Congress quietly examines apparent CIA hacking tools dump

Mar 31, 2017 | Politico Pro

The House and Senate Intelligence committees have begun quietly probing how WikiLeaks obtained the CIA’s apparent secret hacking arsenal.

According to both committee chairmen, the influential panels have received at least one classified briefing from the CIA on the unauthorized release of more than 8,000 pages of documents that WikiLeaks claims detail how the clandestine agency turns computers, smartphones and even internet-connected televisions into spying devices.

“That was one of the subjects we discussed in that meeting,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told POLITICO, before declining to comment further.

“We’re knee-deep into that issue,” said House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

And WikiLeaks — the anti-secrecy site that U.S. intelligence officials dubbed a middleman for Russian intelligence services after it published thousands of pilfered Democratic Party emails — may not be done.

The activist site followed up its initial release with the publication last week of documents that purportedly reveal how the CIA exploits Apple’s computers and smartphones.

Experts and former intelligence officials have told POLITICO the documents appear legitimate.

But lawmakers have been loathe to discuss their nascent probe into the matter, worried that acknowledging any specifics may tacitly confirm the snooping tools are authentic. The approach stands in stark contrast to the high-profile congressional inquiries into Russia’s alleged digital assault on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which dominate the news cycle and feature regular press conferences.

“I really can’t comment on that investigation or even confirm those are CIA materials or tools,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, told POLITICO.

“I’m still trying to get to the bottom of whether the president was declassifying information when he flippantly talked about the CIA being hacked,” he added, referring to a comment President Donald Trump made during an television interview earlier this month.

Another reason for the bipartisan silence is that lawmakers are unsure of the sourcing behind the information dumps.

“We don’t know that it was a leak,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who chairs the Intelligence Committee’s defense subpanel. “The investigation on that is, I think, just barely getting started. It might have been [the CIA] was penetrated by external means or some other way.”

A leading theory is that WikiLeaks obtained the documents from a CIA insider or contractor, similar to how former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed the secret underbelly of the U.S. surveillance apparatus in 2013. But it’s also possible the clandestine agency was hacked, similar to how suspected Chinese cyber warriors broke into OPM in 2015 and made off with the personal information of over 20 million federal employees.

But first and foremost, said Pete Metzger, a former CIA intelligence officer, lawmakers will want to know if the released materials are “fake news or the truth.”

“Behind closed doors, not in open session, if I were the chairman [of either committee] I want to see the hard data as to what is the open source information in WikiLeaks and what can you show me, point by point, to prove or disprove this,” said Metzger, now the vice chair of consultancy DHR International.

“Without that, it’s a self-licking ice cream cone, you don’t know what you’re looking for,” he added.

Burr declined to say if, or when, the CIA might return to brief lawmakers on the subject.

“We receive constant updates from them,” he said. “It’s a constant oversight function.”

Heather Fritz Horniak, a CIA spokeswoman, declined to confirm whether this month’s classified briefing had taken place or comment on if there would be more meetings in the future.

“As a general matter, we do not comment on specific interactions with Congress,” she said via email. “However, the agency takes seriously Congress’s oversight role and routinely keeps them apprised of the agency’s activities.”

Metzger said the investigations would produce, at least on the classified side, a firm ruling about whether the tools are authentic and “what we assess to be, to use a military term, the bomb damage assessment. How bad was this thing and what can we do to counter it, prevent it and launch a counteroffensive against it?”

However, it may be years before the public learns the results of the investigations, he warned.

And the public may never find out. Metzger cautioned that revealing findings might play into the hands of the party responsible for the incident. It's possible, he said, that someone exposed the documents as a “false flag operation,” designed to get the U.S. to confirm the materials posted online are real.

The Intelligence panels themselves may also struggle to move swiftly with their probes, given their ever-expanding and closely-watched inquiries into potential ties between Russia and Trump associates during the election.

The House Intelligence Committee has reportedly even shut down all work not relate to its Russia inquiry. But Nunes, the panel’s chairman, believes his staff can handle the load.

“I do,” he told reporters after his committee’s recent closely watched public hearing on its Russia probe. “We have a lot of investigations that we have going. They’re quite extensive.”