so dire and vicious, particularly against Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS, that the organization’s founders, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, felt compelled to respond in Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump, outlining their findings and warnings.

The best account of Trump and Russian interference comes from Greg Miller, another Washington Post journalist, in The Apprentice: Trump, Russia, and the Subversion of American Democracy. Whereas Seth Hettena in Trump/Russia: A Definitive History assumes that Americans may never know definitively whether Russian involvement tipped the scales in Trump’s favor, Miller disagrees. Unknown at the time, and well after the publication of Hettena’s book, Putin undercut his argument by openly telling reporters in Helsinki in July 2018 that he wanted Trump to win, while Trump told reporters that he believed in Putin’s denial of election interference. So, it is clear Putin helped, and how much Facebook and Twitter assisted that effort by spreading disinformation is now open to scrutiny.

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, recounts the role played by fake news, trolls, and hackers in 2016 in Messing with the Enemy. Watts demonstrates how social media collected personal information and channeled it into metadata for politically directed microtargeting campaigns, later explained by both Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie in their books Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again and Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. Using trolls and bots, Russians posing as Americans spread conspiracy theories and disinformation across social media platforms on a massive scale, even organizing Trump rallies in key battleground states and turning Reagan Republicans into Putin supporters. The Internet Research Agency spread conspiracy theories to a public susceptible to messages about the “deep state” and “Russiagate.”