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FBI investigating whether Russians hacked Democratic Party’s emails to help Trump

By Del Quentin Wilber and Tracy Wilkinson Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – The plot seems ripped from the pages of a post-Cold War espionage thriller: Russian spy services hack into the Democratic Party’s computers, pilfer reams of data and then leak damaging emails in the hopes of helping elect a preferred presidential candidate.

Yet that is exactly the allegation the FBI confirmed Monday it is investigating.

The recent hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computers has left U.S. officials scrambling over how to respond to a cyberattack that may have crossed a new line in the secretive world of state-sponsored spying and computer warfare.

One government official equated the hack against one of America’s main political parties to an assault on the nation’s “critical infrastructure,” such as the electrical grid.

The FBI’s terse statement confirming the investigation came just three days after WikiLeaks published a trove of nearly 20,000 internal DNC emails that showed its leaders privately favoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the party’s primary. The embarrassing emails forced the resignation over the weekend of the party’s chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

But the specter of Russia’s involvement has begun to loom larger and is far more concerning to former FBI officials, diplomats and cybersecurity experts who expressed concerns that Russia could be seeking to tip the electoral scales in favor of Clinton’s Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

Clinton’s top campaign officials wasted no time in seeking to deflect attention from the emails’ contents to the possibility that Russia might be trying to help Trump. It marked a surprising turnaround because Republicans traditionally viewed Russia, and the Soviet Union before that, with a wary eye, and had frequently accused Democrats of being too soft on America’s Cold War enemy.

Even in the 2012 election, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

Now Clinton operatives are pointing to statements by the business mogul that indicate a break with past Republican orthodoxy, suggesting he would be more lenient in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has praised Putin’s leadership style and said recently that he might not support some NATO allies if they were attacked by Russia, a remark quickly condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Clinton campaign officials also have noted that Trump’s campaign co-chairman, Paul Manafort, previously worked as a consultant for the now-ousted pro-Russian government in Ukraine.

At a news conference Monday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook cited the assessment of unidentified experts that Russian state actors had facilitated the hacking and release of the emails “for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.”

Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told reporters that “Trump has been espousing in public a bunch of policies from a foreign policy standpoint that would completely play into Vladimir Putin’s hands.”

The Trump campaign strongly rebutted such allegations. On Twitter, the candidate called the claims “a joke.” His son, Donald Trump Jr., told CNN that he could not “think of bigger lies.”

In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Manafort denied there were any ties between the campaign and Putin. “That’s absurd,” he said. “And, you know, there is no basis for it.”

WikiLeaks also has dismissed claims that Russian hackers provided them with the emails, though they have not said where they acquired them.

Getting to the bottom of whether Putin or the Russian government is behind the hack will be difficult, even if the FBI confirms the findings of CrowdStrike, a well-regarded cybersecurity firm that was hired by the DNC to investigate the hack.

CrowdStrike in June issued a lengthy report “identifying two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries” as the hackers.

A number of cybersecurity experts have confirmed CrowdStrike’s findings, calling the evidence of the Russian involvement overwhelming.

“There are Russian fingerprints all over this,” said Rich Barger, chief intelligence officer of ThreatConnect.

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