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Posted May 4, 2015

White House, State Department Computer Systems Breached by Russian Hackers Who Got to Read Some of the President’s Emails

One look at the content of your business email (okay our business email since you’re such a paragon of virtue) shows that not every correspondence is related to business. So there’s no reason to suspect that people in the White House and State Department are any different — other than maybe they don’t work as hard.

Still, though the hacked computer systems did not contain classified information and no classified networks were compromised, Michael S. Schmidt and David E. Sanger write in their nytimes.com story that the hack “was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged.” In their far ranging article, Schmidt and Sanger detail the dangers these latest intrusions could pose. The following has been excerpted from their piece and edited to fit our format. You may find the complete, unedited article by clicking on this link.

Unclassified net may contain sensitive material

Many senior officials have two computers in their offices, one operating on a highly secure classified network and another connected to the outside world for unclassified communications. But officials have conceded that the unclassified system routinely contains much information that is considered highly sensitive: schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, inevitably, some debate about policy.

President’s emails — an interesting read?

Officials did not disclose the number of Mr. Obama’s emails that were harvested by hackers, nor the sensitivity of their content. The president’s email account itself does not appear to have been hacked. Aides say that most of Mr. Obama’s classified briefings — such as the morning Presidential Daily Brief — are delivered orally or on paper (sometimes supplemented by an iPad system connected to classified networks) and that they are usually confined to the Oval Office or the Situation Room.

Russian around

Still, the fact that Mr. Obama’s communications were among those hit by the hackers — who are presumed to be linked to the Russian government, if not working for it — has been one of the most closely held findings of the inquiry. Senior White House officials have known for months about the depth of the intrusion.

“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” said one senior American official briefed on the investigation.

Others confirmed that the White House intrusion was viewed as so serious that officials met on a nearly daily basis for several weeks after it was discovered. “It’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome,” another senior official said.

Chinese vs. Russian hackers

While Chinese hacking groups are known for sweeping up vast amounts of commercial and design information, the best Russian hackers tend to hide their tracks better and focus on specific, often political targets. And the hacking happened at a moment of renewed tension with Russia — over its annexation of Crimea, the presence of its forces in Ukraine and its renewed military patrols in Europe, reminiscent of the Cold War.

Not the first attack

Mr. Obama is no stranger to computer-network attacks: His 2008 campaign was hit by Chinese hackers. Nonetheless, he has long been a frequent user of email, and publicly fought the Secret Service in 2009 to retain his BlackBerry, a topic he has joked about in public. He was issued a special smartphone, and the list of those he can exchange emails with is highly restricted.

Eviction notice

The discovery of the hacking in October led to a partial shutdown of the White House email system. The hackers appear to have been evicted from the White House systems by the end of October. But they continued to plague the State Department, whose system is much more far-flung. The disruptions were so severe that during the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna in November, officials needed to distribute personal email accounts, to one another and to some reporters, to maintain contact.

Earlier this month, officials at the White House said that the hacking had not damaged its systems and that, while elements had been shut down to mitigate the effects of the attack, everything had been restored.

Mum’s the word

One of the curiosities of the White House and State Department attacks is that the administration, which recently has been looking to name and punish state and nonstate hackers in an effort to deter attacks, has refused to reveal its conclusions about who was responsible for this complex and artful intrusion into the government. That is in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s decision, after considerable internal debate in December, to name North Korea for ordering the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and to the director of national intelligence’s decision to name Iranian hackers as the source of a destructive attack on the Sands Casino.

But the breach of the president’s emails appeared to be a major factor in the government secrecy. “All of this is very tightly held,” one senior American official said, adding that the content of what had been breached was being kept secret to avoid tipping off the Russians about what had been learned from the investigation.

Golf and nukes

Mr. Obama is known to send emails to aides late at night from his residence, providing them with his feedback on speeches or, at times, entirely new drafts. Others say he has emailed on topics as diverse as his golf game and the struggle with Congress over the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Jwics where classified docs go

The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies put their most classified material into a system called Jwics, for Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. That is where top-secret and “secret compartmentalized information” traverses within the government, to officials cleared for it — and it includes imagery, data and graphics. There is no evidence, senior officials said, that this hacking pierced it.

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