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Ben Judah is the author of This Is London and Fragile Empire, a contributing writer at Politico, and an expert at the Hudson Institute. His think tank project on modern-day kleptocracy was recently targeted in a cyberattack that Microsoft has linked to the Fancy Bear (ATP28) hacking unit associated with Russian military intelligence.
Judah spoke the Voice of America about the attack on the various right-leaning think tanks, Senate groups, and the current similarities between Moscow and Washington’s political climates.
Question: What happened at the Hudson Institute? Why was your research targeted?
Ben Judah: There is a lot I can’t discuss due to security procedures in place. But what happened is that Microsoft revealed that a series of think tanks and conservative organizations had been targeted by Russian hackers, including, specifically, the program that I had been working on.
Prior to that my own computer had been attacked from a Russian-speaking country. I actually think this is more widespread than people realize. The computers with journalists and think-tankers, dealing not just with Russia, but with Iran, or Turkey, or China, are being targeted far more frequently than talked about.
Q: Should there be more awareness of this problem? Should news organizations, and journalists themselves, be establishing better security protocols?
BJ: When the Russian hackers targeted the think tank project, they created a clone website, so that people would sign up for it and give their details. People trying to read or engage with the work would have their information compromised in this manner. We didn’t know it was happening, so it wasn’t an issue of our security procedures.
And there was no way to find out, apart from frantically Googling yourself all of the time and name-searching yourself in different corners of the internet.
Q: What were the goals of the attack on the Hudson Institute?
BJ: I can’t be entirely sure, but I would assume that they wanted to know the identities of people interested in the work that the think tank was doing on anti-kleptocracy. They wanted to know who was subscribing to it, who was checking it, and who was collaborating with the project. And what the project has been doing is pushing reform on the U.S. legal and financial system—because it argues that the corruption cases that are linked to the administration of President Donald Trump and to Russia are rather a systemic problem in the U.S.
Q: Could intimidation be another factor? Particularly intimidation of researchers or journalists who rely on trips to Russia for their work? Visa issues, for example, can routinely come up for people like that.
BJ: What I’m doing at the moment doesn’t really involve travel to Russia. It’s more to do with the U.S. legal and financial systems, and how shell companies, for example, allow foreign kleptocrats, not only Russian kleptocrats, to abuse the U.S. system. But I also think that intimidation could be a part of the rationale here.
Q: You recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic talking about the similarities between the political climate in Moscow and in Washington. What has changed in D.C. to make such a comparison possible?
BJ: Since the election of Trump, a lot of things [in Washington] have started to remind me of how power behaves in Moscow: endless discussions of the Trump family, the blurring of business interests and executive power, the intensity of the propaganda, politics revolving around one man, increased paranoia amongst journalists and policy operatives—not groundless paranoia, I would say, about being potentially targeted or hacked—the hysteria about foreign influence and foreign interference in politics… All of that reminds of the atmosphere in Moscow.
Another aspect of this is that while working as a journalist in Moscow, I had to face the fact that even if I got an interview with lowly ministers or chairmen of committees or Federation Council senators, I wasn’t talking to people with power vested in their hands. Because it was far more a world of oligarchs and TV propaganda all linked to the Russian president, and there is something of that I’ve noticed developing in Washington.
Previously influential people, people linked into policymaking systems, just don’t have the influence [in Washington] right now, and people who are influencing the president are his family and his top propagandists, as well as other oligarchs.
Q: What is your advice for people in Washington who are dealing with this climate, a climate most Americans simply aren’t used to?
BJ: Be careful of what you keep on your computer and your phone. Have sensitive information? Use pen and paper.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian Service.