'Reminiscent of a witch hunt': Russia slams U.S. intelligence report

The Kremlin broke its silence over the U.S. intelligence report into hacking today, saying the allegations are "unfounded" and "reminiscent of a witch hunt." A Moscow-based expert on Russian surveillance says it would be extremely difficult to link hackers to the Kremlin.

Moscow-based author suggests Kremlin could be hiding behind semantic smokescreen

A U.S. intelligence report accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering a campaign to undermine November's U.S. election and boost Republican Donald Trump's chances of victory. Putin reportedly blames Democrat Hillary Clinton for fomenting opposition riots against his government in 2011. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

The Kremlin broke its silence over the U.S. intelligence report into hacking Monday, saying the allegations are "unfounded" and "reminiscent of a witch hunt."

Those comments from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were soon followed by disparaging remarks from a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on her Facebook page.

"It seems to me that 'Russian hackers' hacked only two things in the U.S. which are Obama's brains and the very report on the 'Russian hackers,'" said Maria Zakharova, known for her colourful take on threats against Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova quipped Monday that hackers infiltrated 'Obama's brains.' (Susan Ormiston CBC )

Unclassified parts of the U.S. intelligence report accuse Russian hackers, including the GRU (military intelligence), of breaking into the personal email accounts of Democratic Party officials and other political figures as early as last March. The goal, the report says, was to undermine the presidential election and boost Donald Trump's chances of victory by damaging his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. 

As the dying days of the Obama administration are chewed over in Moscow, Russian author and journalist Andrei Soldatov says the hacking allegations are viewed by many Russians with suspicion and even as a point of pride. 

"On the one hand, they don't believe what the Americans say. At the same time, they have pride because it makes Russia's hackers look great," said Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on Russian surveillance whose latest book on the subject is called The Red Web.

The hackers, according to this view, "were capable enough to hack into the election of the most powerful country in the world," he said.

Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based author and journalist who covers Russian surveillance, says he's disappointed that more details weren't revealed in the U.S. intelligence report. (Susan Ormiston CBC )

Kremlin spokesman Peskov stressed Monday that Moscow has ruled out any involvement of Russian "officials" in the hacks, but Soldatov says that could be nothing more than a semantic smokescreen.

The recent history of Russian cybercrime, he says, involves more informal operators not connected to Russia's military or its security agency, the FSB. He says the most sophisticated hackers aren't accountable to any such organization, so it's almost impossible to trace their actions back to the government.

"But these informal actors, usually they have direct access to the Kremlin," he said. "That makes them so adventurous and so effective because they do not need to get any approval from a middle level — they have approval from the very top." 

These informal actors — usually they have direct access to the Kremlin; they do not work in ministries or security agencies. That makes them so adventurous and so effective.- Andrei Soldatov, author and journalist 

Soldatov says the alleged Russian hacking would have been focused on discrediting Clinton because President Vladimir Putin blames her for fomenting opposition riots against his government in 2011.

The intent, he says, would have been more to damage her than to enhance Trump.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is 'seriously tired of baseless' allegations of state-sponsored hacking. (Reuters)

Russian officials have denied any attempt to meddle in the U.S. election, but Soldatov says there seems to be a quiet arrogance in some of their reactions. 

"I think they were quite excited … they thought, 'We can do a small-level operation that can propel us to the world stage — that's great," he said.

"Given we are talking about the U.S. and how important that is to Putin personally, I think it would be absolutely impossible to start this kind of operation without his approval."

But he cautions that with so little hard data or named operatives, many Russians dismiss the intelligence report as yet another predictable political swipe at their country.

Peskov on Monday said Russians "are seriously tired" of these unfounded, "amateurish and emotional" allegations.


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.