The White House has ordered a little-known investigative group to examine the implications of a series of cyber-attacks by suspected Russian hackers against U.S. election data systems.
The attacks include breaches of a voter database used by the Democratic National Committee and voter registration sites in Illinois and Arizona.
The group, known as the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee, works within the Central Intelligence Agency and is a holdover from the Cold War. The committee, whose membership and activities are secret, originally was formed to investigate attempts by foreign agencies to counteract foreign intelligence.
News of the White House order was disclosed by NBC News, which also reported finding a consensus in the intelligence community that Russia is attempting to undermine confidence in the U.S. election system.
The involvement by the Russians or other foreign actors was addressed by FBI Director James Comey in his speech to the Symantec Government Symposium in Washington Aug. 30.
In his speech, Comey directly addressed the cyber-espionage activities of Russia, China and other nation-states, expressing his concern. In response to a question, Comey said, "We take very seriously any effort by any actor including nation-states, especially nation-states, that moves beyond the collection of information about our country and that offers the prospect of an effort to influence the conduct of affairs in our country, whether that's an election or something else."
Comey had explained during his speech that some activities by other nation-states, such as gathering information about the United States and its capabilities, are regarded as a normal activity. But the U.S. government takes note when another nation's online activities go beyond information-gathering.
He mentioned the 2014 cyber-attack again Sony Pictures Entertainment carried out by North Korean hackers as an example, saying that this breach by a foreign government of data resources relating to the free expression of any American online entity was unacceptable.
Comey also said that cyber-attacks on U.S. companies by government entities in China were another example of those unacceptable activities. He said that the theft of intellectual property by the Chinese simply to help their business activities was recently addressed by the administration in meetings with Chinese officials, and that he was seeing some progress in that area.
However, the FBI is investigating the cyber-attack on the two state voter registration databases and on the Democratic National Committee. In addition, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has asked the FBI to investigate the possibility that Russia's intervention is really an attempt to tilt the election to Donald Trump, but there's no indication that the FBI has agreed to investigate that angle.
At this point, there's no indication that the Russians or anyone else is attempting to change the outcome of the November presidential elections. However, a scenario that's gaining traction in both the security and the intelligence communities is that the real goal of the cyber-attacks is to sow dissent and chaos into the atmosphere surrounding the election and, in the process, shake the faith of Americans and others in its outcome.