Earth & Conservation

How Does the U.S. Stop Russia's Election Mischief?

US intelligence and law enforcement agents probing effort to sow doubt, mistrust before Nov. 8.

When a rival nation steals secrets to a new missile system or submarine, the spied-upon nation has lots of options: kicking out diplomats, imposing economic sanctions, or threatening not to buy grain, beef or veggies from the rival. But what happens when a country tries to sabotage a presidential election by making people doubt that the result was legitimate?

With two months left before the Nov. 8 general election, that's what is happening between Russia and the United States. The Washington Post reported this week that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating a covert Russian operation to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election.

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These efforts include the hacking of email accounts belonging to the Democratic National Committee in June and the subsequent release of 20,000 DNC emails by WikiLeaks. More recently Russia-backed hackers have also been tied to intrusions in state- or locally run voting systems in Arizona and Illinois.

At the same time, U.S. officials are concerned about a Russian disinformation campaign through posts on social media and broadcast outlets like RT (formerly known as Russia Today), for example. The overall impact is to make American voters' doubt the electoral process itself.

"It fits a pattern of Russian efforts to influence domestic politics in the Ukraine, the Baltics, Hungary, the Scottish independence referendum to Brexit, said Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "It's something I'm not surprised to see in this election."

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Russia's goal isn't to shut down voting machines, but rather make Americans believe that their vote didn't count. The plan is being bolstered, perhaps unwittingly, by GOP candidate Donald Trump's recent statements that voters shouldn't believe some states' electoral results if he loses in November, Singer said.

"The goal is not to make people directly pro-Putin," Singer said. "The idea is to make people dubious of all information, to distrust democratic institutions. That's why it is so dangerous, and the narrative of a 'stolen election' feeds into this."

Russian disinformation has been commonplace in parts of the former Soviet Union, but it's also been happening in western nations like Sweden.

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One example of such effort of disinformation was the fake letter circulated on the web with a signature of the Swedish defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, according to Benedicte Berner, chair of the Stockholm-based group Civil Rights Defenders and faculty member at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

In the letter, Hultqvist was congratulating the company BAE Bofors for a contract to sell guns to Ukraine. The fake document was traced as coming from St Petersburg.

"The Swedish intelligence service is now establishing a group to try to identify where such disinformation comes from and try to respond," Berner said in an e-mail to Discovery News. "This is a difficult task as the disinformation is spreading fast and is recurrent."

So what should U.S. officials do? Mark N. Kramer, a Russia expert at Harvard, says the American military possesses powerful cyber capabilities, but using them in all-out response would then reveal Pentagon secrets.

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"They U.S. needs to think carefully in advance, which they are doing now, about how and what sorts of steps to retaliate against detected Russian attempts," Kramer said. "It doesn't start out with an all-out strike."

Kramer said Russia's leaders ties to the international financial system make them vulnerable. "That's where I would see the initial response."

Singer said that there are other steps besides a "hack-back" from the U.S. side. It could involved leaking embarrassing information about the financial assets of people close to the Russian government, for example.

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"We could tell them that we know you have hidden assets in these London real estate locations, and if we reveal it, you will lose these assets," Singer said. "Going after a Russian oligarch and sending a message that we need to stop this."

Both experts noted that the best defense is better computer security by election officials in state and counties. Unfortunately, given irregularities in the 2000 election in Florida, and problems in some Ohio counties more recently, it's likely that we will see more trouble-making smudged with Russian digital fingerprints between now and Nov. 8.

"There has been mistrust in the past, particular after 2000," Kramer said about problems in Florida's vote count. "There is an electoral system that has vulnerabilities. It's fertile ground for mischief makers."

In the latest James Bond movie, Spectre, which opens in theaters today the gizmo-maker Q is a young hacker type. As technology advances so must the gadgetry of espionage. But in years past, the technology we may find quaint today was invaluable for covert operations. The broadest collection of these gadgets can be found at The International Spy Museum, one of a few spy museums in the world. The Central Intelligence Agency also has a museum in Langley, but it can only be visited with an invitation. There is, however, a virtual tour. While you wait on that special invitation, Boghardt shines a light on 10 famous -- and infamous -- spy gadgets housed at the International Spy Museum, which is open to the public:

Messages sent over the wireless in the World War II era could be intercepted so the Germans used a cryptographic device. On the surface, the Enigma cipher machine looked like a regular typewriter, but it wasn't. A keyboard was linked to rotors, powered by an electric current, which transposed every keystroke several times. Corresponding messages went out in Morse code and required keys, which changed daily, to decipher -- get it? "De-cipher. " Which is exactly what the Allies did, cracking a code the Germans thought was unbreakable.

This little camera, Model F-21 issued by the KGB around 1970, was concealed in a buttonhole and has a release that the wearer presses from a pocket. Just squeeze the shutter cable and the fake button opens to capture an image. Hidden, portable cameras could be used at public events such as political rallies without detection. Boghardt notes that the Spy Museum's director Peter Earnest, who worked for many years in the CIA on intelligence, has used one of these cameras.

In the 1960s, the East German foreign intelligence service HVA issued this tiny camera, which takes photos of documents and uses a chemical process to shrink the text down so that a block of text appears no bigger than a period. This way agents could hide secret messages in plain sight. Boghardt points to an infamous incident involving microdots: Dusko Popov, a double agent during World War II, gave microdots to the FBI that mentioned German interest in Pearl Harbor. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn't trust Popov, however, so he never passed the information to president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Western diplomats in Eastern Europe avoided buying suits there, preferring to mail order clothing and shoes from the West. In Romania, the secret service used this to their advantage, working with the postal service to install a transmitter in shoe heels. Boghardt says that the recording device was discovered during a routine room sweep that revealed a signal, but the signal disappeared when all the diplomats left the room.

"It's a classic," Boghardt says of this 4.5 millimeter single-shot weapon, presumably taken from a KGB agent in the mid-1960s. While it's unclear whether this dangerous "kiss of death" was ever used, a cyanide pistol was used for assassination in that era. These covert weapons are surviving examples of the "active measures" that were taken in this time period, unlike many of their intended targets.

It's tempting to think that spy gadgets aren't all that old, but even Caesar encoded messages using cryptography. This disk dates back to the Civil War, when it was used by the Confederate side -- CSA stands for Confederate States of America. It's pretty obvious how the device works: rotate the inner wheel to displace the letters. M = G, P = J, etc. Simple to crack, right? Not if the message is written in a language you don't know. Spies were tricky like that.

A Bulgarian secret agent used an umbrella just like this one on a London street to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978. A standard umbrella was modified internally to inject poison into its target with the press of the trigger. In Markov's case, the umbrella contained a ricin pellet, which is next to impossible to trace. The museum displays a replica, made specially in Moscow for the collection. Boghardt says that in 1991, a room full of similar deadly umbrellas was uncovered in Bulgaria.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a spy satellite! Before the dawn of aerial photography, pigeons did the job. Flying over enemy territory with a camera on autoshoot, pigeons could provide crucial information without getting lost along the way. Beyond photography, the birds also carried messages at times when radio communication was spotty or down. Pigeons sent through enemy fire up until the 1950s had a 95 percent success rate and were duly decorated with medals of honor for their service.

This tree stump bug used solar power to function continuously in a wooded area near Moscow during the early 1970s. The bug intercepted communications signals coming from a Soviet air base in the area and them beamed them to a satellite, which then sent the signals to a site in the United States. Solar power meant that no risky battery changes were needed. Nevertheless, the KGB discovered this green bug so the museum's copy is a replica.

Dog doo? Really? Boghardt says this, er, doohickey has a hollowed-out space inside, ideal for holding a message so that case officers and sources could communicate without raising suspicion. Doo tends to be left alone, which is why beacons disguised as tiger excrement were used to mark targets in Vietnam, Boghardt says. One of the risks is obviously that such a device would be thrown away or discovered by someone accidentally. "Accidents happened all the time," the historian says. "That's one of the challenges of being a spy or case officer."