The US on Friday accused Russia of hacking US political Web sites and e-mail accounts in an effort to interfere with the upcoming US presidential election.
In a one-two punch, the US also accused Russia of war crimes in Syria.
Moscow dismissed the accusations, which significantly worsen US-Russia relations that had already deteriorated to their lowest point in years.
Russian officials called the hacking allegations “some kind of nonsense” and said the war crimes talk was simply an effort to divert attention from the US’ own failure to uphold a ceasefire in the war.
The White House declined to comment on whether the hacking accusation would trigger sanctions against Russia.
An official of US President Barack Obama’s administration said the US would respond “at a time and place of our choosing.”
The official said the public would not necessarily know what actions the US has already taken or will take against Russia involving cyberspace.
The official was not authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.
“This is a huge deal,” said Michael Morell, former deputy and acting director of the CIA. “I can’t think of any time in our history where we have blamed another government for trying to interfere with our elections... This is unprecedented across the board.”
Late on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accused Russia of hacking US political sites.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow,” a statement by the two agencies said. “The Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the US statement.
“Every day there are tens of thousands of attacks on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s Web site. Many of the attacks can be traced to the US,” Peskov was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.
“We are not blaming the White House or Langley every time,” he said, referring to the Virginia city where the CIA is based.
Earlier on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russian and Syrian military strikes against civilians and medical facilities in Syria should be investigated as war crimes.
The situation in Syria has dramatically deteriorated since the collapse of a US-Russia-brokered ceasefire two weeks ago.
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes,” Kerry said. “They’re beyond the accidental now, way beyond, years beyond the accidental. This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians and to kill anybody and everybody who is in the way of their military objectives.”
Kerry on Monday had cut off diplomatic discussions between Russia and the US over Syria hours after Putin suspended a US-Russia agreement on disposing weapons-grade plutonium.
On Wednesday, Putin suspended another agreement on research cooperation in the nuclear and energy sectors.
As for the hacking, federal officials were investigating cyberattacks at the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Election data systems in at least two states were also breached.
US intelligence officials said some states have experienced scanning or probing of their election systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company.
The US statement stopped short in attributing the activity to the Russian government and administration officials emphasized that it would be difficult for hackers to alter the results of the Nov. 8 election, because each US state runs its own election system.
Democratic Party officials in late April learned that their systems were attacked after discovering malicious software on their computers.
CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm that investigated the incidents, said one of the groups identified in the Democratic National Committee attack, dubbed Cozy Bear, had previously infiltrated unclassified networks at the White House, the US Department of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another group detected, called Fancy Bear, had targeted private and public-sector networks around the world since the mid-2000s. Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear are linked to Russia.
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