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Leaked NSA documents mean this week’s Russia hearings just got a lot more interesting

They are now must-watch events.

FBI Director Comey Testifies At Hearing On Alleged Russian Election Meddling
Comey and Rogers
Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Russia tried to hack the 2016 presidential election by working to gain access to the US voter registration network.

That’s the main takeaway from an explosive report in the Intercept Monday. Citing information from leaked National Security Agency documents, the article shows that Russia attempted to hack a voting software supplier and also obtain information from more than 100 US election officials that would allow it to gain access to voter registration rolls.

With that information in hand, Moscow could have made manipulated the records to make it harder for voters to cast ballots.

There’s still no evidence that the hack worked, or that it impacted the election’s outcome. But that doesn’t change the importance of the disclosures.

Up until now, the official US government line was that Russia’s attempts to influence the presidential election were limited to its hack of the Democratic National Committee servers, as US intelligence agencies concluded in January.

That’s no longer the case, with a vital part of the American intelligence community detailing Russian attempts to actually hack into the US voting infrastructure.

This news couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for the Trump administration. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold two high-profile hearings on Russia’s influence on the election and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign.

On Wednesday, all eyes will be on the NSA director, Adm. Michael Rogers, whose agency created the document leaked to the Intercept. (The leaker, now-former contractor Reality Winner — yes, that is her real name — has been arrested and charged for leaking classified information.)

He’ll now have to deal with the fallout from the leaked document. However, the person in the hot seat Wednesday will likely be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official whom Trump asked to write a memo laying out the case for firing then-FBI Director James Comey (though Trump later admitted that he’d made up his mind about the FBI chief even before Rosenstein compiled the widely derided document).

Thursday will still be dominated by historic testimony from Comey, who will speak publicly for the first time after reports showed Trump asked him to halt the probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, which could be considered obstruction of justice.

Flynn was fired after only 24 days in the role because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his then-undisclosed meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

The Rosenstein and Flynn storylines still matter, but the Intercept’s report will add a new wrinkle to these two hearings. Committee members will surely focus on Russia’s brazen attempt to get inside America’s elections network while also asking broader questions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

As if that weren’t enough, there may be more information the public still has yet to know, according to Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

"I don't believe they got into changing actual voting outcomes," Warner told USA Today. "But the extent of the attacks is much broader than has been reported so far."

In effect, Warner is saying this was not an isolated incident — Russia did even more than the NSA document reveals.

So if you thought this week was just going to be about Comey, think again. It will also be about new evidence that Russia used an array of weapons as part of its attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The Russians went after one of the most vulnerable parts of the US elections network

The Intercept piece is quite technical, but Vox’s Timothy B. Lee breaks down the main point you need to know about why the Russians might have done this.

“[T]he officials who manage voter registration records often work closely with those who manage voting machines themselves. So gaining access to voter registration systems could be a first step to hacking voting machines themselves,” Lee writes.

Russian hackers from the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, tried to get the login information for employees at VR Systems, a Florida-based company that specializes in electronic voting services and equipment used in eight states.

It looks like the GRU got what it required from the company. With that information, the GRU sent fraudulent emails to 122 government election officials around the country in hopes of tricking one of them. The NSA document did not confirm if the second attack worked — but NSA documents wouldn’t say that anyway.

This follows a pattern for Russia. Last summer, hackers tried to get into the voter registration databases of Arizona and Illinois.

There’s a reason the Russians keep targeting America’s voter registration infrastructure, says Douglas W. Jones, the author of Broken Ballots and an elections expert.

“Voter registration systems were a significant vulnerability — in fact, probably the most open vulnerability right now of the internet-connected era,” he said in an interview.

In other words, voter registration systems are one of the easier places for hackers to get into. And while it doesn’t appear that the Russians got what they wanted, it’s possible the GRU — or other malevolent actors — could successfully pull off a hack down the road.

That would hurt the integrity of US elections, Jason Healey, a cybersecurity expert at Columbia University, noted in an interview. If elections results can’t be trusted, he said, that would strike at the core of American democracy.

What the experts told me is quite different from what the Obama administration said after the 2016 election. In a statement last November, Obama officials stressed that the electoral infrastructure of the United States was sound. That may be true, to an extent. But the voter registration system is clearly a weak link.

That means Wednesday’s hearing is likely to include a discussion of exactly what Russia did and did not attempt to do — and why the NSA never disclosed the information.

As for Comey, it remains to be seen exactly how far he’ll go in his testimony, but it looks like he won’t say Trump obstructed justice, reports ABC News.

But now he will likely have to answer questions about whether there are any links between the attempted hacking and coordination with the Trump campaign.

With all that’s being revealed — and what may yet come to light — calling these hearings historic might actually be an understatement.