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U.S. Formally Accuses Russia Of Hacking Democratic Party


The U.S. is now formally blaming Russia for the hacks and leaks that have played such a big part in this year's presidential race. The announcement came this afternoon from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. intelligence community. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following this story and joins us now. And, Tom, what exactly did the Obama administration say?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the administration said there is, quote, "a high degree of confidence that Russia has been hacking and trying to meddle in the U.S. election, and only the senior-most-officials could have authorized this." So they're indicating Vladimir Putin himself.

Now, Audie, it's tied to the release of emails by WikiLeaks, a website called DC Leaks, and a hacker who called himself Guccifer 2.0. Russia's intelligence agencies were behind it all, the U.S. says. And all of this was embarrassing. It showed, for example, Democratic officials deriding Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, among other releases.

Now, the administration says it's not now in a position to say the Russian government was probing election systems on the state level, as we saw in Arizona and Illinois. They say that came from servers operated by a Russian company. But again, no sense right now if the Russian government was involved.

CORNISH: You know, there have been so many reports in the media linking Russia to these attacks. So, I mean, what's the significance of the White House saying it officially?

BOWMAN: Well, so-called attribution is a big deal in cyber because cyberattacks can be faked. You don't know where the source is. So this shows the government thinks it has solid evidence and could make a pretty strong case. The release today talked about new information through intelligence sources and also an FBI investigation.

Now, some on Capitol Hill have been calling on the president to do this as a way to hit back at the Russians. And the argument is, listen, it might persuade them to back off, since the U.S. is willing to talk about it openly.

Now, this is what's significant, this also came on the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry said he thought Russia should be investigated for war crimes after the airstrikes on hospitals in Aleppo, Syria. He said Russia and the Syrian regime are targeting these facilities. That's the key word because targeting shows intent, and that's what leads to a war crimes charge.

Now, Secretary Kerry, of course, has been trying to broker a cease-fire with Russia and its Syrian client. That has fallen apart. So it really shows a low point has been reached in the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

CORNISH: Yeah, lots of people have been saying that this week. But how low is it? I mean, could it be dangerous?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm not sure dangerous is the word, but clearly things are pretty bad. The airstrikes in Syria are killing hundreds by the day. But the U.S. and Russia are at least talking at the tactical level. They're talking about where their aircraft are flying so they can de-conflict. So with these charges, the Russians might have even less an incentive to come back to the negotiating table in Syria. That's one of the big impacts here.

Now, any time though the U.S. and Russia aren't talking to each other, mistrust each other, this all creates additional dangers. And already, you're seeing Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. ships and aircraft - U.S. aircraft. Last month, a Russian warplane came within 10 feet of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft above the Black Sea in international waters.

CORNISH: You mentioned Syria, but what's at stake in some of the other places in the world, where it makes a difference if the U.S. and Russia aren't getting along?

BOWMAN: Well, again, you know, you look at, you know, elsewhere, for example, in the Mediterranean, also the Baltics, you're having these kind of cat-and-mouse games with the Russians. The plutonium agreement that they worked out with Russia, that's kind of been shelved as well. You're also seeing Russia try to open up new bases, maybe in Cuba and over in the Pacific. So that all adds to, you know, a sense of, you know, just not getting along and also having this rivalry that could kind of spiral out of control. So, I mean, that's clearly, you know, part of the problem here.

CORNISH: But is that the same as saying what some people have implied, that we're on the verge of a new Cold War?

BOWMAN: Well, some people are hinting at that, that it could go back to the old bad Cold War days. And a lot of people I talked with said, listen, you have to go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to find relations at such a low point like this. And that, of course, is when President Jimmy Carter, you know, wouldn't allow the U.S. Olympic team to go to the games in Moscow. So it's pretty bad. Some fear there could be a new Cold War as a result of all this.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.