Did the Russians Hack Two Democratic Orange County Congressional Candidates?

Hans Keirstead (courtesy HansForCA.com)

A bombshell report linking Russian military intelligence to cyberattacks against U.S. conservative think tanks critical of Donald Trump’s presidency follows revelations about the hacking of congressional campaign websites of two Orange County candidates who had been endorsed by the California Democratic Party before losing their primary election bids.

Dr. Hans Keirstead, one of the local candidates victimized by cyberattacks, was unsuccessful in his bid to square off in November against Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who has been dubbed “Putin’s favorite congressman.” 

The other victim was Dave Min, who lost his primary race in the district of staunch Trump supporter Representative Mimi Walters (R-Irvine).

The Democratic Party and progressive political action committees have been pouring tons of resources into Rohrabacher’s 48th and Walters’ 45th congressional districts because of how well Hillary Clinton did in them versus Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 

For months, polls showed Keirstead was the candidate to beat in June’s primary race, and he was indeed the top Democrat during much of the final vote count. Alas, the stem-cell scientist wound up 125 votes short of fellow Democrat Harley Rouda, who faces 15-term incumbent Rohrabacher in the November general election.

The Keirstead campaign website withstood a successful cyberattack that was followed by thousands of unsuccessful hacks—and an FBI investigation. The FBI is not confirming the probe, but reporter Andy Kroll writes in an Aug. 15 Rolling Stone story that the investigation was confirmed after the review of dozens of emails and forensic records.

The Keirstead hacks began in August 2017 when the candidate entered his work email password into a fake message that appeared to be a legitimate Microsoft Office communication. He quickly realized the message was phony and had his company take measures to secure their email system.

Thousands of attempts by bots or hackers to get inside the Keirstead for Congress website, the hosting company’s server and the campaign’s Twitter account began in December, although none were effective.

Kyle Quinn-Quesada, who was the candidate’s campaign manager, contacted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which in turn informed the FBI. Quinn-Quesada says the FBI contacted him in January and the campaign website’s hosting company shortly thereafter.

“It is clear from speaking with campaign professionals around the country that the sustained attacks the Keirstead for Congress campaign faced were not unique but have become the new normal for political campaigns in 2018,” Quinn-Quesada tells Kroll.

The top vote-getter in the 48th congressional district primary was Rohrabacher, who has been labeled “Putin’s favorite congressman” for his steadfast support of the brutal Russian regime and direct warnings from the FBI that Russian intelligence was grooming him to be an asset. The Surfin’ Congressman claims to hold proof that Russia was not behind the 2016 presidential race cyberattacks.

Experts say that without the aid of law enforcement or high-priced security firms, it is impossible to tell whether hackers are affiliated with a nation-state, organized crime or hacktivists pushing a cause. But keep in mind that: President Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned last month that cyberattacks aimed at the U.S. are “blinking red;” the Daily Beast reported the Russian intelligence agency responsible for the 2016 hacks recently attempted unsuccessfully to infiltrate the office of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri); and a senior Microsoft executive revealed the company identified and helped block hacking attempts aimed at three 2018 midterm congressional candidates. Citing “customer privacy,” Microsoft refused to disclose whether Keirstead was one of them.

Courtesy Dave Min for Congress

Reuters reports that the FBI was also told about a cyberattack on the campaign of David Min, who lost his primary bid to eventually replace Walters after falling 4,099 votes behind fellow Democrat and UC Irvine law school professor Katie Porter, who now faces the incumbent in the fall. 

Like Keirstead, Min had won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party heading into June’s primary.

Min learned in March of the highly sophisticated hack that allowed his staffers’ computer keystrokes to be monitored, sources with his campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told Reuters.

Because of how well the cyberattack and malware planted as a result of it were masked, the campaign did not discover the hack but another organization sharing space in the same Irvine office complex did and sent out a building-wide alarm via email.

Senior campaign staff met with the FBI but didn’t go public with information because the campaign didn’t want the incident to be a distraction, reports Reuters, citing one of the sources.

Today, The New York Times reported Russian military intelligence targeted conservative American think tanks that have broken with President Trump and are seeking continued sanctions against Moscow, exposing oligarchs or pressing for human rights.

Besides the conservative institutions, a group tied to Russian intelligence–and previously identified in the Mueller investigation–sought to spoof the U.S. Senate and Microsoft, which said  Tuesday it executed a court order to shut down six rogue sites.

The fake sites were intended to trick users into thinking they were clicking on sites of the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, and the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit pro-democracy group whose board includes Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who has routinely blasted Trump (and vice versa), as well as other prominent Republicans who were highly critical of the Trump-Putin summit last month in Helsinki.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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