In search of Biden dirt? Russia hacked Ukrainian gas company at heart of Trump impeachment scandal

"We can only assume [this] is a repeat of Russian interference in the last election," one security expert says

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published January 14, 2020 2:44AM (EST)

 (AP/Getty/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Getty/Photo montage by Salon)

Russian military hackers broke into the computers of a Ukrainian gas company at the heart of President Donald Trump's impeachment scandal, and the timing suggests they could have been searching for damaging information related to former Vice President Joe Biden, according to The New York Times.

Russian military hackers began trying to penetrate the computers of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm whose board previously included Biden's son Hunter, in early November, according to the report. The company has long been at the center of Trump's debunked conspiracy theories alleging wrongdoing while the former vice president was still in office.

While it remains unclear what the hackers were searching for, experts told The Times that "the timing and scale of the attacks suggest that the Russians could be searching for potentially embarrassment material on the Bidens." Trump sought damaging information against his potential rival in the 2020 election, and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, kicked off a pressure campaign to force Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and Burisma.

The tactics are "strikingly similar" to Russia's hack of Hillary Clinton's campaign chief and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign, according to The Times. In both instances, hackers from the Russian military intelligence unit previously known as the GRU used phishing emails to steal login data. In the Burisma case, hackers sent emails to company employees instructing them to log in on fake websites designed to look pages for the company's subsidiaries.

At least some of the employees were fooled into providing their login details, according to the report.

"The attacks were successful," Oren Falkowitz, the co-founder of security firm Area 1, told The Times. "The timing of the Russian campaign mirrors the GRU hacks we saw in 2016 against the DNC and John Podesta. Once again, they are stealing email credentials, in what we can only assume is a repeat of Russian interference in the last election."

A dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted by the Department of Justice in 2018 for their role in the 2016 hacks.

Falkowitz said that the Russians were simply repeating what turned out to be a successful effort in the last election.

"The Burisma hack is a cookie-cutter GRU campaign," Falkowitz told the outlet. "Russian hackers, as sophisticated as they are, also tend to be lazy. They use what works, and in this, they were successful."

Along with the Burisma hacks, Russian spies are working in Ukraine to "dig up information … that could embarrass the Bidens," an American security official told The Times. The official said Russian operatives have tried to get sources in the Ukrainian government to turn over emails, financial records and legal documents, which could be useful to them.

The Biden campaign told the outlet that the hacks suggest that Russia views the former vice president as a threat.

"Donald Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into lying about Joe Biden and a major bipartisan, international anti-corruption victory, because he recognized that he can't beat the vice president. Now we know that Vladimir Putin also sees Joe Biden as a threat," said campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. "Any American president who had not repeatedly encouraged foreign interventions of this kind would immediately condemn this attack on the sovereignty of our elections."

Former Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., agreed that the report suggests Russia is "panicking that their Putin puppet could lose" to Biden. Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul also said the report was "more evidence that Putin fears Biden and is actively trying to help Trump."

Brian Klaas, a political scientist and Washington Post columnist, faulted Trump for the hacks.

"After years of Trump effectively encouraging Russian hacking and information warfare to help him win an election, this was inevitable," he wrote. "He's put a target on our democracy and is encouraging foreign regimes to pull the trigger."

CNN reporter Marshall Cohen suggested that even if Russia comes up empty, it can manufacture documents to damage Biden.

"Russia could leak Burisma emails, and slip in some doctored emails, to harm Biden later on, if he is the Democratic nominee," he wrote on Twitter. "The 2016 playbook all over again."

Noah Shachtman, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, urged journalists to think twice about publishing documents stolen by the Russians as outlets did with the Clinton emails in 2016.

"I hope my fellow editors will think hard — really hard, a lot harder than they did in 2016 — before publishing any material hacked by the Russians," he tweeted.

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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