President Donald Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has a history of denying that Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s not at all clear to me just viewing this from the outside that this hacking into the DNC and the RNC computers was not a false flag operation,” John Bolton said on Fox News in December 2016. “The question that has to be asked is, why did the Russians run their smart intelligence service against Hillary [Clinton]’s server, but their dumb intelligence services against the election?”
That opinion runs counter to what most cybersecurity experts, the U.S. intelligence community and even current Trump administration officials say. In fact, the only known organization that’s entertained this same assertion is The Nation, a typically left-leaning liberal news outlet, which was subsequently mocked for its story that suggested as much.
The latter half of Bolton’s quote may be a reference to prior news reports that suggested nation-state-caliber hackers likely compromised Hillary Clinton’s home email server.
After attracting widespread criticism for the “false flag” comment, Bolton sought to clarify his description by saying that it was meant to question whether the DNC breach could be the work of another country aside from Russia; not the prior administration. This is a line that’s also become familiar to Trump, although public information supporting that line of thinking is in short supply.
Bolton has also cast doubt on the Obama administration’s findings on foreign meddling in the 2016 presidential election, saying that a historical intelligence community report released in January 2017 “politicized” the issue.
“I believe that intelligence has been politicized in the Obama administration to a very significant degree,” Bolton said in another interview on Fox News. “I do think it’s critical to answer the question I posed: If you think the Russians did this, then why did they leave fingerprints?”
Bolton’s question can be answered easily: advanced hacking groups, like the Russian-linked APT28 and APT29, still occasionally make mistakes. These types of mistakes can allow security researchers to track them down and attribute cyberattacks.
Prior reporting by CyberScoop has shown that North Korea hackers were simultaneously targeting members of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy team during the 2016 presidential campaign season. But evidence of more expansive meddling in the 2016 election appears isolated to Russia.
Bolton, a conservative firebrand that’s perhaps best known for his extensive airtime on Fox News, previously served in government as an Ambassador to the United Nations during the President George W. Bush administration. During that time, he false claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Since then, Bolton has worked as a national security analyst on Fox News, counsel to the Washington, D.C. law firm Kirkland & Ellis, and senior fellow for multiple conservative think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Bolton is a staunch supporter of Trump, but does not appear to share the exact same view concerning Russia. For example, Bolton called on Washington last year to punish Russia for its role in spreading propaganda and disinformation amongst American voters; something Trump has yet to comment on.
And while Trump and Bolton have similarly mischaracterized details of the DNC breach, Bolton has distinctly advocated for an aggressive offensive cyber strategy against the Kremlin to deter future attacks; a plan which may soon be recommended to Trump.
“One way to (deter Russia) is to engage in a retaliatory cyber campaign against Russia. This effort should not be proportional to what we have just experienced. It should be decidedly disproportionate,” Bolton wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill. “The lesson we want Russia (or anyone else) to learn is that the costs to them from future cyberattacks against the United States will be so high that they will simply consign all their cyberwarfare plans to their computer memories to gather electronic dust.”
Russian hacking is far from the only nation-state cyber activity that Bolton has commented on in recent years.
In the past, he has also recommended that the U.S. pursue multiple different options to counter North Korean hackers, including sanctions. And two years ago, he claimed that the Obama administration was unprepared and had attempted to downplay the impact of a 2015 Office of Personnel Management breach.
The OPM breach has been attributed to Chinese hackers.