WASHINGTON – A computer-security company reported Monday that Russian hackers sought access to the Ukraine gas company at the heart of the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, and House Democrats warned the move threatened to interfere with the 2020 election.
Area 1 Security, a California company focused on email security, reported that members of Russian military intelligence known as GRU launched a campaign in early November to steal email credentials from workers at Burisma Holdings.
Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, previously served on Burisma’s board. Trump’s call for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and Burisma led to his impeachment. But Trump has said his goal was to fight corruption in Ukraine and that he expects to be exonerated in the pending Senate trial.
U.S. officials have discredited accusations of Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election. FBI Director Christopher Wray had said there is no evidence that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election. Other officials, such as Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, testified in the impeachment inquiry that accusations against Ukraine are Russian propaganda to divert attention from their own election interference.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s 2020 campaign, said the Burisma hacking illustrated that Russia seeks to meddle in the campaign to help Trump.
“Donald Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into lying about Joe Biden and a major bipartisan, international anti-corruption victory because he recognized that he can’t beat the vice president,” Bates said. “Now we know that Vladimir Putin also sees Joe Biden as a threat. Any American president who had not repeatedly encouraged foreign interventions of this kind would immediately condemn this attack on the sovereignty of our elections.”
The cyber attack against Burisma involved phishing, an effort in which hackers mimic legitimate organizations in order to trick targets into divulging email passwords and other information. It wasn’t clear what information the phishing campaign sought, according to Area 1’s eight-page report.
“The phishing campaign identified is designed to steal email credentials (usernames and passwords) of employees at Burisma Holdings and its subsidiaries and partners,” the report said.
The apparent cyber attack worried House Democratic chairmen because the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russians interfered with the 2016 election by hacking into Democratic Party computers and by circulating false information on social media. Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian agents of GRU on charges of computer crimes and identity theft.
“The Russians appear to be at it again,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a tweet. “According to a new report, they’re hacking information that could be a prelude to more election interference in 2020. And again, it appears aimed to help Trump. We must reject foreign meddling.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the 2016 election showed the lengths Russians would go to interfere with U.S. elections and warned the meddling could get worse this year.
“If accurate, the reporting shows the lengths the Russian government will go to help the President win re-election and undermine our democracy,” Thompson said.
The House impeached Trump on articles accusing him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Trump is accused of urging Ukraine to investigate his political rival while withholding $391 million in military aid from the country, and then defying congressional subpoenas during the inquiry.
In the Burisma attack, the campaign sought email credentials by sending messages from malicious computer domains that appeared similar to legitimate sources.
Russians engaged in a similar strategy in 2016, when they gained access to the emails to Democratic campaign officials. One target was John Podesta, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose emails were hacked and published.
“All cyber actors have goals, and they figure out what works to guarantee they are successful with the least resistance possible,” the Area 1 report said.