By Rick Pearson
The FBI notified the Illinois Republican Party in June that some of its email accounts may have been hacked, but party officials were not told that it was part of a wide-ranging federal investigation of Russian activity in the nation's political system, the state GOP's executive director said Sunday.
Nick Klitzing said the state GOP on its own found 18 of its emails on the website DCLeaks.com. The New York Times reported the website was an outlet that U.S. intelligence officials and private cybersecurity companies believe was created by a unit controlled by the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.
Klitzing said FBI agents raised questions about emails involving the state GOP accounts during their visit. The four email accounts involved were inactive or rarely used, and the hacked emails dated to 2015, long before the 2016 contests for president and Illinois offices, Klitzing said.
A review of the emails provided by the state GOP shows the messages were largely rudimentary in nature, ranging from requests for training and local party event invitations to reports and discussion that U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton should be considered a "dark horse" candidate to replace House Speaker John Boehner, a contest ultimately won by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The disclosure of the hacked email accounts comes amid reports by the Times and Washington Post that assessments by American intelligence agencies, including the CIA, concluded that Russia acted to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Republican President-elect Donald Trump and to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton's chances.
Trump, appearing on Fox News Sunday, dismissed the CIA assessment as "ridiculous."
"Nobody really knows, and hacking is very interesting. Once they hack, if you don't catch them in the act you're not going to catch them," he said. "They have no idea if it's Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place."
The Republican National Committee also has vehemently disputed a New York Times report that its computer systems had been hacked, as had occurred to the Democratic National Committee.
The compromised Illinois GOP emails provided to the Tribune were dated from August to October of 2015 and did not involve Trump, Clinton or the presidential contest. The emails were sent to the state Republican Party.
The subjects of the compromised emails included a suburban York Township Republican Women's event; a request by McLean County GOP Chairman Chuck Erickson to attend a county training event that included Erickson's phone number; and a notification from Mike Bigger, a member of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, that he would be attending an event "and bringing a $1,000 check" from the Stark County party organization.
Other compromised emails included a half-dozen messages from Chicago businessman Peter Smith, chairman of Corporate Venture Alliances LLC, involving the October 2015 GOP contest to replace Boehner as House speaker. Smith is a longtime Republican conservative and has been a supporter of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Smith's emails were sent to what Klitzing described as an unused email account for Richard Porter, the state's Republican national committeeman.
Smith's emails discussed conversations he had with Matthew Boyle, Washington political editor for Breitbart News Network, as well as a link to a Breitbart story headlined, "Meet Peter Roskam, Dark Horse Candidate for Speaker," which Smith sought to tell Porter was "as good as it can get."
Klitzing said the FBI came to the state GOP in June and asked about email accounts. The FBI urged officials to change passwords and take other steps commonly recommended by information technology experts to make email accounts more secure, he said.
"We thought it was weird that the FBI was giving IT advice," Klitzing said. The June visit was the last the Illinois GOP heard from the FBI and there was no discussion about who might have been the source of the hacking, he said.
DCLinks.com has posted more than 200 emails involving Republican activists and GOP state parties, but gained greater notoriety over documents involving the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign officials. Many of the DCLinks.com Democratic emails also appeared on the more popular WikiLeaks website.
The disclosure by the Illinois Republicans marks the second time that part of the state's political system was hacked through what is considered to be foreign involvement.
In June of this year, information involving as many as 90,000 Illinois voters was hacked in a one-month cyberattack of potential foreign origin on the State Board of Elections. Board officials restated that no files of registered voters were erased or modified, and that no voting history information or voter signature images were captured.
After the Illinois cyberattack and another attempt in Arizona, the FBI issued a "flash alert" to warn of malicious attempts to obtain access to states' election voter registration information. The FBI alerted Arizona officials in June that Russians were behind the assault on the election system in that state, the Washington Post reported.
(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune