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What It’s Like to Be a ‘Fancy Bear’ Target

Kenneth R. Weinstein

It’s called a “mirror site,” and the concept is simple: Lure people into thinking they’re visiting a website such as ours at Hudson Institute by copying the basic look and features. Then try to get visitors to reveal personal information or embed their computers with malware.

Microsoft alerted us and another policy organization, the International Republican Institute, Sunday that they had saved us from a cyberattack by a hacking group known as Fancy Bear, which is thought to be a creation of Russian intelligence. Fortunately, the company detected the attack before anyone was duped. Using existing legal authority to shutter such sites, Microsoft quickly took the impostors down.

This isn’t the first time a foreign government or affiliated entity has launched a cyberattack against us. Sadly, it won’t be the last. Everyone here at Hudson has been trained to be on the lookout for spear-phishing and other attacks. The public at large, however, isn’t so lucky. They remain highly vulnerable to email that looks legitimate but isn’t.

According to law-enforcement officials, it was a Russian spear-phishing exercise that pried open thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta while he served as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman.

Even when unsuccessful, these attacks—by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean intelligence services and their formal or informal networks of hackers—impose a cost on those targeted. They are a drain on staff and administrative resources and can have a chilling effect on your work, even when Microsoft has your back, as in our case.

Most such attacks are geared to gain access to bank accounts. Fancy Bear seems to have other purposes in mind.

My Hudson colleagues and I have been outspoken on the numerous challenges Russia presents to U.S. national interests and international security: its illegal annexation of Crimea, continuing incursion in eastern Ukraine, support of Bashar Assad’s brutal dictatorship in Syria, electoral interference in the U.S. and other democracies, targeting of U.S. diplomats, attempted assassinations in the U.K. and Ukraine, increasing repression at home. President Vladimir Putin seems to be relishing the role of international troublemaker. My colleagues have been promoting tough-minded policies in all these areas and others.

We are especially proud of our Kleptocracy Initiative, which has exposed how Mr. Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin and Eastern Europe launder their ill-gotten money through shell companies and offshore accounts in Western jurisdictions. We will continue working to make sure kleptocrats can’t use their wealth to undermine Western democracy.

If Fancy Bear’s intention is to embarrass or intimidate us, it won’t work. Hudson fellows will continue to speak their minds on public-policy matters.

In these highly charged partisan times, however, some are getting a little ahead of the facts as they search for the motive behind the latest attacks. In a front page report, the New York Times suggested that Hudson was targeted because of opposition among our fellows to President Trump’s desire for improved relations with Russia.

This claim is misleading at many levels. In the first place, in my view and that of many of my colleagues, the Trump administration has rightly adopted aggressive policies to address the renewed threat Russia poses to U.S. national interests, to European and other allies, and to regional stability.

Most notably, the administration has increased spending on the European Reassurance Initiative deterrent by 40%, offered lethal-weapon assistance to Ukraine, expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. in response to the Skripal poisonings in the U.K., and imposed far tougher sanctions on Russia than any European partners have.

The Trump administration has pursued a far more aggressive campaign against Russian malign influence than has the European Union—imposing not only broad economic sanctions, but also measures against dozens of oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

Just this month, the Trump administration announced additional sanctions that ban American companies from exporting any equipment to Russia with a national-security purpose.

At Hudson Institute we have proudly worked with our friends in the administration to promote American national security, and will continue to do so.

Relations with Russia can improve—when Russian behavior improves. The U.S. ought to be able to have honest and forthright discussions with Russia about matters of mutual interest, from nuclear weapons and proliferation to terrorism. Conversations on such matters took place even at the height of the Cold War. Today, however, Mr. Putin seems intent on playing a different game.

Hudson stands for bold U.S. leadership in these increasingly dangerous times. Fancy Bear can get stuffed.

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