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The Tripartite (At Least) Structure of the Russian Hack Investigation

As I mentioned in this post, on Saturday, Reuters offered the most comprehensive description of the structure of the FBI investigation into the DNC hack. As it describes there are “at least” three different distinct probes into the FBI hack: one led by counterintelligence agents based in DC, one in Pittsburgh targeted at the hack of the DNC itself, and one in San Francisco targeted at the Guccifer 2 persona.

That structure is interesting for a number of reasons, not least that, in recent years, FBI has assigned cyber investigative teams to geographical offices that have developed certain expertise. I’m most interested that FBI has split the Guccifer 2 side of the investigation off from the hack of the DC.

DC: The Counterintelligence investigation

Let’s start with the DC investigation. Contrary to what you may think, a good deal of the attention on Trump’s close advisors stems from behavior that barely involves the DNC hack, if at all, but instead focuses on larger discussions of quid pro quo. Here’s what has been publicly alleged, mostly in the Trump dossier. Reminder, these are only allegations! 

Paul Manafort, using Carter Page as a go between, conducts on-going quid pro quo about attacks on Hillary in response for distracting from Ukraine issues. (PDF 8)

Carter Page conducts a meeting with Rosneft CEO (and US sanction target) Igor Sechin in Moscow. The two discuss a quid pro quo tying 19% transfer of Rosneft to Page in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.(PDF 9, 30) On the same visit, Page meets top Kremlin official Diyevkin, where the latter explains to Page what kind of compromising information they had on both Trump and Hillary. (PDF 9)

A Kremlin figure describes Russian efforts to reach out to some in the US, including Jill Stein, Mike Flynn, and Carter Page. (PDF 15)

At a meeting in August, Yanukovych admits to Putin that he had paid off Manafort, but had covered it up. According to Steele’s sources, Putin doubts how well Yanukovych had covered his tracks. (PDF 20-21)

Trump lawyer Michael Cohen meets with Russian Presidential Administration figures, including Oleg Solodukhin, operating under the cover of the Rossotrudnichestvo organization, in Prague in August. According to two pre-election reports, this meeting was to clean up fall-out of prior contacts with Manafort (here described exclusively in terms of his involvement in Ukraine) and Page (described as the quid pro quo on sanctions). (PDF 18, 31-32) According to a post-election report, the meeting also discusses payments and cover-up of Europe-based hackers, who would be paid by both the Russians and Trump. (PDF 34-35) The role of Cohen — whose wife is Russian and whose father-in-law is a key Russian developer — as liaison to Russia is key. Note, information likely indicating intelligence sourcing is redacted in two of these reports. (PDF 30, 34)

The one other Trump figure mentioned in allegations of Russian ties, Roger Stone, is not mentioned in the dossier, though his role has exclusively been described as a potential knowing go-between with Wikileaks. (The error I mentioned I made in my the OTM interview was in forgetting Cohen, whose role is central, and instead mentioning Stone.)

In other words, while allegations of involvement with Russia do touch on the DNC hack, for both Manafort and Page, the evidence focuses more on old-fashioned influence peddling. The evidence against Flynn in the dossier is exclusively that of cultivation.

Only Cohen, though, is strongly and repeatedly alleged in the dossier to have had a role in both the influence peddling and arranging — and paying! — for the DNC hack (though a weak allegation against Manafort is made in an early report).

Yesterday, NYT reported that Cohen tried to pitch a crazy “peace” deal for Ukraine to Mike Flynn not long before the latter was caught on an intercept with Russia’s Ambassador.

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker [named Andrii Artemenko].

Note that Sater, who has mobbed up business ties with Trump the latter has denied, also allegedly has worked for the CIA.

All of this is a way of saying that several of Trump’s advisors — especially Cohen — have been alleged to have dodgy ties to Russian, but much if not most of that pertains to influence peddling tied to Ukraine and sanctions imposed in retaliation for Russian involvement in Ukraine. So even beyond the different technical and security requirements of the investigation (not to mention any sensitivity involving the CIA), such an investigation sensibly would reside in FBI’s CI world. Thus the DC investigation.

Pittsburgh: The DNC hackers

As Reuters describes it, the Pittsburgh inquiry is examining who hacked the DNC (curiously, it makes no mention of John Podesta or any other hack target).

The FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, which runs many cyber security investigations, is trying to identify the people behind breaches of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, the officials said. Those breaches, in 2015 and the first half of 2016, exposed the internal communications of party officials as the Democratic nominating convention got underway and helped undermine support for Hillary Clinton.

The Pittsburgh case has progressed furthest, but Justice Department officials in Washington believe there is not enough clear evidence yet for an indictment, two of the sources said.

It’s not just that Pittsburgh conducts a lot of cyber security investigations — though it has been involved in some key multinational cybercrime investigations (and perhaps as importantly, infrastructure take-downs). In addition to international partnerships in those investigations, it partners closely with Carnegie Mellon’s CERT, which is best known for developing an attack on Tor the FBI uses (the legal follow-up to the 2014 Operation Onymous operation that exposed it went through SDNY in Manhattan, though that would have been before FBI started assigning investigations by geography).

Pittsburgh is also where the most discussed indictment of a nation-state hacking group — that of Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers, mostly for spying on negotiations — came through (most of the victim companies were there too, but that was probably because they could all serve as victims without compromising national security). I will be interested to see whether the FBI assigned this investigation to Pittsburgh before or after Crowdstrike declared the DNC hack a state-sponsored hack.

San Francisco: Guccifer 2

Finally, there is the investigation into Guccifer 2, the persona who claimed to have hacked the DNC, who took credit for handing the documents to WikiLeaks, and who allegedly had ties to DC Leaks. Here’s how Reuters describes this part of the investigation:

Meanwhile the bureau’s San Francisco office is trying to identify the people who called themselves “Guccifer 2” and posted emails stolen from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s account, the sources said. Those emails contained details about fundraising by the Clinton Foundation and other topics.

The language here is really curious. The strongest case that Russia’s GRU hacked a Democratic target involves Podesta. And Guccifer didn’t post any Podesta emails. Guccifer claimed to have posted Clinton Foundation documents, though the documents appeared to be DCCC documents, my comment on which elicited an unsolicited response from Guccifer.

Reuters is actually not the first outlet to report that San Francisco was investigating Guccifer. I believe credit for that goes to Ellen Nakashima’s report, the day before Obama imposed sanctions, on how the US might retaliate.

Criminal indictments of Russians might become an option, officials said, but the FBI has so far not gathered enough evidence that could be introduced in a criminal case. At one point, federal prosecutors and FBI agents in San Francisco considered indicting Guccifer 2.0, a nickname for a person or people believed to be affiliated with the Russian influence operation and whose true identity was unknown.

In December, at least, it appears the FBI did not know Guccifer’s identity though they still believed it to be tied to Russia. Nevertheless that part of the investigation had already been spun out to San Francisco, the other side of the country from the Pittsburgh hack investigation.

Now, there have always been reasons to doubt the interpretation that Russian metadata invoking Felix Dzerzhinsky was proof that Guccifer was Russian, rather than disinformation casting blame on Russia. Here are two more recent pieces making that argument. And in Guccifer’s most recent posting — posted on January 12 but fairly obviously written and posted in advance — the persona used proper English. Nevertheless, that’s presumably not why this part of the investigation got spun off.

There are several other possibilities explaining why the Guccifer investigation is in San Francisco. That office, too, does a ton of cyber investigations, but virtually all of those involve Bay Area companies targeted as victims. So it’s possible the San Francisco office is leading the investigation because of some tie with an area company. Guccifer posted on WordPress, which is headquartered in San Francisco, so that could explain it. It’s also possible FBI believes there is a tie between Guccifer and Shadow Brokers. The latter persona is not mentioned by Reuters, but they are surely also being investigated, perhaps even separately from the Hal Martin investigation in Maryland. If that’s the case, the victim American firewall companies exposed in the first release are all headquartered in Silicon Valley (though they were initially victimized by NSA’s TAO hackers, unless the companies knew NSA was using those back doors).

There are two other interesting cases that might suggest why the Guccifer part of the investigation is out in San Francisco. First, the corrupt government agents who stole Bitcoin while they were investigating Silk Road were investigated and tried out there. I’ve always suspected that was done to make it harder for Ross Ulbricht to access information on that investigation in discovery (if that was the intent, it worked like a charm!). I’m not suggesting there’s anything like that going on here, but I can imagine reasons why the FBI might want to firewall some parts of this investigation from others.

Finally, note that Yevgeniy Aleksandrovich Nikulin, the credential theft hacker arrested in Prague in October, was investigated out of San Francisco, explicitly because his alleged victims are also located in the Bay Area. There have always been hints that that arrest might tie into the Russian investigation (not least because Nikulin is Russian), but this would seem to suggest there’s a tangential tie to it. So perhaps by the time FBI split up this investigation that theory had been developed.

Update: Laura Rozen reminds me via Twitter that Russia’s San Francisco Consulate was one of the locales from which diplomats were expelled.

A final comment. As interesting as it is that this investigation has split into three, I find it just as interesting that EDVA is not involved in it, which is where most international hacking investigations take place. I’ve got no explanation for why that might be, but it is as interesting a question as why the Guccifer investigation got sent out to San Francisco.

One thing is clear, though: For some reason, FBI thought it best to split two parts of what have widely believed to have been part of the same operation — the hacking and (some of) the leaking — and conduct them completely across the country from each other.

US Indicts Hal Martin — But Offers No Hint He’s the Source for Shadow Brokers, Or Anyone Else

After David Petraeus shared notebooks full of code word intelligence with his girlfriend (and boxes of other classified information), then lied about it to the FBI, the government let Petraeus off with two years of probation.

DOJ just indicted Hal Martin — the Booz Allen contractor who allegedly stole terabytes of NSA information — with 20 charges each carrying up to 10 years of punishment. The indictment includes no hint that Martin did anything but hoard the files he stole. There’s no allegation he shared them with anyone (though, like Petraeus, he definitely kept very sensitive documents in highly insecure fashion).

Significantly, there’s no mention of the Shadow Brokers or even a description of the hacking tools Martin allegedly stole (though that’s likely because DOJ would draw up the indictment to avoid confirming that NSA even has hacking tools, much less the ones released to the public).

The only description of a document specifically targeting an adversary akin to the one described to the WaPo seems to target a terrorist organization, not Russia (meaning that they’re not presenting evidence Martin preferentially collected information on Russia, though again, if he were, they might hide that).

And the indictment alleges that Martin continued to steal documents up until 12 days before he was arrested, and significantly, three days after the first Shadow Brokers post on August 13.

It would be the height of folly for someone who knew he was the source for the Shadow Brokers to keep stealing documents after Shadow Brokers had gone public (though at that point, it wasn’t clear precisely what Shadow Brokers was going to release).

Certainly, the way in which DOJ has charged this — larding on 20 different charges — suggests they’re trying to coerce him into cooperating. The case against Chelsea Manning, which was partly an attempt to coerce Manning to testify against Julian Assange and Wikileaks, was very nearly parallel in the charging of many documents. In Manning’s case, there was no way for her to cooperate to implicate Assange except to lie; there’s nothing Assange did to elicit the files. That may be the case for Martin, too.

The big difference here is there’s absolutely no hint that Martin shared any of this. Given the Petraeus and Hillary precedents, the government will have a difficult time coercing Martin further, given that Petraeus didn’t even do prison time for hoarding and then sharing equally classified documents (albeit not as many of them).

Nevertheless, it appears that that DOJ is trying to coerce Martin to get information it offers no proof he even has.

Update: As it happens, DOJ indicted Hal Martin just over 4 hours before Jeff Sessions, who has refused to recuse himself in investigations of the Russian hack of the DNC, was confirmed as Attorney General. Again, there’s no evidence whatsoever that DOJ has any evidence Martin was a source for Shadow Brokers, who are presumed to have a tie to the DNC hack. But if they suspect it, indicting Martin with such extensive charges before Sessions comes in will make it hard for Sessions to reverse what seems to be an effort to coerce Martin to reveal any tie to the hack.

How Hal Martin Stole 75% of NSA’s Hacking Tools: NSA Failed to Implement Required Security Fixes for Three Years after Snowden

The other day, Ellen Nakashima reported that Hal Martin, the Booz Allen contractor who has been in custody for months based on allegations he stole terabytes of NSA’s hacking tools, may be indicted this week. The story raises some interesting questions — such as how, absent some proof that Martin leaked this information to a third party, prosecutors intend to distinguish Martin’s hoarding from David Petraeus’ sharing of code word information with his girlfriend Paula Broadwell. One detail Nakashima included — that Martin had stolen “operational plans against ‘a known enemy’ of the United States” — may suggest prosecutors plan to insinuate Martin stole the information to alert that known enemy (especially if the known enemy is Russia).

All that said, the detail in Nakashima’s story that has attracted the most notice is the claim that Martin stole 75% of NSA’s hacking tools.

Some U.S. officials said that Martin allegedly made off with more than 75 percent of TAO’s library of hacking tools — an allegation which, if true, would be a stunning breach of security.

Frankly, this factoid feels a lot like the claim that Edward Snowden stole 1.5 million documents from NSA, a claim invented at least in part because Congress wanted an inflammatory detail they could leak and expand budgets with. That’s especially true given that the 75% number comes from “US officials,” which sometimes include members of Congress or their staffers.

Still, the stat is pretty impressive: even in the wake of the Snowden leak, a contractor was able to walk out the door, over time, with most of NSA’s most dangerous hacking tools.

Except it should in no way be a surprise. Consider what the House Intelligence Report on Snowden revealed, which I mentioned here. Buried way back at the end of the report, it describes how in the wake of Snowden’s leaks, NSA compiled a list of security improvements that would have stopped Snowden, which it dubbed, “Secure the Net.” This initiative included the following, among other things:

  • Imposing two person control for transferring data by removable media (making it harder for one individual to put terabytes of data on a thumb drive and walk out the door with it)
  • Reducing the number of privileged and authorized data transfer agents (making it easier to track those who could move terabytes of data around)
  • Moving towards continuous evaluation model for background investigations (which might reveal that someone had debt problems, as Martin did)

By July 2014, the report reveals, even some of the most simple changes included in the initiative had not been implemented. On August 22, 2016 — nine days after an entity calling itself Shadow Brokers first offered to auction off what have since been verified as NSA tools — NSA reported that four of the initiatives associated with the Secure the Net remained unfulfilled.

All the while, according to the prosecutors’ allegations, Martin continued to walk out of NSA with TAO’s hacking tools.

Parallel to NSA’s own Secure the Net initiative, in the intelligence authorization for 2016 the House directed the DOD Inspector General to assess NSA’s information security. I find it interesting that HPSCI had to order this review and that they asked DOD’s IG, not NSA’s IG, to do it.

DOD IG issued its report on August 29, 2016, two days after a search of Martin’s home had revealed he had taken terabytes of data and the very day he was arrested. The report revealed that NSA needed to do more than its proposed fixes under the Secure the Net initiative. Among the things it discovered, for example, is that NSA did not consistently secure server racks and other sensitive equipment in data centers, and did not extend two-stage authentication controls to all high risk users.

So more than three years after Snowden walked out of the NSA with thousands of documents on a thumb drive, DOD Inspector General discovered that NSA wasn’t even securing all its server racks.

“Recent security breaches at NSA underscore the necessity for the agency to improve its security posture,” The HPSCI report stated dryly, referring obliquely to Martin and (presumably) another case Nakashima has reported on.

Then the report went on to reveal that CIA didn’t even require a physical token for general or privileged users of its enterprise or mission systems.

So yes, it is shocking that a contractor managed to walk out the door with 75% of NSA’s hacking tools, whatever that means. But it is also shocking that even the Edward Snowden breach didn’t lead NSA to implement some really basic security procedures.

As of August 29, 2016, Not All High Risk Users at NSA Had Two-Factor Authentication

For the last several weeks, all of DC has been wailing that Russia hacked the election, in part because John Podesta didn’t have two-factor authentication on his Gmail account.

So it should scare all of you shitless that, as of August 29, 2016, not all high risk users at NSA had 2FA.

That revelation comes 35 pages  into the 38 page HPSCI report on Edward Snowden. It describes how an IG Report finished on August 29 found that NSA still had not closed the Privileged Access-Related holes in the NSA’s network.

That’s not the only gaping hole: apparently even server racks in data centers were not secure.

And note that date: August 29? Congress would have heard about these glaring problems just two weeks after the first Shadow Brokers leak, and days after Hal Martin got arrested with terabytes of NSA data in his backyard shed.

I think I can understand why James Clapper and Ash Carter want to fire Mike Rogers.