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Mueller report is a reminder that Russian hack hit House races, too

Talks between the DCCC and NRCC about using stolen information stalled in September

The Justice Department on Thursday released special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The Justice Department on Thursday released special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report provided new details Thursday about how Russian agents hacked into Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee computers in 2016, renewing the question of whether the two parties would agree not to use stolen material in future political attacks.

Leaders of the DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee came close to such an an agreement in late 2018, but talks broke down.

The two committees, which have new leaders for the 2020 cycle, have not restarted discussions. The DCCC is interested in re-engaging in talks, according to a source familiar with the committee’s thinking.

The NRCC declined to comment. The group’s new chairman, Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, was more focused Thursday on attacking the politics of investigating President Donald Trump.

“It is time for the emotional, socialist Democrats to knock it off with their childish temper tantrums, accept reality and get back to work,” he said in a statement.

DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos could not be reached immediately for comment. Her congressional office put out a statement about the overall Mueller report, saying she would “read the findings carefully.”

Bustos previously told The New York Times, after news broke that the NRCC had been hacked in 2018, that all political committees and campaigns should “agree publicly never to use stolen hacked materials for political gain.”

Watch: Barr on Mueller report ahead of release — ‘No collusion’

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Details of 2016 hack

According to the special counsel’s report, hackers with the Russian intelligence agency first broke into the DCCC’s systems on April 12, 2016, after successfully targeting a staffer in a spear phishing attack. Such attacks typically involve sending an email that appears to be from a trusted address but contains code that makes the computer and possibly its network vulnerable to the hacker.

On April 14, Russian agents began to download data from the DCCC’s server. Eventually 29 computers on the DCCC’s network were compromised, the Mueller report states.

Six days after breaking into the DCCC’s network, the hackers were able to use that access to get into the Democratic National Committee’s network, compromising more than 30 computers there. 

Hackers specifically searched DCCC files for documents containing the terms “Hillary,” “DNC,” “Cruz” and “Trump.” Mueller’s team found that Russian hackers stole “hundreds of thousands” of documents from both organizations, including “internal strategy documents, fundraising data, opposition research, and emails from the work inboxes of DNC employees.”

Following the 2016 hack, the DCCC instituted new cybersecurity measures, including mandating training for staff and issuing guidelines to candidates for best practices. Staff at the DCCC also began to use an encrypted messaging software known as Wickr. 

Using stolen information

Mueller’s report also detailed how Russian agents disseminated the stolen information through an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0, which communicated directly with reporters and other individuals. 

The report detailed three instances, all in August 2016, in which Guccifer 2.0 released the information stolen from the DCCC. According to the report, Guccifer 2.0 sent a congressional candidate information about the candidates’ opponent; shared “Florida related data” with a blogger covering Florida politics; and sent a reporter information from the DCCC about the Black Lives Matter movement. 

These three instances were also described in a July indictment, which charged 12 Russian agents with interfering in the 2016 election. It is not clear which candidate communicated directly with Guccifer 2.0. The indictment notes the candidate requested the stolen documents.

Stolen information affected more congressional races than the examples in Mueller’s report, according to a 2016 report from The New York Times.  The Times reported Guccifer 2.0 released documents on candidates in six states: Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina. 

In August 2016, the NRCC referenced internal DCCC documents in an ad in Florida’s 18th District, drawing calls from Democrats not to use the stolen materials. Guccifer 2.0 had published an internal memo about the Florida race, with assessments of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. The memo noted that Randy Perkins, who became the Democratic nominee, was vulnerable to attacks relating to his disaster recovery company.

“Rip-off Randy is so corrupt, even Democratic Party bosses are questioning his character,” the ad’s narrator said.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, also referenced the DCCC documents that Guccifer 2.0 published in an ad aimed at former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia in Florida’s 26th District.

After the 2016 elections, the chairman of the two campaign committees, Democrat Ben Ray Luján and Republican Steve Stivers, began discussions about an agreement not to use stolen materials in future campaigns. But the talks stalled in September 2018.

“When the DCCC put forth a pretty commonsense, responsible agreement between both the committees on not using stolen materials, it was not a hypothetical,” a former DCCC official said Thursday. “It had just happened in 2016. So it was in effect asking Republicans to stop knowingly using hacked material.”

Luján and Stivers did not restart discussions, according to three sources familiar with negotiations. Stivers had previously been skeptical about barring campaigns from using information that is public knowledge.

“Once something’s in the public domain, I’m not sure if you can say, ‘Everybody let’s just ignore it,’” Stivers said last June.

The former DCCC official expressed concern that history could repeat itself, and stolen information could once again be used in political attacks.

“It’s an important reminder that this is not just about President Trump,” the official said. “This is a sickness that affected the entire Republican Party.”