Blaming Russia, how will the U.S. respond to pre-election hacks?

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Since Friday, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks has been releasing e-mails that were hacked from the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The stolen messages detail how the campaign responded to important issues through the race for the White House.

It is unclear who was behind this latest digital theft, but, on Friday, the Obama administration did blame Russia for the hacking of Democratic Party Web sites earlier this year and attempts to breach state election systems, in order to influence the vote for president.

Today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there will be a U.S. response to the alleged Russian hacking. He told reporters aboard Air Force One: “The president has talked before about the significant capabilities that the U.S. government has to both defend our systems in the United States, but also carry out offensive operations in other countries. So, there are a range of responses that are available to the president, and he will consider a response that’s proportional.”

With me now to sift through what all this means in both political and diplomatic terms are the “NewsHour”‘s Margaret Warner and Lisa Desjardins.

Lisa, tell me — let’s start with what is in the e-mails.

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

So, this latest dump, so people can keep track, began on Friday. These are about 2,000 e-mails, a little bit more, coming from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, obviously a very big player in the Clinton world now and for years.

Now, in these, we see one of the standout notes that we have gotten — there haven’t been all that many — is from a Clinton 2013 speech to an Italian bank. You may have seen that quote. In the speech that was referenced in these e-mails, it was purported to say — quote — “My dream is a hemispheric common market with open trade and open borders.”

Obviously, that’s raised a lot of questions in this year of very heated talk about trade and especially after Clinton herself came out against one of the largest-in-history trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And that’s probably the biggest kind of headline that’s come out of these e-mails, but also they include a great deal of campaign tactics, including a 71-page briefing, sort of oppo research to some extent on Bernie Sanders. All of this was happening during that very heated primary campaign.

Now, the Clinton campaign themselves is not confirming the authenticity of any of these e-mails. It’s very important to say that WikiLeaks has posted these. We know they were hacked, so the authenticity is fair to question.

And the Clinton campaign is pushing back strongly, saying this is from a state actor, and this is obviously an illegal act in politics.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so, Margaret, how did these e-mails come to light in the first place?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as Lisa said, not only did they come out on WikiLeaks, this latest batch, but there have been two other sources, something called Guccifer 2 and something called D.C. Leaks.

And the U.S. government, intelligence officials and also many cyber-experts have been sure for — at a 90 percent degree of certainty for months that two Russian spy, cyber-spy agencies, one tied to Russian intelligence, one tied to Russian military intelligence, had been behind these.

These have been known for months. FBI Director James Comey did tell the Congress, in fact, he said, “We’re trying to determine just what mischief Russia is up to in connection with our election.”

So, there is a difference between the hacking and the leaking. And the Russian M.O., U.S. officials believe, is that they do the hacking, and then they give them to others to do the leaking.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so let’s talk a little bit about the timing, coincidence or not, in an election year? What’s the political fallout?

LISA DESJARDINS: Well, the fallout, first of all, has not been related directly to the content of these e-mails. I think the worst fallout for Hillary Clinton is whenever the topic of e-mails comes up, whenever the idea comes out that maybe she and her strategists are doing things in secret that the public don’t know about.

The truth is, there is no indication of any wrongdoing. This is typical campaign operations for the most part in these e-mails. Some, you could say, are not good on style or there’s infighting or whatever, but there is really no indication of wrongdoing here.

Instead, this whole concept of e-mails and a shadowy Clinton world is the problem for her, which they say is all sort of a shadow conspiracy. But I think there’s a greater issue here, Hari, in that what these e-mails are doing is, it’s changing how our political operatives communicate.

For example, I know sources now who will not communicate with me over e-mail, who must communicate by phone. When our leaders aren’t able to talk to each other over the most common device they use, that’s a success for the opponents of the United States. And that’s something that may be happened now already.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret, that statement from Josh Earnest, that the U.S. has the potential for a proportional response, what can the administration do? This was almost one of the first explicit moments where we said we are in an active cyber-war.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, in which we outed somebody, another country.

The only other one ever outed is North Korea. Russia has done previous hacks of U.S. government databases, and so have the Chinese. This time, it was different.

First, the reasons they did it, I was told by a senior cyber-official, had a lot to do with the upcoming debate. Julian Assange had been saying there was going to be a new dump. The administration strongly believes, as Lisa said, that this is all aimed to help Trump and hurt Clinton.

And so this was definitely, at a time a very high tension with the Russians anyway over Aleppo, a way of trying the neutralize Trump from saying, who knows if the Russians are behind it?

Of course he said it again. What’s in the kit bag? A lot of things for the United States to retaliate. The name and shame may be the only thing it does, trying the put Russia on notice that, look, you’re crossing a line here because you’re interfering with, as Lisa again said, the sanctity of the American election system, not just communications, but the real sanctity here, sowing mistrust and doubt.

But, certainly, if the U.S. wanted to turn out all the lights in Moscow, it could, but Russia could do the same to New York. So, the administration has been reluctant to get into any kind of real cyber-war.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner, Lisa Desjardins, thanks so much.

The head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has said they could release 100,000 pages of new material before the election.

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