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Russia intel believed behind scan of Michelle Obama passport, hacking of Democrat data

Reuters, AP

An image purported to be a scanned copy of U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s passport was leaked online on Thursday alongside personal emails said to belong to a low-level White House staffer who worked with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the passport or related documents, the latest dump of sensitive material by a hacking entity U.S. intelligence officials suspect is linked to Russia.

The White House on Thursday declined comment on their validity, but spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration was taking the matter seriously.

“We’re aware of those media reports, and it is something we’re looking into,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference.

The emails published on Thursday appear to be from a Gmail account belonging to staffer Ian Mellul and largely contain mundane information concerning planning logistics for Clinton campaign events.

The leak is the latest in a set of files targeting U.S. politicians and political insiders to be disclosed by a group calling itself DC Leaks.

Last week the group published personal emails from former Secretary of State Colin Powell showing his distaste for Clinton and her Republican rival, Donald Trump.

Powell confirmed to Reuters the hacked messages were authentic.

Cyber security experts and U.S. intelligence officials have said the DC Leaks group, which says it is operating in the name of anti-secrecy, is a front for a wide-ranging hacking operation by the Russian government that also has breached Democratic party organizations and at least two state election systems.

The U.S. Secret Service “is concerned any time unauthorized information that might pertain to one of the individuals we protect, or our operations, is allegedly disclosed,” said Nicole Mainor, a spokeswoman for the agency. She declined comment further, citing a policy of not providing information about investigations.

The top Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees meanwhile said Thursday that they have concluded that Russian intelligence agencies are making a “serious and concerted effort” to influence the U.S. presidential election.

A joint statement issued by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff goes farther than the Obama administration in pointing a finger at Moscow for recent hacking of political computer systems.

Federal officials are investigating cyberattacks at the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Election data systems in at least two states also have been breached.

“Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” the two lawmakers from California said. “At the least, this effort is intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election. We can see no other rationale for the behavior of the Russians.”

They called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to order a halt to the political hacking, which Moscow has denied.

“We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government,” they said.

The U.S. hasn’t formally blamed Russia for the hack of Democratic emails, but the White House has publicly noted that outside investigators have determined that Russia is to blame. Determining Russia’s involvement in the public disclosure of the emails is seen as a prerequisite to any sanctions the U.S. might levy on Russia in response to the hacks.

Earlier this month, Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s homeland security adviser, said it would be difficult for someone to hack into America’s voting systems in a way that could alter the outcome of an election. She said election systems by and large are not hooked up to the internet and are diffusely operated by state and local governments.

Asked whether the U.S. might respond to the hacking, Monaco said, “Stay tuned.”

Lawmakers from both parties have called for a U.S. response to the hacking.

“When we have an adversary who so brazenly strikes at the heart of our democratic process, I think that indicates how low they believe the cost of that behavior is going to be,” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said Thursday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where she questioned top military officials about the recent cyberattacks.