“The Russians Play Hard”: Inside Russia’s Attempt to Hack 2018—and 2020d
Alight breeze was rustling along Connecticut Avenue when I arrived at an unmemorable bar in Washington, D.C., and plopped down across from a former federal intelligence official. It had been an exhausting day. For decades, I’ve covered the goings-on and machinations within Silicon Valley, but these days the biggest technology story is occurring at the heart of the nation’s capital. I’d already met with current and former intelligence and security officials in federal buildings along the lush Capitol grounds, researchers from think tanks in bespoke coffee shops near Dupont Circle, and, now, in a dark bar not too far from the National Mall. Each spoke articulately and cogently about the threats posed to the 2018 midterms by Russia. I’ve been reporting cyber-security and hacking for well over a decade, and even unearthed some truly scary stuff—like the chilling manifest destiny of fake news—in the process. But what I learned that day, and particularly in that bar, scared the shit out of me.
On the televisions hanging above the bar played a commercial for Uber—an apology from the company’s new C.E.O. for the actions of its previous C.E.O. As the news came back on, we made swamp small talk. Would the Democrats retake the house? Would Donald Trump win re-election in 2020? Or would his chaotic presidency all come crashing down far, far sooner? The former official simply shook his head side to side. “Russia is going to do everything it can to ensure that doesn’t happen,” he said. “They’ll hack the voting booths, if they haven’t already; they’ll quadruple their efforts on social media; they’ll do things we”—he pointed to me, then himself —“haven’t even thought of yet.” When I asked what we can do to stop them, he said, as if imitating the voice-over for a horror-movie trailer, “These are all things that have been in the works since the day Trump won two years ago.”
So what exactly is Russia planning for the upcoming election? The correct question, a half dozen security experts and former and current government officials have told me, is what are they not planning? These people all said that 2018 will likely be a testing ground for 2020. Many of the tactics that Russia experiments with could (and likely will) be enacted on a much larger scale two years from now. Some of these strategies and maneuvers appear grounded in reality, while others seem speculative, but all have the same sinister goal of breaking the system—by cleaving our polity, distracting us with feuds large and small—by sowing discord through technology platforms and services. “Having the U.S. at war with itself is giving Russia credit internationally,” explained Andrew Weiss, the vice president for research on Russia for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noting that we as a country are more divided on almost every issue than at any other time in history. “[Russia is] not the creator of this problem, but they have exploited it. Just creating mistrust, and throwing a question mark over the legitimacy of our government, is a pretty big prize for Russia.”
In the coming months, these experts told me, Russian operatives will likely start creating fake Facebook groups (if they haven’t already)—some that slam to the left, others that lean as far right as humanly possible—that will argue with one another, and help us do the same; there will be accounts on social media that use Cambridge Analytica-style targeting to serve up ads, and a barrage of cleverly designed and perfectly disguised bots on Twitter. All stuff we’ve seen already, but with much more advanced algorithms and snakier and more aggressive tactics. (This time, for example, fake video and audio will start circulating through the social stratosphere, all with the intended purpose of trying to make real news seem fake, and fake news seem real.) As we’ve seen with the various e-mails posted on WikiLeaks—ranging from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the D.C.C.C. to the countless hacking attempts around the world that preceded the French national election—any modern candidate should expect that their e-mails, text messages, and personal social-media data are hacked and published. At least any candidate that Russia wants to harm.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s former campaign manager, told me in an interview on my podcast last week that even the slightest action by Russia can have outsized consequences. Recalling the repercussions of the John Podesta e-mail saga, Mook warned that simply hacking someone’s e-mails, text messages, or other private content—even if they are not salacious—can spread like a plague on social media; before long, the truth and fake content blurs together, and you have a coagulated version of fake truth. Social media allows Russia and other adversarial governments the ability to take something so small, and make it tantamount to any scandal on Earth. “Little, tiny embers become infernos in a way that no technology has ever enabled in history,” a tech entrepreneur lamented recently.
And then there will be new tactics. More than one expert told me that Russia will try to go after actual voting booths in smaller, more contentious districts across the country. The world we live in so intertwined with technology that you could imagine Russian hackers disrupting how we even get to the polls on Election Day. Ride-sharing services could be hacked. We’ve already seen instances of hackers faking transit problems on mapping apps, like Waze, to send people in the wrong direction, or away from a certain street. Perhaps most terrifying of all, one former official told me, are the possibilities arising from Russia’s alleged 2015 cyber-attack on Kiev’s power grid, which plunged the city into darkness. The moment I heard this, I ordered another drink.
On some level, the dystopian horror that technology poses to our democracy is effectively limitless. At the Def Con hacker conference in Las Vegas last year, white-hat hackers (the good kind) demonstrated that it takes about 90 minutes to hack into a voting booth. Some voting booths still operate using an old version of Windows XP, and people can easily get in using Wi-Fi systems. Over the years, there have been countless instances of hackers easily penetrating voting booths. Earlier this year, election officials admitted that Russians actually did infiltrate some of the U.S. election systems in 2016. Jeanette Manfra, the head of cyber-security at the Department of Homeland Security, told NBC News, “We saw a targeting of 21 states, and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.” Another official admitted that, “2016 was a wake-up call, and now it’s incumbent upon states and the feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again.” Of course, the one person who possesses the most power to prevent this from recurring—our president—may be the one who stands to benefit the most in the first place.
With their man already in the Oval Office, Mook suggested that Russia’s goal in 2018 will similarly be to “sow discord.” It’s an elegant way of saying that they just want to start trouble and see what happens. And there are no consequences for them doing it. (If anything, Vladimir Putin is praised more by Trump.) Since Trump’s election, Mook explained, there have been several congressional hearings that have detailed how Russian operatives have fanned both sides of the flames during almost every major event in the last few years: Charlottesville, the Las Vegas shooting, Parkland, even infiltrating Bernie Sanderssupporters’ Facebook groups. Just this past week, as America boiledover the White House’s abominable policy to separate children and parents at the border, the Russians were hard at work stoking the flames with a flamethrower. Weiss echoed this, noting that the discord existed in America before the Russians stepped in—they just helped exacerbate it with tech. “There’s the old saying by Napoleon [along the lines of], ‘When your enemy is making a big mistake, don’t interrupt them,’” Weiss said. “This has been the most successful covert operation in reported history.”
In some ways, there are almost too many holes to plug to stop the Russians from causing massive harm in the coming elections. Mook suggested that concerns about voting-booth safety were just one tiny part of the problem. “Our election system goes far beyond machines. We have voter-registration databases,” he said. “We have e-poll books—the actual devices used to look you up when you come in to vote. We have the results reporting system. We have the Web sites that host those results.” Imagine, for a brief, terrifying moment, that the Web sites and reporting systems (the methodologies that are the backbone of how news organizations report election results in real time) are hacked, and Trump is briefly marked as the winner before the election is accurately called for his opponent? Trump and his surrogates would seize on such a moment like piranhas to blood. “I think [Russia] will do anything they can to help Donald Trump win re-election,” Mook concluded, “but there greater interest is to sow doubt in the election process in general—and doubt in democracy.” (As Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan note, Moscow’s continued covert efforts to interfere in our elections should be the most urgent issue before Trump when he meets with Vladimir Putin next month—a confrontation that is hard to imagine for a president who has deliberately ignored the issue when he wasn’t outright encouraging it.)
Russia and Putin want to drive a wedge deeper and deeper into the United States, pitting Americans against Americans, breaking the system from within, and helping us destroy ourselves. As one researcher said to me recently, if there’s one thing that Russia and the Democrats agree on, it’s that Trump is an idiot, and he’s so self-obsessed that he’ll always put himself before American democracy, and, in turn, weaken it. Trump is also playing to the same drum as the Russians, only louder. Over the past two years, Trump has been trying to make the public believe that everything about our democracy is corrupt—but not for the reasons you might think. First, it was Washington in general. (“Drain the swamp!”) Then, when the polls predicted his loss, it was the entire electoral system, which was “rigged.” (After he won the electoral vote, but lost the popular vote, there were magically between 3 million and 5 million people who, he lied, voted illegally.) Now, in anticipation of the Mueller Report, Trump has gone after the F.B.I. with the goal of discrediting them when the report finally does come out. Trump’s attacks on these institutions, and his unrelenting blitz on the media, are an attempt to make Americans distrust what journalists and cable outlets say, especially when it’s the truth. What more could the Russians ask for?
Last year, shortly after Trump started to settle into his new job, mysterious things began to happen to some of Putin’s critics. The Russian ambassador to Sudan suddenly had a heart attack in his swimming pool; another Russian politician, who had fled the country after publicly denouncing the country’s actions in Ukraine, was gunned down in front of a hotel; soon, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, India, and Greece died of a heart attack, too. And then there were the string of officials, and Putin critics, who mysteriously “fell” from their balcony or roof. One politician was killed in a Dupont Circle hotel room, not far from the bar where I met the former federal official who warned of what was to come.
Over the years, approximately a half dozen Russian journalists have been murdered and abducted while doing their jobs. Each time “accidents” happen, Russia denies any involvement, calling allegations that these were Putin-backed “absurd.” And so while none of this is new, I had to ask Weiss—who formally covered Russia for the Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, advising both presidents about Russia—if we should worry that Putin could cross a line from digital to physical. Weiss didn’t say yes, but he also didn’t say no. “I don’t know what is possible,” he told me. “I think what we’ve seen so far is that all powers of imagination are possible when it comes to dealing with Russia. The Russians play hard. They play this game really ruthlessly.”
The day after my terrifying discussions in that dark bar, I had time to kill before heading to a meeting at the United States Senate building, so I decided to walk to try to clear my head. No matter how many times you do it, it’s an incredibly sobering experience to go past those massive buildings that house our government. The Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Department of Justice all stand momentous and stoic. They present themselves as edifices capable of withstanding anything—anything at all. Yet I found myself sitting across from the most impressive building of them all, the United States Capitol, and wondering if these institutions can withstand Trump, and, in turn, Russia. The answer, it seems, is right there in front of us. Russia and Trump want us to hate each other. They want us fighting on Twitter. Spewing vitriol. Telling our neighbors to go fuck themselves. Fighting on Facebook. If that continues to happen, they win, and we all—all!—lose. The only way to beat Russia is the only way that America can survive itself.