Since the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures began showing up in the Washington Post and the Guardian, the political debate over the American surveillance state has been stuck in the 20th century.
The public has feared a secretive, all-seeing eye, a vast bureaucracy that could peer into our online lives and track the numbers our smartphones dialed. Privacy as we knew it was dead. The era of Big Brother was here.
President Barack Obama responded to the Snowden leaks by commissioning a blue-ribbon panel that ended up concluding the way the National Security Agency did business often trampled on legitimate civil liberties concerns. The government did not need to store our metadata or the numbers, times and dates of our phone calls.
It turns out though that the questions prompted by Snowden were only part of the story. A recent expose from the New York Times tells a very different, and more frightening, tale. In this case, the proper analogy is not Big Brother, but an outbreak. A shadowy network of hackers, known as the shadow brokers, stole the NSA’s toolbox of cyber weapons it had used to peer into the computers of our adversaries. This network then offered subscribers the fruits of powerful cyber weapons that the U.S. government was never supposed to even acknowledge. The virus is no longer confined to the lab. It’s out in the wild.
And while the cyber weapons appear to be dated from 2013, the extent of the damage is still being assessed. The Times reports that the NSA still hasn’t found the culprits. NSA cyber warriors are subjected to polygraphs, and morale at the agency is low. Was there a mole? Was there a hack? The world’s greatest surveillance organization still doesn’t know.
Aside from puncturing the aura of the NSA as an all-seeing eye, the Times story also shows that today the greatest threat to our privacy is not an organization with a monopoly of surveillance power, but rather the disaggregation of surveillance power. It is not the citizen versus the state. Rather it is a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Today, foreign governments and private hackers can use the same tools we all feared the U.S. government would use.
It’s enough to make you wish for a simpler time when the greatest threat to our privacy came from our own government.
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‘I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts’
President-elect Donald Trump on Friday released a letter he received from Vladimir Putin and praised the Russian president by saying “his thoughts are so correct.”
“A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin; his thoughts are so correct,” Trump said in a statement, along with the letter, which is dated Dec. 15. “I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
In the attached letter—which is marked as an unofficial translation—Putin wished Trump well and said he hoped to “bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.”
“Serious global and regional challenges, which our countries have to face in recent years, show that the relations between Russia and the U.S. remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security of the modern world,” Putin wrote in the letter as released by Trump.
“I hope that after you assume the position of the President of the United States of America we will be able—by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner—to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.”
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Pressure on members of the country’s electoral college to select someone other than Donald Trump has grown dramatically — and noisily — in recent weeks, causing some to waver, but yielding little evidence Trump will fall short when electors convene in most state capitals Monday to cast their votes.Carole Joyce of Arizona expected her role as a GOP elector to be pretty simple: She would meet the others in Phoenix and carry out a vote for Trump, who won the most votes in her state and whom she personally supported.
But then came the mail and the emails and the phone calls — first hundreds, then thousands of voters worrying Trump’s impulsive nature would lead the country into another war.
“Honestly, it had an impact,” said Joyce, a 72-year-old Republican state committeewoman. “I’ve seen enough funerals. I’m tired of hearing bagpipes. . . . But I signed a loyalty pledge. And that matters.”
Such is the life these days for many of the 538 men and women who are scheduled to meet Monday across the country to carry out what has traditionally been a perfunctory vote after most every presidential election.
In this image from video, Electoral College voter Jim Skaggs looks through his mail from people writing him about being an elector in Bowling Green, Ky. (Dylan Lovan/AP)
The role of elector has intensified this year, in the wake of a bitter election in which Trump lost the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million and a secret CIA assessment revealed that Russia interfered to help Trump get elected.
Amid the uncertainty caused by Russian influence, 10 electors — nine Democrats and one Republican — asked for an intelligence briefing to get more information about Moscow’s role. Their request was endorsed by John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
“The administration should brief members of the electoral college on the extent and manner of Russia’s interference in our election before they vote on Dec. 19,” Podesta wrote Thursday in a Washington Post op-ed.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Friday evening that it would not brief the electors, because it is engaged in a presidentially ordered review of the Russian interference. “Once the review is complete in the coming weeks, the intelligence community stands ready to brief Congress” and may release findings, the ODNI said in a statement posted to its website.
Meanwhile, Joyce and the other 305 Republican electors who are supposed to cast their votes for Trump have been subject to intense campaigns orchestrated by anti-Trump forces to convince them that they alone can block the reality television star from the White House.
Others have targeted Democratic electors, who are supposed to cast votes for Hillary Clinton, to persuade them to switch to a more conventional Republican who could also draw enough support from GOP electors to swoop into office.
While there is little sign the efforts will prove successful, the push has unleashed intense pressure on individual electors, who have now been thrust into a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight.
Rex Teter, 59, a music teacher and preacher, received about 35,000 emails and 200 letters urging him not to support Donald Trump. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Joyce has received emails from “Benjamin Franklin” and “John Jay” — and a Christmas card that read: “Please, in the name of God, don’t vote for Trump.”
The rancor about the role of electors started early in the campaign. In August, Baoky Vu, a GOP activist in Atlanta, said he planned to resign from the job because he was so morally opposed to Trump. He planned to defer his voting responsibility to someone more willing — an alternate who would be put in place Monday.
After the election, Vu started getting phone calls and emails asking him not to resign. He was asked instead to consider joining a coalition of electors hoping to vote against Trump. He declined.
“I don’t think we should drag this election out any longer,” Vu said. “And can you imagine if the electors overturned the results? If we attempt to change them in anyway, you’ve got these far-right elements that are just going to go haywire.”
Mark Hersch, a 60-year-old Chicago-based marketing strategist, joined a group known as the Hamilton Electors, who have been organizing efforts to contact electors and change their minds. Before the election, Hersch said, the most political activism he had ever undertaken was planting a yard sign.
He said he believes the goal to deny Trump seems reachable if not probable. Rather than persuade an entire country, he and his allies must find 37 Republicans willing to vote for someone else, a tipping point at which the responsibility of picking the president would shift to the U.S. House of Representatives. No one knows for sure how many are considering alternate votes; estimates vary from one to 25.
The GOP-controlled House could vote for Trump anyway, but those trying to flip voters say there is still value in taking a stand. Hersch said he was inspired to continue to flip electors by the movie “300,” which depicts ancient Sparta’s war against a Persian army that outnumbered them 1,000 to one.
“I would like to think we would be successful, but if not, we need to do all we could to prevent this man from being president,” he said. Then he modified a line from the movie: “Prepare your breakfast, and eat hearty, for tonight, we will go to battle. This isn’t 300, but 538.”
That “battle” has intensified as electors draw closer to their convening Monday. Joyce was getting 15 letters a day and 300 emails in the days after Nov. 8, but those numbers quickly increased to 50 and 3,000. Some of them have been form letters, others handwritten.
The letters came from Washington state and from China, stuffed with copies of the U.S. Constitution or Alexander Hamilton’s writing in Federalist Paper No. 68, which states that the meeting of the electoral college “affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
On Thursday, Joyce received so many letters that the letter carrier just gave her a U.S. Postal Service bucket filled to the brim.
“I’m sorry this is happening to you,” Joyce recalled the letter carrier saying in a phone interview. While some electors have complained of harassment, Joyce shrugged off the mail and placed it all on a sofa decorated with American flag pillows.
“This is America,” she said, adding that most of the messages were thoughtful. “People have a right to say what they want.”
On Friday, she said, her emails became more positive. The messages were from Republicans, thanking her for taking Trump to the finish line of an arduous process.
“How refreshing!” she said.
Although some Democrats (who have in the past five elections lost twoin which they won the popular vote) and even Trump himself have questioned the necessity of the electoral college, many opposing Trump have said this election proves just how important it is.
Norman Eisen, a former ambassador to the Czech Republic who served as legal counsel to both the Bush and Obama administrations, began telephoning electors to explain that their job is not necessarily to certify the results, but to have a reasonable discussion over whether the public made the right decision.
For instance, Eisen, who focused on government ethics in Obama’s White House, noted that Trump could be violating a clause in the Constitution that prevents presidents from receiving gifts and funds from foreign governments; it is unclear whether his businesses do because he has not publicly disclosed his tax returns.
In Massachusetts, Republican operative and attorney R.J. Lyman said he didn’t want to harass anyone, so he used his connections to find electors who were willing to chat about the lessons he learned in American history class and at the dinner table. He became one of the few people in America more willing to talk about Hamilton the man than about “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
The electoral college, he said he tells them, was “not intended to be a rubber stamp.” Otherwise, he said, the Founding Fathers would have tasked the responsibility to a clerk or simply used the popular vote as a way of choosing a president.
“I’m reminding them of their duty to think about their choice in a way that’s consistent with their conscience and the Constitution,” Lyman said.
So far, Lyman said, he has identified 20 electors who might be willing to vote “other than their party pledge.” He couldn’t name more than one publicly but insisted that more were out there.
Earlier this month, Chris Suprun of Texas became the first Republican elector in a red state that voted for Trump to declare, in a Dec. 5 New York Times column, that he would not cast his electoral vote for Trump. Suprun voted for Cruz in the primary and said he left behind his wallet on Election Day and thus did not vote in the general.
Nonetheless, Suprun said, he was willing to vote for Trump in the electoral college until the candidate claimed with no evidence that millions of Clinton supporters voted illegally. Suprun’s public stance has elicited death threats and hate mail, he said.
“As of yesterday, people are calling to say, ‘Get your ass together, or we’re coming for you,’ ” said Suprun, who was the sole Republican elector to ask for an intelligence briefing on Russia. “They are doing it with their own phone number, not even blocking the number. That’s not been surprising — look at what Trump says himself.”
Vinz Koller, a Democratic elector from Monterey County, Calif., said he read Suprun’s column and started thinking about his own role in the college. It inspired him to support a new theory: If he could persuade other Democrats to abandon their Clinton votes, perhaps he and Republicans could agree on a more conventional choice — a la Ohio governor and failed candidate John Kasich — to vote for over Trump.
The plan seemed unlikely, he said, but Trump’s candidacy unsettled him so much that he felt he needed to try anything. California is one of 29 states that mandate electors vote for the candidate who won the state, so Koller sued them to continue his plan.
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“Frankly, this is hard and not something I do lightly,” he said. “I’ve been working in partisan politics a long time, and I don’t like voting against my candidate, but I never thought that the country might be unstable until now.”
On Thursday evening, he found himself in the Library of Congress. Strolling through its stacks, Koller sought a librarian with one request: Can I see the original Federalist Papers?
He looked to see Federalist No. 68, written by Hamilton to describe the need for the electoral college.
“We have been getting a civic lesson we weren’t prepared to get,” Koller said. “They gave us the fail-safe emergency brake, in case the people got it wrong. And here we are, 200 years later. It’s the last shot we have.”
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.
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WASHINGTON — When Special Agent Adrian Hawkins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation called the Democratic National Committee in September 2015 to pass along some troubling news about its computer network, he was transferred, naturally, to the help desk.
His message was brief, if alarming. At least one computer system belonging to the D.N.C. had been compromised by hackers federal investigators had named “the Dukes,” a cyberespionage team linked to the Russian government.
The F.B.I. knew it well: The bureau had spent the last few years trying to kick the Dukes out of the unclassified email systems of the White House, the State Department and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the government’s best-protected networks.
Yared Tamene, the tech-support contractor at the D.N.C. who fielded the call, was no expert in cyberattacks. His first moves were to check Google for “the Dukes” and conduct a cursory search of the D.N.C. computer system logs to look for hints of such a cyberintrusion. By his own account, he did not look too hard even after Special Agent Hawkins called back repeatedly over the next several weeks — in part because he wasn’t certain the caller was a real F.B.I. agent and not an impostor.
“I had no way of differentiating the call I just received from a prank call,” Mr. Tamene wrote in an internal memo, obtained by The New York Times, that detailed his contact with the F.B.I.
It was the cryptic first sign of a cyberespionage and information-warfare campaign devised to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, the first such attempt by a foreign power in American history. What started as an information-gathering operation, intelligence officials believe, ultimately morphed into an effort to harm one candidate, Hillary Clinton, and tip the election to her opponent, Donald J. Trump.
Like another famous American election scandal, it started with a break-in at the D.N.C. The first time, 44 years ago at the committee’s old offices in the Watergate complex, the burglars planted listening devices and jimmied a filing cabinet. This time, the burglary was conducted from afar, directed by the Kremlin, with spear-phishing emails and zeros and ones.
An examination by The Times of the Russian operation — based on interviews with dozens of players targeted in the attack, intelligence officials who investigated it and Obama administration officials who deliberated over the best response — reveals a series of missed signals, slow responses and a continuing underestimation of the seriousness of the cyberattack.
The D.N.C.’s fumbling encounter with the F.B.I. meant the best chance to halt the Russian intrusion was lost. The failure to grasp the scope of the attacks undercut efforts to minimize their impact. And the White House’s reluctance to respond forcefully meant the Russians have not paid a heavy price for their actions, a decision that could prove critical in deterring future cyberattacks.
The low-key approach of the F.B.I. meant that Russian hackers could roam freely through the committee’s network for nearly seven months before top D.N.C. officials were alerted to the attack and hired cyberexperts to protect their systems. In the meantime, the hackers moved on to targets outside the D.N.C., including Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, whose private email account was hacked months later.
By last summer, Democrats watched in helpless fury as their private emails and confidential documents appeared online day after day — procured by Russian intelligence agents, posted on WikiLeaks and other websites, then eagerly reported on by the American media, including The Times. Mr. Trump gleefully cited many of the purloined emails on the campaign trail.
Many of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aides believe that the Russian assault had a profound impact on the election, while conceding that other factors — Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate; her private email server; the public statements of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, about her handling of classified information — were also important.
While there’s no way to be certain of the ultimate impact of the hack, this much is clear: A low-cost, high-impact weapon that Russia had test-fired in elections from Ukraine to Europe was trained on the United States, with devastating effectiveness. For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of all-out war, cyberpower proved the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.
“There shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind,” Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and commander of United States Cyber Command, said at a postelection conference. “This was not something that was done casually, this was not something that was done by chance, this was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily,” he said. “This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”
“It was just a sucker punch to the gut every day,” Ms. Tanden said. “It was the worst professional experience of my life.”
The United States, too, has carried out cyberattacks, and in decades past the C.I.A. tried to subvert foreign elections. But the Russian attack is increasingly understood across the political spectrum as an ominous historic landmark — with one notable exception: Mr. Trump has rejected the findings of the intelligence agencies he will soon oversee as “ridiculous,” insisting that the hacker may be American, or Chinese, but that “they have no idea.”
Mr. Trump cited the reported disagreements between the agencies about whether Mr. Putin intended to help elect him. On Tuesday, a Russian government spokesman echoed Mr. Trump’s scorn.
“This tale of ‘hacks’ resembles a banal brawl between American security officials over spheres of influence,” Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, wrote on Facebook.
Over the weekend, four prominent senators — two Republicans and two Democrats — joined forces to pledge an investigation while pointedly ignoring Mr. Trump’s skeptical claims.
“Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks,” said Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Schumer and Jack Reed.
“This cannot become a partisan issue,” they said. “The stakes are too high for our country.”
A Target for Break-Ins
Sitting in the basement of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, below a wall-size 2012 portrait of a smiling Barack Obama, is a 1960s-era filing cabinet missing the handle on the bottom drawer. Only a framed newspaper story hanging on the wall hints at the importance of this aged piece of office furniture.
Andrew Brown, 37, the technology director at the D.N.C., was born after that famous break-in. But as he began to plan for this year’s election cycle, he was well aware that the D.N.C. could become a break-in target again.
There were aspirations to ensure that the D.N.C. was well protected against cyberintruders — and then there was the reality, Mr. Brown and his bosses at the organization acknowledged: The D.N.C. was a nonprofit group, dependent on donations, with a fraction of the security budget that a corporation its size would have.
“There was never enough money to do everything we needed to do,” Mr. Brown said.
The D.N.C. had a standard email spam-filtering service, intended to block phishing attacks and malware created to resemble legitimate email. But when Russian hackers started in on the D.N.C., the committee did not have the most advanced systems in place to track suspicious traffic, internal D.N.C. memos show.
Mr. Tamene, who reports to Mr. Brown and fielded the call from the F.B.I. agent, was not a full-time D.N.C. employee; he works for a Chicago-based contracting firm called The MIS Department. He was left to figure out, largely on his own, how to respond — and even whether the man who had called in to the D.N.C. switchboard was really an F.B.I. agent.
“The F.B.I. thinks the D.N.C. has at least one compromised computer on its network and the F.B.I. wanted to know if the D.N.C. is aware, and if so, what the D.N.C. is doing about it,” Mr. Tamene wrote in an internal memo about his contacts with the F.B.I. He added that “the Special Agent told me to look for a specific type of malware dubbed ‘Dukes’ by the U.S. intelligence community and in cybersecurity circles.”
Part of the problem was that Special Agent Hawkins did not show up in person at the D.N.C. Nor could he email anyone there, as that risked alerting the hackers that the F.B.I. knew they were in the system.
Mr. Tamene’s initial scan of the D.N.C. system — using his less-than-optimal tools and incomplete targeting information from the F.B.I. — found nothing. So when Special Agent Hawkins called repeatedly in October, leaving voice mail messages for Mr. Tamene, urging him to call back, “I did not return his calls, as I had nothing to report,” Mr. Tamene explained in his memo.
In November, Special Agent Hawkins called with more ominous news. A D.N.C. computer was “calling home, where home meant Russia,” Mr. Tamene’s memo says, referring to software sending information to Moscow. “SA Hawkins added that the F.B.I. thinks that this calling home behavior could be the result of a state-sponsored attack.”
Mr. Brown knew that Mr. Tamene, who declined to comment, was fielding calls from the F.B.I. But he was tied up on a different problem: evidence suggesting that the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mrs. Clinton’s main Democratic opponent, had improperly gained access to her campaign data.
Ms. Wasserman Schultz, then the D.N.C.’s chairwoman, and Amy Dacey, then its chief executive, said in interviews that neither of them was notified about the early reports that the committee’s system had likely been compromised.
Shawn Henry, who once led the F.B.I.’s cyber division and is now president of CrowdStrike Services, the cybersecurity firm retained by the D.N.C. in April, said he was baffled that the F.B.I. did not call a more senior official at the D.N.C. or send an agent in person to the party headquarters to try to force a more vigorous response.
“We are not talking about an office that is in the middle of the woods of Montana,” Mr. Henry said. “We are talking about an office that is half a mile from the F.B.I. office that is getting the notification.”
“This is not a mom-and-pop delicatessen or a local library. This is a critical piece of the U.S. infrastructure because it relates to our electoral process, our elected officials, our legislative process, our executive process,” he added. “To me it is a high-level, serious issue, and if after a couple of months you don’t see any results, somebody ought to raise that to a higher level.”
The F.B.I. declined to comment on the agency’s handling of the hack. “The F.B.I. takes very seriously any compromise of public and private sector systems,” it said in a statement, adding that agents “will continue to share information” to help targets “safeguard their systems against the actions of persistent cybercriminals.”
By March, Mr. Tamene and his team had met at least twice in person with the F.B.I. and concluded that Agent Hawkins was really a federal employee. But then the situation took a dire turn.
A second team of Russian-affiliated hackers began to target the D.N.C. and other players in the political world, particularly Democrats. Billy Rinehart, a former D.N.C. regional field director who was then working for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, got an odd email warning from Google.
“Someone just used your password to try to sign into your Google account,” the March 22 email said, adding that the sign-in attempt had occurred in Ukraine. “Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”
Mr. Rinehart was in Hawaii at the time. He remembers checking his email at 4 a.m. for messages from East Coast associates. Without thinking much about the notification, he clicked on the “change password” button and half asleep, as best he can remember, he typed in a new password.
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