In a year that has proven to have a mind of its own, America received another rattling of the cages just this past weekend, and the implications could not be more distressing. The United States of America’s presidential election and its congressional races were likely tampered with by another country.
To what extent those efforts affected the outcome of the election we don’t know, and likely never will. But the existence of it at all presents a risk to this country and its governance that most of us have never seen or even contemplated in our lifetime.
We’re not talking about some tiny island nation kicking the tires on democracy for the first time after a revolution; this is an increasingly likely obstruction of a free and proper election inside the country that wrote the book on democratic elections.
The catalyst for these worrisome revelations occurred last Friday, when reports began to surface that the CIA had briefed a group of U.S. Senators on the agency’s findings that individuals with connections to the Russian government had been involved in trying to tamper with last month’s election. The CIA’s assessment reportedly goes so far as to say they believe the meddling by Russia in the election was done with the specific intent to tip the scales and favor one candidate (Trump) over the other.
Then, in a highly unusual move on Sunday, two Republican and two Democratic Senators released a joint statement calling for a full investigation of the intelligence reports that suggested Russia had interfered with this year’s presidential election. The last time I remember a joint Democratic/Republican press release was from Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008… and the U.S. economy was on the brink of collapse. This just doesn’t happen.
The disclosure of this information should genuinely shake all Americans to the core at the chilling thought that the authenticity of our election could have been compromised and altered in some way. If what the CIA’s intelligence report suggests is confirmed to be true, these actions should be treated by Washington as a hostile act toward the United States meant to disrupt the durability of our democracy, and by extension the safety of the world.
As a nation, our expectation should be that these developments would galvanize every single politician to abandon partisanship and line up under the “American Party,” addressing this with an urgency that makes it feel like today is already too late. It’s that serious.
The joint statement over the weekend from a high-profile collection of senators — McCain (R), Graham (R), Schumer (D) and Reed (D) — suggests they get it and are not wasting time. Not long after that statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) held a news conference announcing a bipartisan investigation into the CIA’s findings where he made strong, targeted statements such as, “this simply cannot be a partisan issue,” and the always unambiguous “the Russians are not our friends.”
But it would seem not every politician is quite on board with investigating and eradicating any potential taint in our democratic process. And worse yet, it’s the one politician — the one American — that really matters most to protecting our sovereignty… President-elect Donald Trump.
While Republicans and Democrats alike were appropriately sounding alarm bells on the recent findings — again this is a group that would be hard-pressed to find common ground that puppies are cute — Trump’s team released a statement Friday night sharing their thoughtful insights on the matter by reminding us that this is “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
With a couple of additional days to reflect and not get more intelligence briefings, and seemingly still in campaign mode, Mr. Trump expanded on his views, telling Fox News during an interview on Sunday his feelings about the CIA’s findings: “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” He then added, “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody sitting in a bed some place.”
And then for good measure on Monday morning President-elect Trump reinforced his computer forensics and intelligence credentials when he tweeted out, “Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn’t this brought up before the election?”
Although all of the Friday-to-Monday statements by the soon-to-be leader of the free world are grossly troubling at best, the “hacker” tweet from Monday was particularly disturbing and erroneous.
I should know.
I was one of the very first employees at PayPal (back when it was a tiny little Palo Alto startup), and beginning in 2000 was tasked with trying to quickly get our rampant fraud problem under control. The problem had escalated with such ferocity in the early part of 2000 that it was costing us millions of dollars quarterly, and quite literally threatening to put PayPal out of business.
When you are losing $50,000 daily due to fraudulent attacks, it’s amazing how acutely intelligent you can get about what the exact problems are, who’s committing them and how they are doing it.
Through a combination of hiring ridiculously smart people, building proprietary and sophisticated forensics detection systems and pioneering much of the original commercial use for internet e-commerce authentication techniques, we were not only able to comfortably beat back the attacks from organized crime groups in Russia, but we actually became a real thorn in their sides.
To suggest, as the President-elect did, that unless you “catch them in the act” you can’t figure out much is both silly and wrong. It would be analogous to suggesting that unless you observe the murder while it’s happening, you don’t really know anything because it’s too hard to determine who was doing the “murdering.”
Thankfully, at PayPal, we were able to determine who was doing the hacking. It ended up mostly being a collection of multiple crime syndicates in Russia, Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia. But the most egregious acts committed against us were initiated out of Russia, and when all was said and done they had fleeced us for more than US$10 million in a single calendar year.
How did we know it was Russia? A variety of different ways. Sometimes we would piece it together through computer and transactional forensics. Other times it would be through investigative work where the bad actors had stolen PayPal accounts and credit cards and were laundering funds through many accounts they controlled to ultimately purchase goods (such as electronics), where we would eventually trace the shipments of those goods to physical addresses in Russia.
We would also work extremely closely with law enforcement and the intelligence community to not only verify or share forensics data, but in one of my favorite instances actually help coerce two Russian hackers to the U.S. from Russia, where they performed more hacking and were quickly arrested. When the FBI purchased plane tickets for the hackers, the originating flight was from Russia, so it was a pretty safe guess where the hackers were from.
Russians, both individuals or crime syndicates, or geopolitically motivated state-sponsored institutions, meddle with and hack U.S. computers and systems constantly. It never ends. But, because we are a nation with the greatest collection of talent and spirit on earth, we’ve become ridiculously good at preventing this, or at least identifying when it happens and who did it.
Any suggestion we have no idea who is performing hacking activities is a dismissive slap in the face to the gifted men and women of our intelligence and technology communities, and an embarrassment to the President-elect himself. There’s one, and only one option here, which is for Washington — including those moving there next month — to deal with this as though the life of our republic depends on it.