Reaaaaally hard not to see the timing here as political. Remember, U.S. spy agencies reportedly had “high confidence” as far back as late July that Russia was behind the DNC/Guccifer/Wikileaks hacks, although they were less sure at the time that the point of the hacks was to influence the election. The feds have held off on formally accusing Russia of anything, though, likely for diplomatic reasons.
Now, in mid-October and two days before a presidential debate, they’re confirming it. Go figure.
The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations. The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow—the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.
Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government. The USIC and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assess that it would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber attack or intrusion. This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place. States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process.
Ten days ago, BuzzFeed reported that the White House had asked the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees not to issue their own statement formally accusing Russia of meddling in the U.S. election. (The two Dems, Dianne Feinstein and Adam Schiff, ignored the request.) That may have been aimed at preserving diplomacy with Russia at a delicate moment, when the two countries were trying to arrange a ceasefire in Syria. An escalation with Putin would upset the negotiations, the White House might have feared. Now, weeks later, with negotiations having collapsed and John Kerry talking openly about Russian forces being investigated for war crimes, the White House has less to fear from escalation, especially with Putin sending advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria to try to intimidate American pilots. That’s the charitable interpretation of the timing — that sabers have begun to rattle and thus it’s time to make a direct accusation. If the White House is planning any retaliation for the hackings, either through cyberwarfare of its own or sanctions of some sort, formally accusing Russia of masterminding the hackings is a useful first step.
The less charitable interpretation of the timing is that we’re 48 hours out from a crucial presidential debate and suddenly the moderators are all teed up for a question about how Trump’s pal Vlad is screwing around with the presidential election. “The system is rigged”? It will be if pro-Trump foreign interests have their way, Clinton will say. Trump got a question about this at the first debate, you may remember, and he blew it off — it could be anyone behind the hackings, he said, including China or some random 400-pound weirdo somewhere. Now that DNI has formally accused Russia, that earlier answer will be hung around his neck on Sunday. Hillary herself is probably going to accuse Trump and his fans of cheering on the hackings, from Trump himself encouraging Putin this summer to “find” and publish her missing emails to top Trump cronies like Roger Stone breathlessly promoting new Clinton-destroying document drops from Wikileaks. She’s going to try to paint him as a de facto Russian agent. And formally accusing Russia now has an added benefit for Democrats: If in fact there are new document dumps by Wikileaks on the way that damage Hillary, this makes it easy for Dems to argue to voters that punishing her by electing Trump would be playing right into an American enemy’s hands. This is, to some extent, a prophylactic measure in anticipation of future Kremlin attempts to take down Clinton.
I would have gone as far as to guess that Trump’s relationship with Russia will be the core Clinton attack on Sunday — if not for the other unpleasantness this afternoon. More on that in a bit.