Will Putin spring an Oc­to­ber sur­prise?

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank

— The Rus­sians have just given us an Au­gust glimpse of a po­ten­tial Oc­to­ber sur­prise.

We learned ear­lier this sum­mer that cy­ber-hack­ers widely be­lieved to be tied to the Krem­lin have bro­ken into the email of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and oth­ers. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported Mon­day night that Rus­sian hack­ers have also been tar­get­ing state voter­reg­is­tra­tion sys­tems. And, in an ap­par­ent ef­fort to boost Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy, they’re leak­ing what they be­lieve to be the most dam­ag­ing doc­u­ments at strate­gic points in the cam­paign.

Last week, we learned some­thing else: The Rus­sians aren’t just hack­ers — they’re also hacks. Turns out that be­fore leak­ing their stolen in­for­ma­tion, they are in some cases doc­tor­ing the doc­u­ments, mak­ing ed­its that add false in­for­ma­tion and then pass­ing the doc­u­ments off as the orig­i­nals.

For­eign Pol­icy’s Elias Groll reported last week that the hack­ers goofed: They posted both the orig­i­nal ver­sions of at least three doc­u­ments and their edited ver­sions. These doc­u­ments, stolen from Ge­orge Soros’ Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions, were al­tered by the hack­ers to cre­ate the false im­pres­sion that Rus­sian anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Alexei Navalny was funded by Soros. A pro-Rus­sian hack­ing group, Cy­berBerkut, had in­serted Navalny’s name, bo­gus dol­lar amounts and fab­ri­cated word­ing.

This raises an in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity: Are Vladimir Putin’s op­er­a­tives plan­ning to dump edited DNC doc­u­ments on the eve of the pres­i­den­tial election?

Per­haps they’ll show that the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion has been fund­ing the Is­lamic State, or they’ll have Hil­lary Clin­ton ad­mit­ting that she didn’t care about those Amer­i­cans who died in Beng­hazi af­ter all. Maybe they’ll show that she re­ally did lose most of her brain func­tion in that fall sev­eral years ago and is now re­ly­ing on Anthony Weiner to make all of her de­ci­sions.

Rus­sian “dez­in­for­mat­siya” cam­paigns such as this go back to the Cold War; the Soviet por­trayal of AIDS as a CIA plot was a clas­sic case. But this type of cy­ber­war — email hack­ing and, now, the al­ter­ing and re­lease of the stolen doc­u­ments — is a novel es­ca­la­tion. It’s tempt­ing to won­der how dif­fer­ently the Cold War might have gone had there been cy­ber-hack­ers back then. We’ll never know, of course, be­cause the Soviet Union crum­bled be­fore Al Gore in­vented the in­ter­net.

But it’s clear that Rus­sia’s dis­in­for­ma­tion wars are as active as ever. On Sun­day, Neil MacFar­quhar wrote in The New York Times about Rus­sian at­tempts to un­der­mine a Swedish mil­i­tary part­ner­ship with NATO. The cam­paign is spread­ing false in­for­ma­tion that there’s a se­cret nu­clear weapons stock­pile in Swe­den and al­leg­ing that NATO sol­diers could rape Swedish women with im­punity. This Rus­sian use of “weaponized in­for­ma­tion” helped cause con­fu­sion in Ukraine in 2014, when con­spir­acy the­o­ries spread by the Rus­sians about the down­ing of a Malaysian Air­lines jet helped Rus­sians jus­tify their in­va­sion of Crimea.

So does this point to a Putin-spon­sored Oc­to­ber sur­prise?

Putin has med­dled in do­mes­tic politics in France, the Nether­lands, Bri­tain and else­where, help­ing ex­treme po­lit­i­cal par­ties to desta­bi­lize those coun­tries. He ap­pears to be do­ing much the same now in the United States, where, in ad­di­tion to the DNC and state voter sys­tem hacks, there have also been re­ports this sum­mer about Rus­sia hir­ing in­ter­net trolls to pose on Twit­ter and else­where in so­cial me­dia as pro-Trump Amer­i­cans. Trump and Putin have ex­pressed their mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion, and even af­ter the departure of Trump cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort, Trump and sev­eral top ad­vis­ers have close ties to Moscow.

The hy­per-com­pet­i­tive Amer­i­can me­dia en­vi­ron­ment is vul­ner­a­ble to the sort of tech­nique the Rus­sian hack­ers used in the Soros case — steal­ing doc­u­ments, al­ter­ing them, then re­leas­ing them as the orig­i­nal. If Putin’s hack­ers were to re­lease such a doc­tored doc­u­ment smear­ing Clin­ton in, say, late Oc­to­ber, it’s likely that com­pe­ti­tion would lead out­lets to re­port on the hacked doc­u­ments be­fore they had a chance to see whether and how they were al­tered.

We don’t know what, if any­thing, Putin’s hack­ers have planned for this fall. But the doc­tored Soros doc­u­ments could be a clue.

Dana Mil­bank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@ wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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