The U.S. government believes hackers from Russia or elsewhere may try to undermine next week’s presidential election and is mounting an unprecedented effort to counter their cyber meddling, American officials told NBC News.
The effort is being coordinated by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, but reaches across the government to include the CIA, the National Security Agency and other elements of the Defense Department, current and former officials say.
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Russia has been warned that any effort to manipulate the actual voting or vote counting would be viewed as a serious breach, intelligence officials say.
“The Russians are in an offensive mode and [the U.S. is] working on strategies to respond to that, and at the highest levels,” said Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
Officials are alert for any attempts to create Election Day chaos, and say steps are being taken to prepare for worst-case scenarios, including a cyber-attack that shuts down part of the power grid or the internet.
But what is more likely, multiple U.S. officials say, is a lower-level effort by hackers from Russia or elsewhere to peddle misinformation by manipulating Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
For example, officials fear an 11th hour release of fake documents implicating one of the candidates in an explosive scandal without time for the news media to fact check it. So far, document dumps attributed to the Russians have damaged Democrats and favored Trump.
The Russians “want to sow as much confusion as possible and undermine our process in ways they’ve done elsewhere,” said a senior Obama administration official. “So this is to make sure that we have all the tools at our disposal and that we’re prepared to respond to whatever it is that they do.”
“We need to be prepared on every front, not just technical but messaging, and so on,” the official added, saying the details were classified. “Because any reporting irregularity could be incredibly disruptive. … They can cause tremendous chaos, and by the time we are able to attribute, the damage may have already been done.”
Officials were reluctant to discuss how they might be respond to such “influence operations,” other than to say they will make efforts to counter misinformation and keep open communication nodes.
The U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security assess that it would be extremely difficult for even a nation-state actor to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber-attack, a second senior administration official told NBC News.