Content, Breach

Communication Breakdown: FBI Hid Info on Russian Email Hacks Hitting Top U.S. Officials

Whatever happened to forewarned is forearmed? The Federal Bureau of Investigation knew for more than a year that the Russia-linked Fancy Bear cyber attackers were behind a scheme to break into the private Gmail accounts of "scores" of U.S. government individuals and organizations but neglected to alert the potential targets, the Associated Press (AP) reported, based on a two-month investigation.

An unidentified senior FBI official acknowledged the agency's lapse but blamed it on the tidal wave of attempted cyber security hacks. “It’s a matter of triaging to the best of our ability the volume of the targets who are out there,” he said.

In its inquiry into the Fancy Bear email leaks, the AP identified some 500 potential targets from data provided by Dell-owned managed security services provider SecureWorks. Of the 80 government officials subsequently contacted -- about 25 percent are now retired and some had previously held security clearances -- only two confirmed prior knowledge from the FBI of their exposure to the Fancy Bear cyber espionage.

According to the AP, a handful of others learned that Fancy Bear had attempted to break into their Gmail accounts only when their emails came into public view last year, while others still don’t know. For example, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told the AP that he has yet to receive any warning from the FBI.

The FBI apparently didn’t have much to say about the AP’s findings, offering only that it “routinely notifies individuals and organizations of potential threat information.”

The hacking scheme was apparently tied to DCLinks, a website that exposed the emails of Democratic officials in the 2016 presidential campaign, the report said. U.S. intelligence agencies are convinced that Russian operatives stole thousands of emails connected to the Democratic Party and were behind the resulting public leaks that disrupted the election. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement.

On-the-record condemnations of the FBI’s reticence came from former members of the U.S. intelligence community. Philip Reiner, an ex-National Security Council senior director, who the FBI warned two years ago that Fancy Bear had him in its sights, called it “utterly confounding” that federal law enforcement held back the hit list back from people, the AP said. And Charles Sowell, a Fancy Bear target and former senior administrator in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, waved off the “excuse that there’s too much data,” calling the agency’s handling of the situation “ridiculous.”

You may remember that nearly two years ago, the FBI told presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that hackers were aiming at some insiders’ Gmail accounts. But at the time the feds didn’t offer anything beyond traditional security tools the campaign already had in place, declined to identify the cyber attackers and neglected to take control of the contaminated server, the report said.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.