WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s decision to identify Russia as almost certainly the culprit in hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing politically embarrassing emails fits his administration’s new penchant for openly blaming foreign governments for such break-ins.
Even as the U.S. continues to secretly hack its own adversaries, Obama is raising the stakes for countries caught behind the keyboards engaging in cyber espionage, including major powers like Russia and China.
Obama traditionally avoids commenting on active FBI investigations, but he told NBC News on Tuesday that outside experts have blamed Russia for the leak and appeared to embrace the notion that President Vladimir Putin might have been responsible because of what he described as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s affinity for Putin.
In Moscow on Wednesday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia would never interfere in another country’s election.
“What the motives were in terms of the leaks, all that, I can’t say directly,” Obama said. “What I do know is that Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin.”
Obama said he was basing his assessment on Trump’s own comments and the fact that Trump has “gotten pretty favorable coverage back in Russia.” He added that the U.S. knows that “Russians hack our systems — not just government systems, but private systems.”
WikiLeaks published on its website last week more than 19,000 internal emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee earlier this year. The emails showed DNC staffers actively supporting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton when they were publicly promising to remain neutral during the primary elections between Clinton and rival candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, resigned over the disclosures, which disrupted this week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Trump said statements that Russia was responsible for the hacking were “far-fetched, so ridiculous.” He said blaming Russia was deflecting attention from the embarrassing material in the emails.
“Russia has no respect for our country, if it is Russia,” Trump said at a news conference in Doral, Florida. “It could be China. It could be someone sitting in his bedroom. It’s probably not Russia. Nobody knows if it’s Russia.”
The developing U.S. strategy, unofficially dubbed “name and shame,” is intended to raise diplomatic consequences for foreign governments involved in state-sponsored hacking. It’s been employed repeatedly: The Obama administration has publicly blamed North Korea for the hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and filed criminal charges against five Chinese military officials it accused of siphoning corporate secrets and against Iranian hackers it accused of digital attacks on a New York dam.
The decision to publicly identify attackers is about holding foreign governments accountable, said Justin Harvey, chief security officer for Fidelis Cybersecurity of Bethesda, Maryland.
“The America people deserve to know that a foreign state is trying to directly influence our democratic process,” he said.
Despite souring ties between Washington and Moscow, pointing the finger at Russia for cyber hacking isn’t as simple as blaming North Korea. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue earlier this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but stopped short of making any allegation about who might be responsible.
Russia maintains significant diplomatic clout in the world and America depends on its former Cold War foe in various security matters. China, for all its economic might, pales in comparison.
In Syria, despite deep mutual frustration, the U.S. and Russia are trying to work together to end a five-year civil war that has killed as many as 500,000 and led to global terrorism fears. They’re even discussing a military alliance against the Islamic State group.
The hackers involved in the DNC breach stole at least one year’s worth of detailed chats and emails and Democratic research on Trump, according to a person knowledgeable of the breach who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Party officials learned in late April that their systems had been attacked after they discovered malicious software on their computers. A cybersecurity firm they hired, CrowdStrike Inc., found traces of at least two sophisticated hacking groups on the DNC’s network.
Both groups have ties to the Russian government. One previously infiltrated unclassified networks at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said his organization would not disclose who provided it with the stolen material. WikiLeaks said on Twitter that it timed its publication of the emails — days before the Democratic convention was starting — “when our verification, research and formatting process was complete and on a day likely to generate interest.” On Tuesday, Assange said on CNN that “a lot more” material was coming but provided no details.
Putin’s spokesman in Moscow did not directly deny Russian involvement in the hack but said Putin has pledged not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, especially elections. “If we talk about some sort of suspicions against a country, then it is necessary at a minimum to be precise and concrete,” Peskov said.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Ted Bridis in Washington contributed to this report.