Russian military intelligence attempted to cyber-attack a U.S. voting software supplier and more than 100 local election officials in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election, The Intercept reported Monday. While there is no indication that voting machines or the result of the election were tampered with, this is the first report of its type to raise serious questions about whether Russian hackers attempted to breach the voting system.
According to an NSA document acquired by The Intercept, Russian military intelligence cyber-attacked a U.S. voting software supplier, using information gained in that attack to "launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations."
"Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions," the document states. The operation gave the hackers "persistent access" to the targeted computers, allowing them to "survey the victims for items of interest."
The NSA document did not reach a conclusion about whether the interference had any impact on the outcome of the election. "It is unknown," the NSA notes, "whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised the intended victims, and what potential data could have been accessed by the cyber actor."
But Pamela Smith, president of election integrity watchdog Verified Voting, said the hacking might have kept some Americans from voting. "If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information," she told The Intercept. "This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot or be required to cast a 'provisional' ballot — which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed."
The Intercept report comes amid a growing scandal regarding investigations into President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian attempts to influence the result of the election. Although the intelligence community has reached the conclusion that Russia did try to influence the results of the election in Trump's favor against Hillary Clinton, the president has called the ongoing investigation a "witch hunt."
It also comes days before former FBI Director James Comey's highly anticipated congressional testimony, scheduled for Thursday. Comey was fired by the president in May, and his testimony is expected to center on his interactions with the president and memos he reportedly wrote after discussions with the president. According to media reports, Trump told Comey he hoped Comey would drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has mocked questions over whether Russia attempted to influence the election, telling NBC's Megyn Kelly that the American media had "created a sensation out of nothing" and was using the allegations as "a weapon of war against the current president."
The NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on The Intercept's report but asked the publication not to publish the story and requested some redactions after The Intercept made it clear that it would be published.