Has Mueller Caught the Hackers?

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 12 officials with the GRU, Russia’s main foreign intelligence agency, for allegedly meddling in the 2016 election, including hacking Democratic Party emails. Case closed? Author and investigative journalist Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News joins TRNN’s Aaron Mate to discuss

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. For the first time, special counsel Robert Mueller has issued an indictment directly related to “Russiagate’s” underlying crime, the theft of Democratic Party e-mails. On Friday, Mueller charged twelve officials with the GRU, Russia’s main foreign intelligence agency. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein unveiled the indictment.

ROD ROSENSTEIN: The indictment charges twelve Russian military officers by name for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Eleven of the defendants are charged with conspiring to hack into computers, steal documents and release those documents with the intent to interfere in the election. One of those defendants and a twelfth Russian military officer are charged with conspiring to infiltrate computers of organizations involved in administering elections.

AARON MATE: The indictment includes the chief of an alleged hacking division inside the GRU known as Unit 26165 as well as “others known and unknown to the Grand Jury.” Michael Isikoff is Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News and co-author of the best selling book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s war on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Welcome, Michael. Your takeaways from this indictment, and does it track with what you’ve been reporting in your now lengthy period of covering this story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, it does. And it pretty much lays out the story we told in Russian Roulette with some interesting new details that firm up the clear evidence linking Russian military intelligence to the attack on the American election. I thought probably the most interesting revelation was there was always this sort of mystery about where WikiLeaks got the e-mails that they dumped on the eve of the Democratic convention. And of course, Julian Assange has said repeatedly he didn’t get them from the Russians. The indictment makes clear that’s exactly where he got them. And it quotes from messages sent between WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, the Russian intelligence online persona in which WikiLeaks solicits the e-mails, asks for them to be sent to WikiLeaks, and then they are and then they are quickly published.

AARON MATE: Right, okay. So, this gets to the heart of this allegation here because it contends that Guccifer 2.0 is a fake online persona created by Russian intelligence. I guess my question is, the indictment to me doesn’t contain any evidence showing that it actually is Russian military intelligence. It contends that it is. So, what to you is the main case for believing that Guccifer 2.0 is Russian military intelligence? Because as I understand it, there was some forensic analysis done showing that there was Cyrillic inside the digital fingerprints of of Guccifer 2.0’s activities and what they posted. But to me, they were so sloppy that that’s always raised the question for me as to whether it was someone just trying to sloppily impersonate Russian military intelligence.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look. I don’t know how familiar you are with reading indictments of this kind, but this is pretty much the way the Justice Department would do it. They would not lay out a whole lot of evidence that would clearly come from classified sources the NSA intercepts. But I think it makes a pretty detailed and compelling case for how Guccifer 2.0 was created, when it was created, the interrelationship with the GRU, the role it played in distributing the documents not just to WikiLeaks but to others, the communications with Roger Stone, the communications with a congressional candidate in Florida.

And you know, look. There’s a lot of specificity here in which they’re tying these activities to specific Russian intelligence officers. And they document payments made through Bitcoin, the use, the leasing of U.S. servers by individuals with the GRU. I think at this point, you really gotta be grasping at straws to try to imply or suggest that all this was concocted and that there isn’t overwhelming evidence to back up what the Justice Department has alleged here.

AARON MATE: I didn’t use the word concocted, but it’s true that I actually don’t rule that out. And I guess my point is that, should we believe that these allegations are true in the absence of supporting evidence?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look. As as I’ve pointed out before, there are classified sources and methods that prosecutors are not willing to disclose, but do know that they will have to if this case ever proceeds in court. I found the level of detail in this indictment pretty compelling in and of itself. The fact that they can identify particular individuals, they can identify a particular hacking unit in the GRU, they can trace messages sent to it among themselves and to the implantation, to actual spear phishing e-mails. I mean, they show a pretty direct chain from specific individuals at the GRU who are sending specific spear phishing e-mails in order to steal the internal documents of the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Now, if you have some alternative theory about how all this played out, go for it. But I think at this point, there’s pretty much a consensus among all of us who have followed this that the evidence is pretty clear-cut.

AARON MATE: I get that that’s the allegation, and honestly I don’t have an alternative theory because I haven’t explored that.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I would hope that would give you pause, and also you remember, an indictment like this would have to be signed off on by multiple FBI agents. Multiple Justice Department prosecutors would go through extensive reviews. And then, if you put it in the context of everything else that was going on, the social media campaign by some of these same individuals, the fact that there’s actually relationships among some of the Facebook accounts and Twitter bots that were identified previously with the individuals named in this indictment. If one looks at the totality of everything that the Russians were doing in 2016, I think that it all pretty much makes sense. And you got to be, as I said before, grasping at straws if you still want to accept what’s right in front of you.

AARON MATE: Okay, Michael. The social media aspect you mentioned I think is a separate matter. I personally don’t share your assessment of it, whether it points to Russian intelligence. I think it points to a Russian clickbait commercial troll farm operation, but that’s a side point we can return to, maybe.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: The fact that they were actively in sync-

AARON MATE: Michael, wait. I didn’t finish my earlier point. So, I don’t have an alternative theory that I’m convinced of because I’m simply awaiting the evidence. You know, someone like Bill Binney, the former NSA technical expert.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: And Bill Binney-

AARON MATE: All I’m saying is he has claimed it was a leak. I don’t know enough about computers to weigh in either way, so I’ve never actually even gone there. And I think it’s quite possible it was hacked. I’m just not convinced that it was hacked yet by the Russian government. And to illustrate my skepticism, this might come off as cheeky but I think it’s important context, I want to go to a clip from 2003. This is the same prosecutor now. Back then, Robert Mueller was the director of the FBI, and this is what he told Congress about Iraqi WMDs.

ROBERT MUELLER: As as a director Tenet has pointed, out Secretary Powell presented evidence last week that Baghdad has failed to disarm its weapons of mass destruction and willfully attempting to evade and deceive the international community. Our particular concern is that Saddam Hussein may supply terrorists with biological, chemical or radiological material.

AARON MATE: So, Michael, I think you know my point here, that back then, someone could have said, “Well how could someone as respected and as intelligent as Robert Muller, with all his integrity, certainly he would not go to Congress and claim all this about Iraqi WMDs unless the intelligence was rock solid.” Of course, we know now, based on especilly work you’ve done with your book, Hubris, that that was all a fraud. So, that then leads me to believe that I should not just believe Robert Mueller’s claims now on faith without concrete evidence.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Look, fair enough. But as I pointed out to you before, there were reasons at the time, a lot of reasons at the time to question some of what U.S. intelligence officials and the Bush administration was saying about of Iraqi WMD. I see none of that in the consensus that this was a Russian attack on our election.

AARON MATE: Okay. I want to read to you, then, one quote. Because I want to- this speaks to an issue that we discussed the first time you were on The Real News. You raised the accurate point that to date, nobody from the intelligence community has come forward to dispute the assertion from that January 2017 intelligence report that the Russian government committed the e-mail hacks.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Nobody who has had access to the intelligence, yeah.

AARON MATE: Right, okay. So, I want to read you something that has just come out a few days ago by Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He wrote on his blog, this, he wrote this: “I was recently informed by a senior official that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research, which is the intelligence arm of the State Department, did in fact have a different opinion but was not allowed to express it. So, the January report was not one of the intelligence community,” Matlock says, “but rather of three intelligence agencies, two of which have no responsibility or necessarily any competence to judge foreign intentions.”.

So, that’s Jack Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. I put that out there because that is the first time I’ve heard- of course, Matlock could be wrong, the official he spoke to could be wrong. But that’s at least a claim from someone in a good position, he’s the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, saying that the State Department’s own intelligence wing differed from the other agencies who concluded it was Russia, but they were not allowed to express that opinion.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, fine. Let’s hear from the State Department official who said this, and who he was and what information he had access to and what his basis for saying it was. It’s not clear to me that the State Department intelligence bureau would have been plugged in or have any particular expertise on the forensic evidence that pointed to Russian government hacking of the election. But you know, you’d want to know a hell of a lot more before you’re going to put stock in this second or third hand account of an anonymous official somewhere in the bureaucracy who has a different view than everybody else.

AARON MATE: But could we apply that same standard to the other anonymous officials whose claims are being relied on to fuel this whole story from the beginning?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: No, because they’re not anonymous. They’re not anonymous. I mean, people have been on the record across the board in two administrations, Democratic and Republican now. So, there’s nothing anonymous about it. These people have been completely on the record. We now have an indictment that I have to say, pretty much blows away the argument you’ve been trying to keep resurrecting here. And you know, by all means, I admire your skepticism. I think skepticism about what government officials say is a good, healthy thing for all of us in the press. But that doesn’t mean that everything that the U.S. government says is a lie or is concocted or is created out of “whole cloth.”.

I think at some point, when the evidence is as compelling as I believe it is here, one should accept it. And it certainly fits with everything else we know about what the Putin government has done around the world during this time frame. What they did in the Ukraine, what they did in Estonia, what they did in Germany. I mean, one can go across the board and this all fits in with a pretty concerted effort by the Kremlin to use information warfare and cyber attacks to further its national interests.

AARON MATE: Michael, I don’t agree with your premise there that this fits in with a pattern. All these claims about Putin meddling around the world have proved to be pretty underwhelming. There was the claim about Brexit, it turned out then that RT, Russia Today, spent a total of ninety-seven cents on three ads on Facebook. This claim about Germany, there was widespread speculation that Russia was going to interfere in Germany.

There were even headlines, I’m paraphrasing from the New York Times and the Washington Post, saying A German Election Mystery: Why No Russian meddling? France initially claimed that a hack against Macron was Russia’s fault. Later on, the France Cyber Intelligence Agency admitted that they had no idea who did it. So, out of contention that Putin and Russia, this relatively small country on the on the world stage, is conducting this massive cyber campaign around the world, I- we disagree here on the merits of it.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Who do you think Guccifer is, Guccifer 2.0?

AARON MATE: I have no idea. Whoever it is, I think Guccifer is very sloppy. And given how sophisticated we’re told Russian military intelligence is supposed to be, they didn’t do a very good job of covering their tracks.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Why do you think that Mueller brought this indictment today, identifying specific individuals in the GRU who were behind the creation of Guccifer 2.0? Where do you think he got that?

AARON MATE: Whoever supplied the intelligence that has fueled this thing from the beginning. I’m sure it’s based in something, I don’t think Mueller invented it himself. By the way, I do have to question the timing. It comes right before Trump was about to meet with Putin. My colleague-

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: That’s one of the more interesting aspects of this. And I agree with you. Actually, I also find interesting that the U.S. intelligence community has said that this entire effort was ordered by Putin himself. Now, the indictment does say these twelve GRU officers, as well as “others known and unknown to the Grand Jury,” it does raise the question of whether Putin is an unindicted coconspirator here. One would want to know, who are the “others” known to the Grand Jury?

AARON MATE: Sure.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I think that is one of the more interesting aspects of this indictment and certainly in the timing.

AARON MATE: Right. So, then let me ask you, Michael, this question, this belief that Putin personally ordered this interference campaign against the U.S. The strongest evidence to bolster it that I’ve seen was this Washington Post report in June 2017, I believe, that said that the U.S. had a mole inside Putin’s inner circle who reported that he personally instructed this operation to happen. Doesn’t that strike you as odd, that, well A, that the U.S. could penetrate Putin’s inner circle at that high level, and B, if they did, that they’d be willing to disclose that in a media report, thereby potentially compromising this incredibly sensitive source of information?

AARON MATE: Now, you read Russian Roulette and you read about the secret source they had inside the Kremlin in 2014, who was warning the U.S. government that this is exactly what Putin’s government was up to. And this is what they were planning. And I know exactly. I know, we know a lot more about that secret source than we put in the book. This was something that was vetted very carefully. But it is not at all unusual that American spy agencies would seek to cultivate and develop sources who can provide insight into what Putin’s up to, and in these cases they clearly did.

AARON MATE: Someone claims they did. I just find it shocking that they would publicly reveal that, something that high level.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, so what’s your suggestion? That they invented the source, or what’s your-?

AARON MATE: My suggestion is it’s quite possible that, given the legacy of U.S. intelligence officials inventing intelligence to fix, to comport with political imperatives whatever they are, whether it’s the Iraq War, whether it’s allegations against any number of official U.S. enemies, that that may have happened here. And I’m just urging skepticism in the absence of evidence that we obviously disagree on whether it has been presented yet. Mike Isikoff, I’ve kept you way over time, so I’ll give you a final word and then we’ll wrap.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Now, listen. I admire your skepticism, but I do think that if one clings to it too much, you really do miss a very important story that’s staring right in front of your face.

AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, co-author of the best selling book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. Michael, thank you, as always.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Thanks, sure.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.