'This is huge': National security experts were floored by the leaked NSA document on Russia's election hack

A leaked NSA document which found that hackers connected to Russian military intelligence tried to breach U.S. voting systems days before the 2016 election has national security experts and former intelligence officials reeling.

Russian military intelligence, according to the document, launched an attack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to at least 100 local election officials shortly before the election.

In addition to being the strongest indication so far that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, the document also indicates that Russian hackers may have "penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood," The Intercept, which first published the document, reported.

A U.S. intelligence official contacted by The Intercept said that the document's findings are not necessarily definitive and warned against drawing too many conclusions from the analysis.

But others in the national security apparatus feel differently.

"This is indeed a big deal," said Bob Deitz, a veteran of the NSA and CIA who worked under former president Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "We are lucky that U.S. presidential elections are so localized that it is difficult to do an effective hack."

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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations
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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Sergey Kislyak

Outgoing Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is the Russian official U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions -- communication Sessions denied during his Senate committee hearing testimony.

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The American intelligence community accused Putin in Jan. 2017 of ordering a campaign to undermine trust in the American electoral process, developing a clear preference for Trump as president. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report read.

James Comey

Comey publicly confirmed in March an FBI inquiry into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election,” Comey stated.

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

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Claire Finkelstein, a professor and national security expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said of the document, "Wow, this is huge."

The leaked report is "evidence for the public now to see yet another example of quite a coherent operation [by the Russians]," said Glenn Carle, a CIA veteran and former spy. "And that is significant."

'The clearest indication yet of a cyber attack'

The document's findings seem more indicative of a Russian cyber attack on the U.S. electoral system than previous findings were, Finkelstein said.

"We tend to associate this kind of stuff with China and North Korea," Finkelstein said. "Technologically-advanced societies like ours are often soft targets, and there's no reason that Russia shouldn't be engaging in this kind of activity."

The intelligence community determined in 2016 that there was ample evidence of Russian interference in the election, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin was directly involved. The intelligence community also concluded that Putin specifically chose to help candidate Trump at the cost of Hillary Clinton and to cast her in an unfavorable light.

Until the NSA's report, dated May 5, 2017, was leaked earlier on Monday, Russian influence during the 2016 election was gauged to be a largely covert operation. This latest document suggests that Putin's activities were far more overt.

According to the document, the attack was conducted by the GRU, a Russian military intelligence outfit. "That's no longer just covert activities like email hacking and dissemination of fake news," Finkelstein said. "This starts to look much more like a cyber attack." Though the definition of a cyber attack has not been universally agreed upon, "it could certainly look like a military attack on U.S. interests," Finkelstein added.

Trump 'will be highly scrutinized after this'

Experts say the next thing to look out for is Trump's reaction to the document. The president has in the past sharply criticized leaks of sensitive or classified information to the press, and he recently ordered the Department of Justice to crack down significantly on individuals who leak information.

Trump's response to the NSA's document will be critical, Finkelstein said. "If he does not decry this interference or attempted interference with the machinery of democratic processes in the U.S., that in and of itself will be highly suspect."

During the transition period and a number of times after assuming office, Trump lambasted the intelligence community for what he said was a politically-motivated conclusion that Russia meddled in the election to hurt Clinton and help him. He also erroneously said former director of national intelligence James Clapper said there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

The timing of the document leak has raised further questions since it was released three days before former FBI Director James Comey is set to testify before the Senate about conversations he had with Trump as part of a broader inquiry into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. Comey was fired on May 9 — four days after the NSA document, which Trump was briefed on, was compiled by the intelligence agency.

The document "could have been a meaningful event that had an impact" on Trump's decision to fire Comey, Carle said. "Trump probably felt he had ample cause to fire Comey because he was anxious about the Russia inquiry. He had no justifiable reason to fire Comey, other than trying to stop the investigation that's going to be his undoing," Carle said.

And this document adds another layer to a "growing scandal" involving the president and his associates, he added.

Finkelstein said it was "highly suspicious" the document was dated four days before Comey was fired. "I suspect that whoever leaked it now was trying to facilitate Comey's conversation with Congress by putting a few more cards on the table."

However, a leak of classified information does not declassify it. Comey, who has been tight-lipped in the past when it comes to discussing sensitive or classified information, will likely not address it during his testimony, "despite the fact that he was likely tracking the report and many others like it," Finkelstein said.

Comey would have been privy to the information, given the frequent collaboration between the FBI and the NSA, and he may also have been involved in attempting to identify further instances of Russian interference and potential collusion with the Trump campaign. "So, the investigation into Trump's ties to Russia may go deeper than we have been assuming up until this point," Finkelstein said.

See more related to James Comey:

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Possible replacements for FBI director James Comey
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Possible replacements for FBI director James Comey

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe

REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating  

REUTERS/Adrees Latif AL

FBI Executive Assistant Director Richard McFeely

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas 

Former Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) 

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)

Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe

 (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

FBI Criminal Cyber, Response ad Services Branch Executive Assistant Director Paul Abbate

Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Former NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers

Photo by Stacie Scott-Pool/Getty Images

Former Prosecutor Michael Garcia

Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Federal Judge Henry Hudson

Photo by Jay Paul for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Former head of the Transportation Security Administration John Pistole

Photo by Andrew Burton for Reuters 
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'An excruciating dilemma'

These latest revelations may also point to a potential bind that top intelligence officials could find themselves in.

"What do you do if you are serving the president and this is information that the president has to know, but it pertains to something that has quite obviously, without exception, catalyzed him to take actions hostile to the intelligence community, the national security establishment, and the rule of law?" Carle said. "It's an excruciating dilemma."

Law enforcement and investigative officials typically do not inform the subjects of investigations of their findings. "But in this instance, that is the chain of command," Carle said.

Trump's fuzzy relationship with Russia also adds another wrinkle to fallout after the release of the NSA document, because it raises questions about whether nations with interests that are antithetical to U.S. interests can be considered enemy nations when the president himself has not clearly outlined them as a threat.

"As commander-in-chief of armed forces, the president identifies who constitutes a threat to the U.S.," Finkelstein said. "If, however, there's a clear attack on the U.S. of a military nature, and that includes a cyber attack like this one conducted by Russian military intelligence," then the president's own definition of what constitutes an enemy nation may start to carry less weight, Finkelstein added.

One of the steepest threats arising from the latest revelations about a deeper penetration of U.S. voting systems, Deitz, the NSA and CIA veteran said, was to democracy itself.

"Democracies ultimately rest their legitimacy upon fair elections," he said. "And if people believe that elections are rigged or otherwise corrupt, they will lose faith in them."

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