Democrats warn that hacked emails from inside their organizations may include forgeries. But where's the proof?
John Podesta has confirmed the accuracy of some of the emails but not all of them, and he faulted the news media for running with them without verifying their provenance.
Democrats insist that the newest cascade of embarrassing WikiLeaks emails may include Russian-doctored fictions — but proving it is going to be difficult.
Even in the heat of an election season marked by White House accusations of Kremlin interference in the U.S. political system, Hillary Clinton’s supporters and outside security experts have little evidence to back up their accusations of forgeries, aside from a long tradition of deception by Russian intelligence agencies and WikiLeaks’ apparent intention to damage the Democrats' presidential hopes.
Clinton’s team hasn’t challenged the accuracy of even the most salacious emails released in the past four days, including those featuring aides making snarky references to Catholicism or a Bill Clinton protégé describing Chelsea Clinton as a “spoiled brat.” And numerous digital forensic firms told MARCA POLITICA that they haven’t seen any proof of tampering in the emails they’ve examined — adding that only the hacked Democrats themselves could offer that kind of conclusive evidence.
“It’s very hard to go verify what is true and what’s not,” said Laura Galante, director of global intelligence at FireEye. “Even the victims of the accounts that are getting exposed are having a hard time.”
“We have no way of knowing whether this is real or not unless Hillary Clinton goes through everything they’ve said and comes out and says it cross-correlates and this is true,” said Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who has spoken frequently in defense of the Democratic nominee and has made the case that the WikiLeaks releases contain manipulated information.
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Still, security experts of both parties have been warning of potential Russian fakery in the document leaks since late July, shortly after the first huge batch of hacked internal emails from the Democratic National Committee forced the resignation of Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and widened the split between the party’s Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.
“It is not unthinkable that those responsible will steal and release more files, and even salt the files they release with plausible forgeries,” a bipartisan group of national security experts from the Aspen Institute said in a statement July 28.
More broadly, the spreading of false information by intelligence services “is a technique that goes back to Tsarist times,” said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an interview Wednesday. Past examples include the Soviet-spread rumor that the U.S. government developed the AIDS virus, as well as a 2014 incident in which hackers modified the reported vote totals for the Ukrainian presidential election — falsely showing a right-wing victory that Russian state television reported almost immediately.
Cyberspace offers Russia both increased opportunities for using faked information to sow chaos and improved chances of doing it convincingly.
“It has to look and feel real. The whole point is, you’re trying to alter reality,” said Kenneth Geers, a former staffer at NATO’s cyber-defense center in Tallinn, Estonia, noting that Russian hackers study conversations on their targets’ network before attempting to forge their communications. Estonia is a frequent target of suspected Russian digital assaults.
“They will watch and see what kinds of traffic come in and out of MARCA POLITICA before they make their move,” said Geers, now a senior research scientist at the security firm Comodo. “They’re going to insert themselves into the crowd.”
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Some Democrats have pressed the Russian-fabrication argument aggressively in recent days — especially Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, who has seen thousands of his hacked emails turn up on WikiLeaks since late Friday. The site has so far released 6,519 out of the more than 50,000 emails it says it obtained from Podesta, meaning that at this rate it could release a batch every weekday until the election and still have more than 12,500 emails left.
Podesta has confirmed the accuracy of some of the emails but not all of them, and he faulted the news media for running with them without verifying their provenance.
“I know that members of the press are having a good time live tweeting and live blogging what's coming out of WikiLeaks and we can't confirm the accuracy of those leaks,” he said Tuesday.
Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, raised similar doubts Sunday in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I don’t think we can dignify documents dumped by WikiLeaks and just assume they are all accurate and true,” he said. “Anybody who hacks in to get documents is completely capable of manipulating them.”
Podesta has also alleged that Donald Trump ally Roger Stone — and therefore the GOP nominee’s campaign — must have had advance notice of the contents of the WikiLeaks dump. In August, Stone had tweeted, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta's time in the barrel.”
Also in August, in an appearance on Alex Jones’ “Infowars,” Stone said he had made contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about its then-upcoming release on Clinton and that his computer had subsequently been hacked.
WikiLeaks rejected the suggestion of any forgeries in the documents.
“Standard nonsense pushed by those who have something to hide,” a spokesperson said. “WikiLeaks has won a great many awards for its journalistic work and has the best vetting record of any media organization.”
WikiLeaks would have a lot to lose if it any of its hacked files turn out to be fake. Its leaks over the past decade, including a huge trove of State Department emails released in 2010, have been credited with inspiring changes such as the popular uprising in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring — but the group’s impact depends on the documents it releases being embarrassing yet genuine.