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Russia targeted FBI teams in 2016 cyberhacks: HuffPost report

Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview in July 2018. (Kremlin/Released)
September 16, 2019

New reports have indicated a once-hidden element of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections involved efforts to target the FBI directly and prevent them from finding U.S. based Russian spies.

When the outgoing Obama administration announced the seizure of two Russian-owned estate and the expulsion of three dozen Russian diplomats at the end of December 2016, it indicated the move was a retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. New documents obtained by the Huffington Post suggest there was more at play for the Russians as they took up an effort to cripple FBI countermeasures to their campaign.

The two estates, then owned by the Russian government, as well as at least some of the expelled diplomats,  were involved in an effort to track an FBI surveillance team that was tracking spies Russia had placed on U.S. soil.

Intelligence officials discovered the Russians had cracked the secure communicates devices of FBI surveillance team members, giving them a peak into which of their spies were being watched. This may have given those Russian spies the ability to evade surveillance and even gather information about the teams that were tracking them.

The indications of a breach in security also raised concerns the Russians could access U.S. computers now connected to the internet and perhaps had a spy within the U.S. intelligence community.

“It was a very broad effort to try and penetrate our most sensitive operations,” an unnamed CIA official told Huffington Post reporters.

The potential for those security breaches was first understood in 2012.

The FBI may have first been compromised in 2010, when the FBI began surveilling a New York-based Russian spy ring. The ring of Russian spies was reportedly trying to recruit U.S. sources including Carter Page, a former campaign advisor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Page was eventually surveilled during the 2016 elections, through a secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court request.

In a June interview, Page told Fox News he had a prior relationship with the U.S. intelligence community, informing them on Russian activities.

“I was asked various questions, not only by [The State Department], FBI, et cetera, but also by CIA,” Page said. “I had a longstanding relationship with the CIA, going back decades.”

According to the Huffington Post 2012, some of the FBI’s assets stopped providing information about their Russian connections and discontinued contacts with the FBI, and the surveillance teams suspected the breach in their secure communications may have been connected.

The issues also came about as then-President Barrack Obama pursued a “reset” with Russia.

“We didn’t understand that they were at political war with us already in the second term,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia during the Obama administration.

Former Michigan congressman Mike Rogers, who led the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2011 to 2015, had requested counterintelligence briefings throughout the same time period, after suspected hacks by either the Chinese or the Russians.

“Counterintelligence was always looked at as the crazy uncle at the party. I wanted to raise it up and give it a robust importance,” he said.

The understanding of Russia’s actions and the willingness to counteract them also were reportedly divided issues. It took until the 2016 election interference for the White House to officially suspend the diplomats and seize the two Russian-owner properties suspected of acting as listening posts for the Russian spying efforts.

According to the Huffington Post, though the FBI consistently supported the expulsion of the Russians, others in Washington worried about retaliation and the exposure of U.S. backed operatives.

Though Special Counsel Robert Mueller was originally mandated to investigate the role Russian interference played in the 2016 U.S. elections, the issue of the specific technical actions by Russian operatives may have also been lost on members of congress who at times focused instead on Trump’s alleged involvement.