The final days of 2016 were filled with more developments—some real, some not—in the ongoing story of Russia’s alleged interference in the US presidential election. On December 29, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint report that provided “technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election.”
In retaliation, the Obama administration announced that it was expelling 35 Russian diplomats, closing 2 diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York, and applying sanctions on Russia’s intelligence service. A day later, December 30, The Washington Post reported that an electrical utility in Vermont had been infiltrated by the same Russian malware that used to hack the DNC.
Taken together, these events set off a wave of media condemnation not just of the Russian government, but of President-elect Donald J. Trump for what is widely believed to be his overly accommodative posture toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yet despite the scores of breathless media pieces that assert that Russia’s interference in the election is “case closed,” might some skepticism be in order? Some cyber experts say “yes.”
As was quickly pointed out by the Burlington Free Press, The Washington Post’s story on the Vermont power grid was inaccurate. The malware was detected on a laptop that belonged to the utility but was not connected to the power plant. “The grid is not in danger,” said a spokesman for the Burlington utility. The Post has since amended its story with an editor’s note (as it did when its November 24 story on Russian “fake news” by reporter Craig Timberg was widely refuted) dialing back its original claims of Russian infiltration.
Meanwhile, the joint DHS/FBI report has come under scrutiny. Leonid Bershidsky, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, believes that “the U.S. intelligence community is making a spectacle of itself under political pressure from the outgoing administration and some Congress hawks. It ought to stop doing so.”