All the headlines about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report have focused on President Donald Trump. What he did or didn’t do is very important but the Russian hacking of the 2016 election has been under-reported, the report makes clear that Russian hacking is the true potential horror for the 2020 election.
With all the attention on Trump wrongdoing the fact that the Mueller report states that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, targeted U.S. state election infrastructures and U.S. makers of voting machines for Russian hacking has been almost overlooked. This was not the first time Russian hacking was acknowledged, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced in February of 2018 that Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three companies. Rosenstein said they acted as a sophisticated network designed to subvert the 2016 election and to support the Trump campaign.
According to the Mueller report, Russian hacking enabled the GRU to inject a malicious SQL code on state election websites that then ran commands allowing Russian hackers to extract information from voter databases. In 2016 the GRU hacked the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections gaining access to a database containing information on millions of registered Illinois voters. They were able to extract data related to thousands of voters before the malicious hack was discovered. Russian hacking attempts were also made by sending spear phishing emails to election officials and executives of companies that make voting machines. Employees of a company that develops software to manage voter rolls were also targeted in an attempt to install malware on the company’s computer network.
Spear phishing emails were sent to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election. They contained an attached Word document coded with Trojan software that permitted Russian hacking of the infected computer. During a two-day period in July 2016 Russian military intelligence officers scanned more than two dozen state and local election websites looking for Russian hacking opportunities. There’s no evidence that any of these hacking attempts were successful but some cyber security experts have raised the possibility that the Russian hackers planted malicious software that remains undetected.
While the Mueller report said there was no illegal conspiracy or collusion between President Trump and Russia, it does establish an unprovable spiritual collusion. The report states that within 5 hours of then candidate Donald Trump announcing at a July 2016 campaign rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to then candidate Hillary Clinton’s discarded emails, the GRU’s Unit 26165 targeted her personal email server for Russian hacking. The report makes clear that no Russian hacking attempts were made against Clinton’s email server until President Trump called for it.
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The 2016 election revealed a brand new threat to the security of elections besides Russian hacking of state election networks, Russian hackers working through a Russian company, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), also interfered through secret targeted and misleading advertisements on social media platforms. According to Mueller’s report, the IRA began creating fake Facebook accounts and small groups as early as 2014. “IRA employees operated social media accounts and group pages designed to attract U.S. audiences,” the report says. “These groups and accounts, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists.”
The report illustrates how popular the fake Russia-controlled groups were “United Muslims of America” had over 300,000 followers, the “Don’t Shoot Us” group had over 250,000 followers, the “Being Patriotic” Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the “Secured Borders” Facebook group had over 130,000 followers. “In total, the IRA-controlled Facebook accounts made over 80,000 posts before their deactivation in August 2017, and these posts reached at least 29 million U.S. persons and ‘may have reached an estimated 126 million people,’” according to the report.
Mueller also shows how Russian hackers enlisted the Twitter platform in their successful quest to interfere in the 2016 election. He found 70 U.S. media outlets that quoted a Russian-controlled Twitter account and attributed it falsely to a real person, and that politicians, media personalities, and celebrities such as former Ambassador Michael McFaul, Roger Stone, Sean Hannity, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Flynn Jr., Donald Trump Jr., and even President Trump were unknowingly interacting with Russian hackers. One of the fake Twitter accounts Russian hacking produced was @l0_gop. Mueller’s report says they tweeted “We love you, Mr. President!” @l0_gop, President Trump responded, “I love you and there is no question TOGETHER, WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
But the real horror that is underreported and hardly mentioned by the media is Mueller’s finding that Russian hacking had moved beyond organizing mayhem on the internet to organizing mayhem at live American voter rallies. First, they would use spoofed accounts on Facebook or Twitter to announce an event. Then they’d privately message the event to real users, asking them if they could attend. Then if they got a bite, they’d assign one of these real people to be the event coordinator. Usually, the Russian hacker would make up some excuse as to why they couldn’t personally attend, according to the Mueller report. Once a real social media user was set up as the coordinator, the Russian hackers would promote the event to members of the media. After the event was over, they’d share photos and videos of it across their network of groups and fake accounts.
The Mueller report said this happened dozens of times, with the earliest rally being a “confederate rally” in November 2015 and others continuing after the 2016 election. The report describes how Russian hackers used Craigslist and an email called “firstname.lastname@example.org” to recruit someone to walk around New York City in a Santa suit wearing a Trump mask, how they successfully organized three rallies in New York and a series of pro-Trump rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania, and how sometimes they agreed to pay for an unwitting American target’s expenses to set up and attend events or rallies.
The media attention and Congressional hearings focused so far primarily on President Trump’s actions are understandable but not acceptable. When Russian hacking moves from committing mayhem in the dark shadows of the internet, to Russian hackers themselves showing up in person to conduct election interference operations on American soil, American election security is NON-EXISTENT!!!
President Trump’s obsession with hyping his personal brand even at the expense of American election security means he will do nothing to protect American elections. Republicans and Democrats in the legislative branch of government must step up and do their part, law enforcement, prosecutors and the judicial branch of government must step up and do their part and all American citizen voters must step and vote their part to mandate that the American government guarantee free, fair, and secure elections.
Isaac Newton Farris Jr. is the nephew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as Senior Fellow at the King Center. Growing up in one of the most socially and politically active families has given him a unique perspective on current events. Drop by his website for straight talk free of one-sided political spin.
Originally published at https://isaacnewtonfarris.com on May 6, 2019.