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Growing List Of American Politicians, Athletes Subject To Russian Hacking


Colin Powell, Simone Biles, Serena and Venus Williams - this past week, they joined a growing list of Americans, including Democratic Party officials, who have had their emails and private records hacked, reportedly by Russian-linked cyber spies. The hacks and leaks and Donald Trump's call for more have already shaken up the U.S. presidential campaign. Now the question is what further threat could they present to the integrity of our electoral process.

James Andrew Lewis has been thinking a lot about this. He's a cyber security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, and he joins me in our studio. Thanks so much for coming in.

ANDREW LEWIS: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: First off, the Obama administration hasn't even said for sure that Russia is actually behind these hacks. Are you so sure?

LEWIS: The Obama administration hasn't said publicly. In private, it's an open secret in Washington. I don't know why they just don't say it. I mean, maybe they're trying to manage the politics of relations with Putin, but there's no doubt that it's Russian intelligence services.

MARTIN: Why are you so convinced?

LEWIS: Well, there's two sets of evidence. The first set of evidence is the firms that have investigated the hacks that use forensic techniques. They found things that point back to Moscow and state agencies. And then second, we of course have our own intelligence methods that have also been persuasive. So between the two, everybody's saying it's the Russians. There shouldn't be any doubt.

MARTIN: And what's the motivation?

LEWIS: There's two sets of motivation. One is petty and childish. I mean, they're still sort of grumpy about losing the Cold War. They were annoyed at having their athletes kicked out of the Olympics. That's the only motive for this stupid World Doping Agency hack.

MARTIN: This was the Olympic athletes.

LEWIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Simone Biles, in particular.

LEWIS: That was simply payback. But there's a larger campaign that Russia is using to delegitimize Western democracy, to split the U.S. and Europe and to promote far right parties, not only in the U.S., but in France, in Germany, in Scandinavia. So this is a bigger campaign to manipulate Western politics.

MARTIN: In which direction, though, because Colin Powell - in the emails that were made public, he was perhaps more critical of Trump, but he also had tough words to say about Hillary Clinton.

LEWIS: The goal here isn't to pick one side or the other to win, although I think they have a clear favorite. The goal is to create disruption, confusion, to delegitimize the results of our election. And President Putin has already been saying that. He said, how can they criticize us? Because - look at their own elections. Would anyone call them democratic?

MARTIN: Hackers targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona this summer. So, again, no conclusive evidence that this was Russia or Russian-linked cyber spies, but it does prove that these systems are vulnerable. Do you think the U.S. government is preparing for future attacks that could genuinely undermine the election come November 8?

LEWIS: Well, it's already kind of succeeded. There's doubt about the elections, and so they could - people back in Moscow could say, we've already had some success. One of the problems for us - and in some ways, it's a good problem - is it's a federal system. So there's 51 different entities that control the state elections, and then there's thousands of counties, each with different machines, different processes. So it's not like you can find the place where the elections are controlled.

That makes it harder for the Russians to manipulate them. But it also makes it harder for us to come up with a defense because the U.S. government does not own the elections. The states do. And there's an effort by DHS to work with the states to harden their electoral systems, but Uncle Sam has limited time, limited tools. The election's coming up close, and we might just have to grin and bear it.

MARTIN: Overall, what's the impact on U.S.-Russian relations of this particular chapter?

LEWIS: It looks to me like about a month ago, they were getting ready to sanction Russia. The president created new cybersecurity sanctions. And it looked like they were getting ready to do it, and then something got in the way. Maybe it was a desire to see if they could get a truce in Syria. For whatever reason, they didn't pull the trigger.

MARTIN: James Andrew Lewis is the senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for coming in.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.