Dutch spied on Russian group linked to 2016 US election hacks

Servers and data banks at the new Sberbank data processing center at Skolkovo innovation center in Skolkovo near Moscow, Russia, December 26, 2017.

The Dutch intelligence service passed on “crucial evidence” to the FBI about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported Friday, citing the results of an investigation.

Hackers from the Dutch intelligence service known as the AIVD gained access to the network of Russian hacking group “Cozy Bear” in the summer of 2014. While monitoring the group’s activities, the AIVD learned of attacks launched on the Democratic Party, according to six unidentified American and Dutch sources cited by the investigation.

The information provided by the Dutch gave grounds for the FBI to start an investigation into the influence of Russian interference on the election race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, according to the newspaper report based on a collaborative investigation with Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal, a journalist at Dutch news program Nieuwsuur. A spokeswoman for the AIVD declined to comment on the report when contacted by phone on Friday.

A Jan 6, 2017 report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, based on an assessment by the CIA, FBI and NSA, said that the US had “high confidence” Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered “an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” The Kremlin “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting” his opponent, Hillary Clinton, the report said.

Volkskrant cited sources as saying this certainty was derived from “AIVD hackers having had access to the office-like space in the centre of Moscow for years.”

Based on pictures taken of visitors to the Moscow-based hacking centre, the AIVD managed to deduce that the hacker group was led by Russia’s external intelligence agency, SVR.

The AIVD and its military counterpart, MIVD, informed the NSA liaison at the US embassy in The Hague in November 2014 of Russian preparations to attack the State Department, enabling the NSA and FBI to counter Russian attempts. The information was found important enough for the NSA to open a direct line with the AIVD headquarters in Zoetermeer, Netherlands.

The Americans were taken completely by surprise by the Russian aggression, the US’s former top cyber diplomat, Chris Painter, told Volkskrant, adding that unpreparedness by the US intelligence services was “one of the reasons the Dutch access was so appreciated.”

Volkskrant said it spoke with 15 people over the course of the seven-month investigation. Six of those had direct knowledge of the Dutch access while the other nine are familiar with the intelligence community, the working methods of Russian hacking groups or the US-Dutch international relationship, it said.