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False clues make it tough to find WADA hackers

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LONDON (AP) — Medical data from some of the world’s leading athletes has been posted to the web and the World Anti-Doping Agency says Russians are to blame. Even the hackers seem to agree, adopting the name “Fancy Bears” — a moniker long associated with the Kremlin’s electronic espionage operations.

But as cybersecurity experts pore over the hackers’ digital trail, they’re up against a familiar problem. The evidence has been packed with possible red herrings — including registry data pointing to France, Korean characters in the hackers’ code and a server based in California.

“Anybody can say they are anyone and it’s hard to disprove,” said Jeffrey Carr, the chief executive of consulting firm Taia Global and something of a professional skeptic when it comes to claims of state-backed hacking.

Many others in the cybersecurity industry see the WADA hack as a straightforward act of Russian revenge, but solid evidence is hard to find.

What’s known is that it was only days after scores of Russian athletes were banned from the Olympic Games that suspicious looking emails began circulating . Purporting to come from WADA itself, the booby trapped messages were aimed at harvesting passwords to a sensitive database of drug information about athletes worldwide. Among other things, the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System carries information about which top athletes use otherwise-banned substances for medical reasons — prize information for a spurned Olympic competitor seeking to embarrass its rivals.

On Sept. 1 someone registered a website titled “Fancy Bears’ Hack Team.” A few days later, a Twitter account materialized carrying a similar name. Just after midnight Moscow time on Sept. 13, the Fancy Bears Twitter account came alive, broadcasting the drugs being taken by gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams and other U.S. Olympians. It followed up Thursday with similar information about the medication used by British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, among many others.

There is no suggestion any of the athletes broke any rules, but Russians seized on the leak as evidence that U.S. and British players were using forbidden drugs with the blessing of anti-doping officials.

“Hypocrisy” Russia’s embassy to London tweeted in reaction to the news. Kremlin channel RT broadcast a cartoon showing a WADA official picking up a bulky American player’s steroid bottle with a smile. “All good! You’re cleared to compete!” he says.

Citing law enforcement sources, WADA said the attacks “are originating out of Russia.” Russian officials dismissed the allegation; in an email, WADA said it wouldn’t be commenting further.

With little to go on, independent investigators have still made some intriguing connections.

Virginia-based intelligence firm ThreatConnect said that whoever compromised WADA did so using websites registered through an obscure domain name company that also set up the fake sites used in a variety of other hacks blamed on the Kremlin, including the one that hit the Democratic National Committee. In a telephone interview, the company’s chief intelligence officer, Rich Barger said he had been cautious at first about tying the WADA breach to Russian hackers but that “confidence is certainly growing as more and more people weigh in and lend their voice.”

Even the meaning of the name “Fancy Bears” is unclear. California-based threat intelligence firm CrowdStrike has long applied that nickname to an allegedly Russian state-backed group, but the hackers’ adoption isn’t necessarily a brazen acknowledgement of CrowdStrike’s research. It might be an attempt to hold it up to ridicule. Which interpretation the group favors hasn’t been made clear. Repeated messages to email addresses associated with Fancy Bears have gone unreturned.

Fancy Bears’ website doesn’t necessarily provide any more insight. Some its artistry appears to have been lifted from a Russian clip art page. But tech podcaster Vince Tocce also found Korean script in the site’s code — characters which vanished shortly after he made his discovery public. In a telephone interview, he said that showed how difficult it was to take anything for granted.

Some pieces of Fancy Bears’ infrastructure were almost certainly structured to sow confusion.

The site, for example, appears to be hosted in California but was registered at an address in the town of Pomponne, east of Paris, under the name “Jean Guillalime.”

A man residing at that address, Jean-Francois Guillaume, told The Associated Press the registry information was bogus and that he was mystified as to why the hackers had picked on him.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with this,” he said, adding that he ran a consulting shop and a flower business and wasn’t particularly interested in sports. “I don’t know any Russians.”

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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