U.S. efforts to get to the bottom about Russia’s role in hacking this year’s presidential election may very well end up mired in politics, hampering any response.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was the latest U.S. lawmaker to call for an investigation into Russia’s possible involvement. “This simply cannot be a partisan issue,” he said during a press conference.
A growing number of lawmakers, in addition to U.S. intelligence agencies, also assert that Russia was behind the high-profile hacks that were intended to influence this year’s election. Among the targets were Democratic groups and figures whose emails were stolen and later leaked online.
However, any investigation into the matter will probably receive little to no support from incoming President Donald Trump, who’s remained skeptical of the hacking allegations. He’s been particularly dismissive of a new claim from the CIA that the Russian government interfered to help Trump win the election.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said in an interview aired on Fox News Sunday. “I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.”
In the interview, Trump went on to allege that rival Democrats are compelling U.S. intelligence groups to claim that Russia meddled in the election. He plans on introducing new leadership to run those intelligence agencies.
The resistance from Trump isn’t a surprise. During the campaign trail, he also voiced doubts about Russia’s involvement in the hacks, claiming that China or a “400-pound” hacker may have been the true culprit.
But Trump’s insistence on dismissing the hacking claims, despite U.S. intelligence findings, has less to do with cybersecurity, and everything to do with politics, said John Bambenek, a malware researcher at Fidelis Cybersecurity.
Critics of the incoming president are now using claims of Russian interference in the election to discredit Trump’s election win, he said. “The debate isn’t about whether Russia hacked the elections, it’s about whether Trump is a legitimate president or not,” Bambenek said.
His company, Fidelis Cybersecurity, was among those that investigated the hack of the Democratic National Committee, one of several breaches during the presidential race blamed on Russia. All the evidence found, including the malware and tactics used, pointed to the involvement of two hacking teams, known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, believed to have ties with the Russian government.
However, partisan politics is overshadowing the debate on Russia's involvement, Bambenek said. Several news articles published this past weekend, suggesting that the CIA and the FBI disagree on Russia’s role in the hacking, has only muddled the affair.
“We are well outside the realm of intelligence,” Bambenek said. “Even if the truth was known, would anyone believe it?”
However, before Trump takes office, President Barack Obama has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to produce a report reviewing Russia’s alleged involvement in the election hacks. The Obama administration intends to make parts of that report public.
On Monday, McConnell declined to say whether he believed Russia was behind any U.S. election hacks. But, he added, “the Russians are not our friends.”
Other lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have also called for an investigation to look into U.S. election tampering. But the continued skepticism from Trump makes it unclear if his administration intends to take any retaliatory action against Russia.
“Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking,” Trump tweeted on Monday.