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White House Asks U.S. Spies to Study Russian Hacks

The U.S. intelligence community has been asked to analyze Russian hacks of U.S. voting systems.
Image: Voters Go To The Polls In Illinois Presidential Primary
Voters casts their ballots at ChiArts High School on March 15, in Chicago, Illinois.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Editor's Note: This story has been revised to reflect comment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The White House has ordered a special intelligence task force to examine the implications of Russia’s recent hacks of U.S. political organizations, U.S. intelligence officials tell NBC News.

According to one official, the classified national study is being conducted by the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee, a Cold War-era organization that is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The committee traditionally has advised the DNI on foreign attempts to thwart U.S. intelligence through trickery. But in the cyber era, the committee has increasingly looked at how nation states use computer attacks to conduct espionage and spread propaganda.

Russia, China, North Korea, Iran are primary subjects, the official said.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, however, denies that ODNI or any committee under ODNI is conducting an assessment of the Russian hacks of the U.S. political system.

In a statement Thursday, Brian Hale, the ODNI spokesman, said that the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee “is not conducting any studies related to alleged Russian hacking of U.S. political organizations, nor has the Committee been asked to conduct any study by the National Security Council.”

But the senior official who told NBC News that the committee is undertaking the effort stands by that account.

The consensus among U.S. intelligence analysts is that Russia is seeking to undermine confidence in the U.S. system, using the hacks into the Democratic National Committee, state election systems and other targets that have yet to be made public, as part of a larger campaign. Whether Russia can directly manipulate voting machines or “hack” into election systems, they say, is not clear and is mainly outside the jurisdiction of U.S. intelligence.

Intelligence analysts are uncertain about the Russian government’s intentions relating to U.S. politics, but they don’t believe Russia is actively trying to favor Republican Donald Trump, as some have suggested. Instead, Russia may be trying to foment chaos.

“Let’s just throw some spaghetti on the wall, and whatever sticks, sticks,” said one senior Congressional aide briefed on intelligence, describing a likely scenario.

The latest Russian hacks became public this week with the news that two state election systems, in Illinois and Arizona, were targeted.

Illinois officials said in July that they shut down their state's voter registration after a hack. State officials said Monday the hackers downloaded information on as many 200,000 people.

In Arizona, “a known Russian hacker was able to capture the user name and password of a county election employee and they posted that user name and password online,” Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, told NBC News.

The password was used in an attempt to breach the voter registration file, but it wasn’t successful, he said.

Still, the state took its online voter registration down for nine days, beginning in late June. It has enhanced its cyber security measures, Roberts said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told NBC News Tuesday that the implications were “staggering.”

It would be “negligent,” he said, for any state election agency not to have a paper back-up for its electronic voting system.

Schiff said he is not able to discuss what he has been told in classified settings, but all publicly available evidence points to Russia, he said.

The matter has become a top tier concern of U.S. intelligence agencies, he added.

"I have recently become concerned that the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote in an Aug. 27 letter to FBI Director James Comey dated Aug. 27 first reported by the New York Times.