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DNC email hack: A look at the theory Russian operatives led attack to boost Trump's bid

Days after a massive leak of hacked emails threatened to spoil the Democratic Party’s convention kickoff, political operatives, whistleblowers and assorted experts continue to debate whether the attack was a Russian plot to boost Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

Expert says campaign email servers a classic intelligence target and 'gold mine' for understanding politics

Some experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin might want to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign in an effort to help her Republican rival Donald Trump, whom the Kremlin may prefer as president. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Days after a massive leak of hacked emails threatened to spoil the Democratic Party's convention kickoff, political operatives and assorted experts continue to debate whether the attack was a Russian plot to boost Donald Trump's presidential bid.

Donald Jensen, a resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and expert on Russia, says the potential motive is obvious.

"Certainly the Kremlin prefers Trump, there's no question about that at all," he said.

Trump's a businessman whose political ideology is making deals, Jensen said. He has seriously questioned the U.S. commitment to Europe and to NATO and has said he might not necessarily defend NATO allies if they are attacked by Russia.

'He's a leader'

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have also praised each other in the past, with the Russian leader saying Trump is "bright and talented." Trump, for his part, said Putin is "running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country."

Jensen said the Russians have quietly intervened in elections in Europe, tending more to give financial aid to populist parties that may undermine the western European alliance. 

"And now, with the appearance of Trump on the scene, undermine the U.S. electoral process," Jensen said. "And [Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton], for better or worse, is seen as supporting a tougher line against Putin, than Trump."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has seriously questioned the U.S. commitment to Europe and to NATO and has said he might not necessarily defend NATO allies if they are attacked by Russia. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The question is whether the Kremlin would actually attempt to affect the outcome of the presidency through email hacks and leaks.

Wikileaks posted 19,000 emails Friday, some of which suggested the Democratic National Committee, which is supposed to remain neutral during the primary season, favoured Clinton over rival Bernie Sanders. Key party officials appeared to consider ways to discredit Sanders during the primaries. 

A cybersecurity firm the Democrats hired reportedly found traces on the party's network of at least two sophisticated hacking groups that have ties to the Russian government. 

In an interview with Democracy Now, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange refused to reveal the source of the emails, but said when it comes to the DNC, "there's lots of consultants that have access, lots of programmers."

"And the DNC has been hacked dozens and dozens of times. Even according to its own reports, it had been hacked extensively over the last few years."

In a later interview with NBC, Assange said there's "no proof ... whatsoever" that Russian intelligence was responsible for the hack.

 The FBI announced Monday it's investigating.

The Russian plot theory suggests such a leak would only further enrage die-hard Sanders supporters and confirm what they've believed all along — that the contest was rigged against their candidate from the beginning. Furious, many of them would then refuse to vote for Clinton, which would help Trump in the general election.

'Purpose of helping Donald Trump'

It's the theory being championed by the Clinton campaign. Robby Mook, campaign manager, said cyberattack experts believe "Russian state actors were feeding the email to hackers for the purpose of helping Donald Trump."

But senior Trump adviser Paul Manafort called the Clinton campaign statements "pretty desperate" and "pretty absurd." Trump himself has dismissed the idea.

Martin Libicki, a cyberwar expert at the RAND Corporation and author of the upcoming book Cyberspace in Peace and War, said it's much more likely than not that the Russians were involved in the hack.

He said investigators are able to determine this, in part, by the kind of malware used. For example, authorities concluded North Korea hacked into Sony Pictures in late 2014 because the same malware was used against South Korean companies. 

"A similar logic basically says you can't prove it's the Russians, but it's probably them," he said. 

And if the Russians are responsible for the hack, he said, then it was likely conceived as a way to damage the Clinton campaign and help Trump.

'Gold mine'

James Lewis, an expert in cybersecurity at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he has spoken with some of the DNC email hack investigators, who claim groups connected to Russian military intelligence are responsible.

"There is no doubt that the Russians broke into the DNC servers," Lewis said, adding foreign hacking into the email servers of U.S. campaigns certainly isn't a new phenomenon.

In 2008, Chinese operatives were accused of infiltrating the email servers of the campaigns of both Barack Obama and Arizona Senator John McCain. 

The campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says cyber experts believe Russian state actors were involved in the email hack for the purpose of helping Donald Trump. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press )

It's a classic intelligence target, Lewis said, and allows the hackers to see who donates to the party and what research has been compiled on political opponents.

"It's a gold mine for understanding American politics, for understanding [what] the next administration, no matter who wins, looks like," Lewis said. 

But he's hesitant about concluding the Russians would have handed over the material to Wikileaks with the ultimate goal of meddling in the presidential outcome.

The evidence, he said, is powerful but not conclusive and would be a "big step forward for the Russians."

"Interfering this blatantly in American politics? It's possible they thought they weren't going to be caught. Usually the Russians are pretty good, that's why I'm a little cautious. When the Russians don't want to get caught, they don't get caught."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press

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