How a Dutch intelligence agency secretly hacked into the Kremlin’s most notorious hacking group

Reports claim Netherlands alerted Washington of influence in 2016 presidential elections after officials watched Russian group bypass Democratic National Committee and other operations 

Rick Noack
Saturday 27 January 2018 16:03 GMT
The organisation were said to be based near the Red Square in Moscow
The organisation were said to be based near the Red Square in Moscow

Dutch domestic intelligence service AIVD had access to the infamous Russian hacking group Cozy Bear for at least a year starting in mid-2014, local media outlets said on Thursday.

According to the reports, the Dutch government alerted the United States to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections after Netherlands-based officials watched the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other operations by the Russians, including a 2014 State Department hack.

The DNC hack, revealed by The Washington Post in June 2016, was considered a pivotal event in a series of actions believed to be undertaken by the Russian government to meddle in the US presidential election that year. Two independent research firms later confirmed that the DNC's network was compromised by Russian government hackers.

The Dutch agency's involvement was first reported by current affairs programme Nieuwsuur and newspaper de Volkskrant on Thursday. Reached by The Washington Post on Friday, the domestic spy agency AIVD had no comment. The Dutch military intelligence service, MIVD, did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Dutch media, AIVD agents also watched when Russian hackers launched an attack at the State Department in 2014, and compromised unclassified systems at the White House as well as in Congress.

Officials later told The Post that the NSA had been alerted to the hacks by an unnamed western intelligence agency. The western ally had previously hacked not only the Russians' computers, but also surveillance cameras inside their offices. The unnamed western analysts were monitoring the hackers' manoeuvers inside US networks and even collected CCTV footage of those involved.

Thursday's reports indicated for the first time that the ally which alerted the United States may have been the Netherlands. The country's analysts were reportedly also able to track the location of their offices down to a university building next Moscow's Red Square.

The information obtained by Dutch AIVD agents was passed on to the CIA and the NSA at the time, according to de Volkskrant and Nieuwsuur, and could have contributed to a subsequent FBI inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Russia's hacking attacks not only targeted the United States but have also had major repercussions in Europe, where intelligence agencies have scrambled to stop Russian interference. In a congressional report released this January, congressional Democrats raised renewed concerns about mounting evidence of Russian interference in at least 19 European nations.

The report, commissioned by Senator Ben Cardin, D-MD and numbering more than 200 pages, directly criticises President Trump for failing to respond to the threat, even as other nations in Europe have taken much stronger measures to counter Russian efforts in the region. "Never before has a president ignored such a clear national security threat," Cardin wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

Even though American intelligence agencies agree that Russia meddled in the 2016 US elections and have stood by their assessment, Trump has sent out mixed messages. After appearing to back the agencies, Trump later backtracked in November and publicly recalled that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him he "didn't meddle."

"I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump said at the time, referring to Putin's remarks.

European leaders have long greeted the Russian leader's assurances with more scepticism. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May have in recent months directly accused Russia of interfering. "So I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed," May said in November. "The UK will do what is necessary to protect ourselves, and work with our allies to do likewise." The Macron presidential campaign accused the Kremlin of election meddling, saying that servers belonging to the team were hacked by a group likely to be associated with Russia.

The Washington Post

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