FBI says Democrats refused access to e-mail servers during probe into Russian hacking claims

The FBI building is seen in Washington, DC.
The FBI building is seen in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Democratic National Committee (DNC) rebuffed requests by federal agents to inspect computer servers that had been breached last year during the presidential campaign, forcing them to rely on third-party cyber security data to investigate the hack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said.

The revelation came hours before US intelligence chiefs are set to brief President-elect Donald Trump on Friday (Jan 6) on their assessment that Russia was behind the attack.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, they rejected Mr Trump's repeated scepticism about their findings that senior Russian officials were to blame for the hacking and leaks of e-mails from Democratic officials and organisations backing Mrs Hillary Clinton.

After the hearing, Mr Trump took to Twitter to again express his doubts about their conclusions.

"The Democratic National Committee would not allow the FBI to study or see its computer info after it was supposedly hacked by Russia.....," he said. "So how and why are they so sure about hacking if they never even requested an examination of the computer servers? What is going on?"

The FBI on Thursday released a statement confirming Mr Trump's claim.

 

"The FBI repeatedly stressed to DNC officials the necessity of obtaining direct access to servers and data, only to be rebuffed until well after the initial compromise had been mitigated," the agency said.

"This left the FBI no choice but to rely upon a third party for information. These actions caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier."

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey are scheduled to brief Trump on Friday.

While intelligence agencies hadn't previously confirmed that the DNC refused to provide access to its computers, they had disclosed that they depended on private cyber security companies.

In October, Mr Timothy Barrett, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that US intelligence "independently observed technical activity that is consistent with the forensic evidence identified by a private cyber-firm and is consistent with our general understanding of cyber activities by the Russian government".

Although Mr Barrett didn't name the company, CrowdStrike released technical details last year to demonstrate hacking attacks against the DNC and other groups were carried out by the Russian government.

CrowdStrike said it found evidence that hacking attacks were carried out by two Russian government hacking groups. One that it calls Fancy Bear is believed to be an arm of Russia's military intelligence agency. The other, which it calls Cozy Bear, is believed to be run by Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to Russia's KGB, where Russian President Vladimir Putin once worked.

WITHOUT LIMITS

"Beginning at the time the intrusion was discovered by the DNC, the DNC cooperated fully with the FBI and its investigation, providing access to all of the information uncovered by CrowdStrike - without any limits," DNC Press Secretary Eric Walker said in a statement.

"The DNC had several meetings with representatives of the FBI's Cyber Division and its Washington (DC) Field Office, the Department of Justice's National Security Division, and US Attorney's Offices, and it responded to a variety of requests for cooperation, but the FBI never requested access to the DNC's computer servers."

Mr Clapper on Thursday told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the intelligence agencies' confidence in their findings is now "very high" and they are "even more resolute" about Russian involvement than when they first weighed in on the issue publicly on Oct 7.

Yet Mr Clapper also emphasised that Russian hacking didn't change the vote count that made Mr Trump president.

President Barack Obama last week imposed sanctions against top Russian intelligence officials and agencies and expelled 35 Russian operatives from the US.

Russia has denied any role in the computer attack. Mr Putin has vowed "a proportional" response, though is holding off until after Mr Trump takes office Jan 20.