Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was curt to his former aide. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “is a national disgrace and an international pariah,” he wrote. In the leaked email, Powell, whose public persona is dignified and deeply appealing to both political parties, comes across as frustrated and upset by the 2016 presidential election. “I would rather not have to vote for her,” he wrote elsewhere, referring to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, describing her as having “a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational.”
It was the sort of juicy gossip political reporters just cannot ignore, and they predictably ran stories detailing who got burned and who got shade from the famously dignified and respectful Powell. Yet this email leak was the latest vanguard of what has become a sustained campaign of cyber operations by the Russian government, seemingly geared to manipulate the election. By aggressively hacking into email accounts and then selectively leaking documents meant to embarrass Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, Moscow is combining two different strains of security threats in a way no one is sure how to counter. Combining a traditional form of cyber operation (the actual email hacks) with targeted releases to affect a political outcome (information warfare), the Russian government has innovated a type of cyberwarfare that is catching both the media and policymakers off guard.
The Powell emails have been linked to a hacking group called Fancy Bear, and they have been behind some of this year’s biggest cyber operations on the United States. It is the same group that hacked into the Democratic National Committee and released emails in an effort to embarrass Hillary Clinton and hurt her campaign for the presidency. They hacked into the World Anti-Doping Agency in an effort to embarrass Venus and Serena Williams over exemptions they claimed for taking prohibited drugs during the Olympics. They leaked emails by former Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove to undermine U.S. policies in Europe. And now they’ve been linked to the Powell email leaks as well.
As cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect has documented meticulously, Fancy Bear is at the heart of a network of websites backed by the Russian state, most likely a military intelligence unit, and is engaged in a sustained information operations campaign. One of those related websites, called DC Leaks, which has also been linked to Russian intelligence, recently released Michelle Obama’s passport alongside sensitive travel information for the White House. This is happening in an election year.