Chris Lange, FISM News
House Republicans are demanding answers as to why the Biden Administration granted early release to a “notorious Russian cybercriminal” in August 2021 amid ongoing cybersecurity threats, according to a Fox News report.
GOP members of the House Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, and Intelligence Committee are investigating the early release of convicted Russian cybercriminal Aleksei Burkov at a time when U.S. officials have been sounding the alarm about potential Russian cyberattacks against the West amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The demand was made in a letter sent to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the National Security Council due to his role in “coordinating the interagency process” involving multiple agencies, a source familiar with the planning told Fox News.
“Burkov has been described as an ‘asset of supreme importance’ and ‘one of the most connected and skilled malicious hackers ever apprehended by U.S. authorities,’” wrote Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), John Katko (R-N.Y.), and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) in the missive.
“In light of the danger posed by Burkov’s activities and President Biden’s statement that Russian cyber-attacks against U.S. interests would face ‘consequences,’ we have questions about the Biden Administration’s decision to allow Burkov to return to Russia,” they wrote.
Burkov had been imprisoned in the United States for committing cybercrimes against American citizens but was deported to Russia in August 2021, before his sentence had been completed.
“The decision to prematurely release Burkov is curious given the lengths to which the U.S. government went to secure Burkov’s arrest,” the Republican lawmakers wrote, referring to the years-long pursuit of Burkov “on hacking-related charges, including identity theft, wire fraud, computer intrusion, and money laundering.”
The lawmakers further noted that one of the two illegal websites run by Burkov, called Cardplanet, “sold credit and debit card information, many of which belonged to U.S. citizens and resulted in over $20 million in fraudulent purchases on U.S. cards.” Burkov also maintained an “invite-only” site where “some of the world’s most dangerous cybercriminals” could peddle “stolen goods and criminal services.”
The letter recounts Burkov’s Dec. 2015 arrest by Israeli authorities, at the request of the U.S. government, which prompted an aggressive campaign by Russian authorities to fight Burkov’s extradition to the U.S. In doing so, Russia “attempted to bait Israel in a prisoner-swap by imprisoning a young Israeli woman on exaggerated drug charges during a layover in Russia,” according to the letter.
The lawmakers point out that, despite these efforts, the Trump Administration managed to secure Burkov’s extradition to the U.S. in November 2019. Burkov pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison in June 2020.
“The Biden Administration released Burkov at least a year early on August 25, 2021, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials escorted him onto a plane destined for Moscow,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that at the time an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson pointed out that “Burkov is wanted by Russian authorities” and that the DOJ “denied that a prisoner exchange took place.”
“Although a Kremlin spokesperson applauded Burkov’s premature release, calling it a ‘rather positive development,’ current and former U.S. officials have been described as ‘befuddled’ and ‘surprised,’” the lawmakers wrote, adding that the Russian government “has a history of using cybercriminals as assets for Russian intelligence services,” along with a warning that “some former officials have suggested that Burkov may now be working for Russia, against U.S. interests.”
The GOP House members proceed to list the information they are seeking in their investigation “[i]n light of the Biden Administration’s sudden reversal on Burkov’s case, the potential that he may now be working against U.S. interests, and to better understand the Administration’s efforts to address the pervasive threats posed by Russian cybercriminals.”
Among the information requested is an answer as to why the Biden Administration granted Burkov early release from U.S. custody; an assessment of his current whereabouts and whether the administration believes he is “appropriately being held accountable for his crimes in Russia;” and an “explanation of what, if anything, the U.S. received in return for his release to Russia.”
The lawmakers are also demanding a list of Russian nationals in U.S. federal custody since Biden took office in January 2021 who have been granted early release and what charges were brought against them.
The information is requested of Sullivan by March 28, after which the lawmakers expect the Department of Justice to provide a “staff-level briefing” on the matter.
“The Biden Administration continues to warn about vulnerabilities to Russian cyber-attacks against Ukraine and the West,” a senior GOP official told Fox News. “Maybe they wouldn’t be in such a precarious position had they not released a major cybercriminal just months ago.”
The Department of Homeland Security has issued a series of warnings to U.S. organizations at all levels of heightened cyber threats stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.