Email of top U.S. Rus­sia ex­pert said to be hacked


On Tues­day morn­ing, a hacker go­ing by the name of “John­nie Walker” sent out a group email to an un­known num­ber of re­cip­i­ents claim­ing to have a trove of emails from the pri­vate ac­count of a U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial.

“The U.S. State Depart­ment of­fi­cer’s email has been hacked,” the email an­nounced, and in­cluded at least two years’ worth of per­sonal emails from the pri­vate Gmail ac­count of a State Depart­ment of­fi­cial work­ing in the se­cre­tive in­tel­li­gence arm of the State Depart­ment fo­cus­ing on Rus­sia.

The sender said the ar­chive in­cluded ex­changes be­tween the of­fi­cial and “CIA of­fi­cers and other in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, main­stream me­dia, non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­ter­na­tional funds” that would “give you ev­i­dence of who is re­spon­si­ble for agenda for­ma­tion in many coun­tries world­wide, es­pe­cially where the sit­u­a­tion is in­se­cure.”

The of­fi­cial in­volved is cur­rently in a se­nior po­si­tion in the State Depart­ment’s Bureau of In­tel­li­gence and Re­search, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Depart­ment of State di­rec­tory. Even though the of­fi­cial’s name is pub­lic, For­eign Pol­icy is not iden­ti­fy­ing him at the re­quest of the State Depart­ment, cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the emails, from a non­govern­ment ac­count, in­clude per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

The State Depart­ment did not con­firm or deny the au­then­tic­ity of the emails. “The Depart­ment of State is well aware that ma­li­cious ac­tors of­ten tar­get email ac­counts of gov­ern­ment and busi­ness lead­ers across the United States. As a mat­ter of pol­icy, we do not dis­cuss spe­cific at­tempts or in­ci­dents,” a State Depart­ment spokesman said.

But the of­fi­cial’s ex­per­tise in Rus­sian pol­i­tics and or­ga­nized crime makes him a sig­nif­i­cant tar­get.

“He’s prob­a­bly the top in­tel­li­gence guy in the en­tire U.S. gov­ern­ment on Rus­sia; he knows more than any­body about what’s go­ing on there,” said one source whose cor­re­spon­dence with the of­fi­cial was re­vealed in the hack.

While it’s un­clear whether the hack is an iso­lated in­ci­dent or part of a broader cam­paign, it comes amid a widen­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian cy­ber­at­tacks that in­cluded in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Those at­tacks, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials and doc­u­ments, go be­yond high-level po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives and in­clude ex­perts and think tanks, par­tic­u­larly those work­ing on Rus­sia is­sues.

A 2016 doc­u­ment from the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity Of­fice of In­tel­li­gence and Anal­y­sis warned there had been over a dozen re­cent cases of U.S. think tanks be­ing hacked, in­clud­ing one breach that in­volved steal­ing data on Rus­sia-Turkey re­la­tions. The doc­u­ment, which is marked “For Of­fi­cial Use Only,” says that “cy­ber ac­tors likely will con­tinue to tar­get think tanks and sim­i­lar or­ga­ni­za­tions, as many main­tain sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tions to US gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion and per­son­nel, es­pe­cially for­eign pol­icy of­fi­cials.” The Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

James Comey, then the FBI di­rec­tor, tes­ti­fied that Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. elec­tion in­cluded a wide ar­ray of peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions and be­gan well ahead of time.

“The Rus­sian ac­tive mea­sures cam­paign may have be­gun as early as 2015, when Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices launched a se­ries of spear phish­ing at­tacks de­signed to pen­e­trate the com­put­ers of a broad ar­ray of Washington-based Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can party or­ga­ni­za­tions, think tanks and other en­ti­ties,” he tes­ti­fied in March. “This con­tin­ued at least through the win­ter of 2016.”

The of­fi­cial’s emails were pri­mar­ily con­ver­sa­tions among Rus­sia ex­perts in gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, ex­chang­ing ar­ti­cles, news­let­ters, and thoughts on cur­rent events. The of­fi­cial also cor­re­sponded fre­quently with other Rus­sia ex­perts in academia and the think tank world.

If it was Rus­sians who car­ried out the hack, it wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing, in­tel­li­gence ex­perts say.

“The Rus­sians are prob­a­bly the most ag­gres­sive in­tel­li­gence ser­vice in the world,” John Sipher, a 38-year vet­eran of the CIA’s Na­tional Clan­des­tine Ser­vice, said in a phone in­ter­view. “The fact that they did go af­ter State Depart­ment of­fi­cials is com­pletely con­sis­tent with the way the Rus­sians be­have.”

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers are reg­u­lar tar­gets of at­tacks from all kinds of state and crim­i­nal en­e­mies, ac­cord­ing to Sipher. “It’s prob­a­bly a lot wider than we know,” he said.

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