Members of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign opened malicious links likely sent by Russian military intelligence dozens of times prior to her defeat last fall, new research reveals.
Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU, targeted at least 109 Clinton campaign staffers during a month-long hacking spree waged prior to last year’s presidential election, in addition to Mrs. Clinton’s own personal email account, Dr. Thomas Rid, a King’s College professor who investigated the campaign, said Thursday.
Hackers sent Clinton staffers 214 individual phishing emails between March 10 and April 7, 2016, each containing a link leading to a different bogus log-in page designed to trick recipients into unwittingly surrendering their account credentials, according to Mr. Rid.
Targeted Clinton staffers clicked those malicious links a total of 36 times, he added, subsequently resulting in the breach of no fewer than four separate campaign-related accounts.
While an array of hacks targeted the Democratic Party unfolded during the run-up to last year’s race, the Clinton campaign previously said its internal systems were not compromised ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Motherboard reported Thursday. A former Clinton campaign spokesperson declined to speak of Mr. Rid’s findings, and the Clinton Foundation did not immediately respond to requests for comment, the website reported.
Mr. Rid presented his research while testifying at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday alongside cybersecurity professional Kevin Mandia and retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the former head of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command. When pressed by lawmakers, all three witnesses said they believed Russia was responsible for interfering in last year’s White House race, echoing the official conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community.
Mr. Rid’s findings stem from reviewing thousands of malicious links sent by the same group of hackers prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential race. The hackers used Bit.ly, a third-party link-shortening service, to abbreviate malicious links sent in spear-phishing emails to targets, as previously reported. They failed to set their Bit.ly account as private, however, in turn exposing the entirety of their activity.
Upon further review, Mr. Rid concluded that a total of 19,315 malicious links were sent to 6,730 different targets between March 2015 and May 2016, including at least 14 separate attempts last spring at compromising Jake Sullivan, a former senior policy advisor for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. There were also two attempts made on Mrs. Clinton’s own personal email account.
While Mrs. Clinton doesn’t appear to have fallen for the hackers’ ruse, others weren’t so lucky. In addition to the handful of Clinton staffers compromised by hackers, three individuals associated with the Democratic National Committee were tricked into coughing up their log-in credentials on the same day last April upon receiving custom phishing links, according to Mr. Rid.
“Less than two weeks later, on 19 April, the front website DCLeaks.com was registered as a leak outlet for hacked files,” he testified. “The overlap between individuals hacked by GRU and leaked by ‘DC Leaks’ aligns nearly perfectly: out of 13 named leak victims, 11 the available forensic evidence identifies 12 as targeted by GRU, with a spike of activity in late March 2016.”
Roughly 16 percent of the 6,730 individuals targeted in the hacking campaign clicked on the phishing links, Mr. Rid said. Of those, approximately 470 accidentally handed over the passwords to their accounts, amounting to about a 2 percent success rate overall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied ordering a hacking to interfere in last year’s White House race, notwithstanding a growing mound of digital evidence linking his government to intrusion suffered by the DNC and Mrs. Clinton’s former campaign manager, John Podesta, among others.
“All those things are fictional, illusory and provocations, lies,” Mr. Putin said of the hacking allegations Thursday. “All these are used for domestic American political agendas. The anti-Russian card is played by different political forces inside the United States to trade on that and consolidate their positions inside.”