Dutch journalists give tantalizing details of a cyber-war between Russia and America.
Dutch spies alerted their American counterparts as early as 2014 about Russian hacking into State Department and White House computers and subsequent Russian hacking of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election, according to a series of reports in Dutch media.
The joint investigation by de Volkskrant newspaper and Nieuwsuur ("News Hour"), a current-affairs television program, describe how Dutch intelligence experts accessed the Russian hackers' computers and cameras in hallways at a university in Moscow. The Dutch spies watched a team of Russian hackers infiltrate the State Department, the White House and the Democratic Party to pilfer emails and electronic documents, including 2016 campaign emails later published by Wikileaks.
The disclosures add new details to Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election, which, according to the Dutch reports, was part of a larger pattern of Russian meddling in Western elections. The reports also raise questions about why the Democratic Party did not sufficiently respond when alerted to the hacking, which shadowed the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign.
"In the summer of 2015, Dutch intelligence services were the first to alert their American counterparts about the cyber-intrusion of the Democratic National Committee by Cozy Bear, a hacking group believed to be tied to the Russian government," Nieuwsuur's report began. "Intelligence hackers from Dutch AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service) had penetrated the Cozy Bear computer servers as well as a security camera at the entrance of their working space, located in a university building adjacent to the Red Square in Moscow."
"Over the course of a few months, they saw how the Russians penetrated several U.S. institutions, including the State Department, the White House, and the DNC. On all these occasions, the Dutch alerted the U.S. intelligence services, Dutch TV program Nieuwsuur and de Volkskrant, a prominent newspaper in the Netherlands, jointly report on Thursday," Nieuwsuur said. "This account is based on interviews with a dozen political, diplomatic and intelligence sources in the Netherlands and the U.S. with direct knowledge of the matter. None of them wanted to speak on the record, given the classified details of the matter."
Dutch intelligence spied in real time on the hackers' computers and a hallway security camera in a nearby corridor, the journalists said. They said the Dutch soon realized they were observing a notorious Russian cyber-espionage unit. The Dutch agents "consider Cozy Bear an extension of the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, which is firmly controlled by President Putin."
"The information shared by the Netherlands about the hacks at the DNC ended up on the desk of Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor leading the FBI investigation into possible Russian interference in the American elections," Nieuwsuur said. "As early as December, the New York Times reported that information from, among others, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands had propelled the FBI investigation."
The journalists also offered new details about what information and communication channels were accessed across the U.S. executive branch and Democratic Party. The report also describes battles fought in cyberspace between Russian hackers and western counter-espionage technologists, with attacks, countermoves and continued assaults.
Political Espionage and Cyber Warfare
The Dutch news reports said their country's intelligence service broke into the elite Russian operation four years ago, but initially did not know its significance.
"It's the summer of 2014. A hacker from the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD has penetrated the computer network of a university building next to the Red Square in Moscow, oblivious to the implications," Volkskrant reported. "One year later, from the AIVD headquarters in Zoetermeer, he and his colleagues witness Russian hackers launching an attack on the Democratic Party in the United States. The AIVD hackers had not infiltrated just any building; they were in the computer network of the infamous Russian hacker group Cozy Bear. And unbeknownst to the Russians, they could see everything."
Soon after, the Dutch spy agency observed a real-time and successful Russian hacking attack on State Department and White House computers, Nieuwsuur reported.