WASHINGTON: In September 2015 an FBI cybersecurity agent called up the Democratic National Committee, just gearing up for the coming presidential election, to report that Russia-linked hackers had penetrated their network.
The agent was passed on to the help desk, where his message died.
Nine months later, the result became clear: hackers began leaking out personal emails, opposition research, and other documents, a number of them embarrassing, that were swept up from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s White House fight.
The leak helped turn her sure-thing campaign into a struggle that she ultimately lost to Republican Donald Trump on Nov 8, 2016.
On Friday Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for the hacks, which US intelligence says were part of a concerted effort to hurt Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump.
The indictment brought back one of the most consequential episodes of the 2016 election.
The first hackers, according to US intelligence, were tied to the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.
As they exploited their access, in March 2016 hackers from the military intelligence agency, the GRU, broke into computers of the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, using phishing techniques against staffer emails – including the account of campaign chairman John Podesta – and inserting malware to keep the access open.
And they began sweeping up gigabytes worth of materials.
HACKING IGNORED UNTIL TOO LATE
It was only in early June 2016 that campaign officials understood the gravity of the hack, but it was too late. On Jun 14, The Washington Post reported that "Russian government hackers" had penetrated the DNC, and one day later, the leaks began.
The Gawker and Smoking Gun websites published the DNC’s internal report on Trump, who had just captured the Republican nomination.
They received the documents from the mysterious "Guccifer 2.0," a hacker who claimed to be Romanian. Friday’s indictment said Guccifer 2.0 and another DNC document leaker, "DCLeaks", were personas created by the indicted GRU agents.
The leaks went mostly quiet for weeks until, three days before the Democratic convention in late July, WikiLeaks dropped 20,000 DNC emails on its website.
They were damaging, showing the party leadership had, rather than stay neutral, worked to help Clinton defeat rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. That forced the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Trump began taking advantage: "Leaked e-mails of DNC show plans to destroy Bernie Sanders. Mock his heritage and much more. On-line from Wikileakes, really vicious. RIGGED," he tweeted.
Ominously, too, the Russians appeared to listen to Trump. On Jul 27 he declared: "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
According to the indictment, that same day the Russian hackers made their first attempts to spearfish private email accounts on Clinton’s personal email server.
Over the final three months of the campaign, until days before the vote, WikiLeaks and Guccifer regularly released hacked materials. The leaks appeared tactically timed.
On Oct 7, when the notorious "Access Hollywood" videotape came out showing Trump speaking lewdly about women, a half-hour later WikiLeaks started publishing Podesta emails on its website, watering down the video’s impact.
Clinton’s advantage over Trump steadily crumbled. The data crunching website FiveThirtyEight later said there was a direct correlation between each leak and a fall in her poll numbers.
Trump meanwhile repeatedly questioned the Russia narrative, despite having been quietly informed by US intelligence of a hacking threat from Moscow.
"I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC," he said in his first debate with Clinton.
"I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?"
Ever since, Clinton has blamed the Russian attack, as well as a separate probe led by FBI chief James Comey into her misuse of a private emails server, for her loss.
"I was on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28th and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me, but got scared off," Clinton said the following year.