Microsoft: Iran government-linked hacker targeted 2020 presidential campaign

President Donald Trump.
By Aamer Madhani and Savannah Behrmann
Source: USA Today


Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections and helped Donald Trump win. We look back at history and ask: Will they do it again? 

A hacker linked to the Iran government made more than 2,700 attempts to target email addresses belonging to a 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, government officials, journalists and prominent Iranians living abroad, the tech giant Microsoft said Friday.

The company said that four email accounts were compromised by the group it calls “Phosphorous” but none of those compromised accounts were associated with a presidential campaign or current U.S. government officials.

“Microsoft has notified the customers related to these investigations and threats and has worked as requested with those whose accounts were compromised to secure them,” Tom Burt, Microsoft vice president for customer security and trust, wrote in a blog post.

A company spokesman declined to identify which campaign or individuals Phosphorous targeted, but Reuters and the New York Times reported Friday that the hack targeted President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

President Donald Trump. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)

Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, initially declined to comment on whether it was targeted in the newly-revealed Iran-linked attack. But Murtaugh later added that the campaign has “no indication that any of our campaign infrastructure was targeted.”  

The targeted attacks come while anxiety about Russian interference in the 2016 election has not receded.

In March 2016, two cyber units of the Russian military agency called “GRU” sent hundreds of spear-phishing emails to email addresses associated with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The spear-phishing campaign allowed them to gain access to John Podesta’s email accounts. Podesta was Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The group WikiLeaks release more than 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the hacks, three days before the Democratic National Convention. WikiLeaks then released more than 50,000 documents stolen from Podesta’s personal email account in the month leading up to Election Day 2016. 

Campaign officials with former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and author Marianne Williamson declined to comment, citing policies of not discussing security matters.

Ian Sams, a spokesman for the campaign of Democratic White House hopeful Kamala Harris, said the campaign has received “no indication that our campaign is the one Microsoft referenced or that we have been targeted by this attack.

“But we have taken appropriate steps since the beginning of our campaign to protect ourselves against hacking attempts and will continue to do so,” Sams added.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s and former Rep. Joe Sestak’s campaigns confirmed they were not targeted.

Officials for the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as 10 low-polling Democratic candidates did not respond to requests for comment.

Microsoft says Phosphorous used information gathered from researching their targets or other means to game password reset or account recovery features and attempt to take over targeted accounts.

“For example, they would seek access to a secondary email account linked to a user’s Microsoft account, then attempt to gain access to a user’s Microsoft account through verification sent to the secondary account,” Burt said. “In some instances, they gathered phone numbers belonging to their targets and used them to assist in authenticating password resets.”

Microsoft said it decided to publicize the hack, which it described as “not technically sophisticated,” because it felt it’s increasingly important for the government and private sector to be transparent about nation-state attacks and attempts to disrupt democratic processes.

The company added that publishing the information would also help other organization’s associated with election processes to be more vigilant.

Iran’s is lesser known among U.S. adversaries for its cyberattack capabilities. Tehran’s most notable suspected cyberattacks targeted Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and U.S. in 2010 following a collaborative attack against Iran’s nuclear program by the U.S. and Israel.

“This series of attacks is notable for their lack of sophistication. The attackers didn’t try to crack passwords or engage in phishing attacks,” said Mike Chapple, associate teaching professor of IT, analytics, and operations at the University of Notre Dame, “Instead, they took advantage of Microsoft’s password recovery mechanisms, attempting to take over the secondary email accounts and phone numbers used to reset forgotten passwords.”

Brazil Considers Labeling Hezbollah as Terrorists in Pivot to U.S.

By Samy Adghirni
Source: Bloomberg

  •  Idea is being debated; could strain ties with Iran and Lebanon
  •  Argentina became first Latin American country to do so

Brazil is considering designating Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as President Jair Bolsonaro increasingly aligns his government with the U.S. on foreign policy.

Officials are reviewing their options to move forward with the idea, which is being discussed at the highest levels of government but doesn’t have across-the-board support, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter. It wouldn’t be easily implemented due to the particularities of Brazilian law, they added, requesting anonymity because the discussion isn’t public.

The idea is part of Bolsonaro’s efforts to forge stronger ties with Donald Trump, with whom he also seeks a trade deal. It also fits into the world-view of Brazil’s right-wing president and his inner-circle. During last year’s presidential campaign, his son Eduardo, who may become the Brazilian ambassador to the U.S., already advocated a strong stance against Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Jair Bolsonaro, left, and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo.Photographer: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg

Yet the move could strain relations with Iran, a Hezbollah ally which imports $2.5 billion of Brazilian products per year, and displease Brazil’s influential Lebanese community. The government also worries it could make the country a target of terrorism, said one of the people. A decision could be announced before Bolsonaro visits in October the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two countries strongly opposed to Hezbollah.

Contacted by Bloomberg, Brazil’s foreign ministry said it doesn’t consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has no plans to change its status for now. The president’s office, the justice ministry and the federal police, responsible for enforcement of anti-terror laws, declined to comment.

Currently, Brazil only considers as terrorists those groups already labeled as such by the UN Security Council, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It can bar the entry, arrest, and freeze assets of people suspected to be part of them.

Growing Pressure

The Brazilian leader is at the same time willing and under pressure from the U.S. to put Hezbollah on the terrorist list. In a November meeting with then President-elect Bolsonaro, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Trump expected to boost cooperation with Brazil on terrorism, be it against Hezbollah, Hamas or others.

The temperature rose further last month when Argentina became the first Latin American nation to label Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group with an armed wing, as a terrorist organization. On Monday Paraguay announced its decision to follow suit.

“Brazil has been under international pressure for many years to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group,” said Jorge Lasmar, a terrorism expert and professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais. “There can be serious consequences, for example creating friction with Iran and other countries with a relevant number of Shiites, such as Lebanon.”

The U.S. has urged Latin American countries to denounce Hezbollah as part of its anti-Iran strategy. Argentina finally did so during the 25th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center that killed 85 people. Argentina and the U.S. blame Hezbollah and Iran for the attack. Both deny the accusations. Brazil has recently recognized the group’s presence in South America.

The U.S. government shares intelligence about Hezbollah with Brazil because its government is trusted and law enforcement agencies are good, Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told a small group of reporters in Rio de Janeiro on Monday.

End of Neutrality

Bolsonaro and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo have repeatedly vowed to break with Brazil’s decades-old tradition of multilateralism and neutrality that allowed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to keep trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. and its enemies. Instead, Brazil is getting so close to the U.S. and its allies that Bolsonaro earlier this year promised to move the country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following on Trump’s footsteps. The pledge triggered intense criticism from Brazilian meat exporters who feared losing market in the Middle East, forcing the president to open only a trade bureau in Jerusalem, rather than an embassy.

Brazil also followed the U.S. in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as president of Venezuela. Eduardo Bolsonaro‘s nomination as ambassador to Washington has received Trump’s blessing but has yet to be approved by Brazil’s Senate.

Among the obstacles to press ahead with the plan is the fact that Brazilian law is vague when defining terrorism. Currently, Brazil narrowly defines acts of terror but not terrorist organizations. It also completely ignores political motivation behind attacks. That means Congress’ may need to approve any specific measures against Hezbollah.

“Brazil’s legal definition of terrorism is narrow; foreign and national concepts on this topic tend to clash,” said Rogerio Sanches Cunha, a legal scholar and expert in anti-terror Brazilian laws.

Hezbollah, or the party of God in Arabic, is at the same time an armed group, a political party and a social organization. It sits in the Lebanese cabinet and has considerable geopolitical power. It is considered a terrorist group by many countries, including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Germany sees Hezbollah’s military wing as terrorist but not its political and social branches. Russia and China don’t consider it as a terrorist group.

— With assistance by David Biller, and Bruce Douglas