WASHINGTON — The FBI struck back at the Democratic National Committee on Thursday, accusing it of denying federal investigators access to its computer systems and hamstringing its investigation into the infiltration of DNC servers by Russia-backed hackers.
“The FBI repeatedly stressed to DNC officials the necessity of obtaining direct access to servers and data, only to be rebuffed until well after the initial compromise had been mitigated. This left the FBI no choice but to rely upon a third party for information,” a senior law enforcement official told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “These actions caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier.”
The DNC said the FBI had never asked for access to their hacked servers, BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday.
A DNC source familiar with the investigation tried to downplay that report on Thursday, hours before the FBI statement was issued. The fact that the FBI didn’t have direct access to the servers was not “significant,” the source said.
“I just don’t think that that’s really material or an important thing,” the source continued. “They had what they needed. There are always haters out here.”
The DNC source also brushed off the idea that it was the DNC that refused to let FBI access the server. When BuzzFeed News attempted to reach the official after the FBI statement came out, he declined to comment.
The warring statements are the latest twists in an extraordinary standoff between the Democrats and federal investigators that reached a fever pitch over the bureau’s probe into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server. That investigation saw FBI Director James Comey break long-standing tradition against potentially influencing elections, issuing a public letter to Congress 10 days before the election announcing potential new evidence in the case. The review ended with the FBI maintaining its July conclusion that Clinton should not face criminal charges, a fact that was declared only two days before polls opened. The timing fueled speculation over Clinton’s potential wrongdoing and tipped the scales in Trump’s favor, Democrats say.
The FBI announced it was investigating the hack of the DNC’s servers in July, after a third-party computer security firm, Crowdstrike, said it had evidence of Kremlin-backed hackers infiltrating its system. That hack — which federal officials have formally attributed to Russian hackers cleared by senior Russian officials — and subsequent release of stolen emails was part of a broader effort by Russia to influence the US election and push Donald Trump into the White House, according to FBI and CIA analysis.
President-elect Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism that Russia was behind the DNC hack, tweeted on Thursday that the DNC “would not allow the FBI to study or see its computer info after it was supposedly hacked by Russia……”
A US intelligence official, requesting anonymity to discuss the investigation, said that because the FBI did not have access to the DNC servers, investigators had been forced to rely on computer forensics from the Crowdstrike analysis. Crowdstrike was originally hired by the DNC to investigate the hacks in the spring of 2016.
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News Wednesday, the DNC said it cooperated fully with the FBI investigation and shared all of the Crowdstrike information with the FBI.
The DNC declined to comment on the FBI's statement.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, in a report released in the last week of December, publicly accused Russia of being behind the sweeping cyberattacks. The White House subsequently expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US, issued sanctions against Russian intelligence officials, and cut off access to two Russian diplomatic facilities in the US.
A separate report on the widespread Russian influence operation, compiled by the Director of National Intelligence, was briefed to the White House on Thursday. A declassified version is expected to be publicly released on Monday.