Mystery: Who bought websites implying US senators 'for sale?’


WASHINGTON (AP) — Dozens of web addresses implying U.S. senators were “for sale” have been quietly and mysteriously purchased online, amid heightened concerns on Capitol Hill that foreign agents — especially Russians — might be trying to meddle in upcoming midterm elections.

An Associated Press investigation found the responsible party: Democrats.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee acknowledged to the AP that it had quietly purchased the addresses, which use a new internet suffix “forsale,” in March for at least 27 incumbent senators facing re-election this fall and in 2020, without telling the senators. The cybersecurity director for the sergeant-at-arms, the highest-ranking U.S. law enforcement officer in the Senate, has been looking into the matter.

The addresses now controlled by the Democratic political group include the names of mostly Democrats but some prominent Republicans, too. The group masked its role in the purchase to ensure its identity as the buyer remained anonymous. The current price for such addresses, with a privacy guard, is roughly $18 each.

“It’s a routine campaign practice to purchase URLs to stop bad actors from getting them, and if we eventually decided to develop a URL into a website then there would be a clear disclosure of who was operating it,” said Lauren Passalacqua, communications director at the DSCC.

Buying politically-related web addresses to use them later online — or prevent rival campaigns from using them — has been a routine practice for decades. But Washington has been transfixed by criminal charges filed against Russian military officers accused of secretly meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, accused by federal prosecutors of setting up websites like DCLeaks.com and using anonymous Twitter accounts to peddle embarrassing information about U.S. politicians.

U.S. intelligence chief Dan Coats has cautioned that the “warning lights are blinking red” and that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

The mysterious “forsale” purchases set off alarms. AP’s review found roughly 280 political web addresses registered under the “forsale” domain, targeting President Donald Trump, the GOP, Supreme Court and National Rifle Association, as well as individual Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it was responsible for at least 27 of them targeting U.S. senators and didn’t provide further details.

“In this particular atmosphere, anything along these lines is concerning, because there’s so much opportunity for malicious use of the internet, particularly in campaigns,” said Angus King, I-Maine, before AP solved the mystery. King declined to comment after learning from AP that Democrats were responsible.

The latest actions show how lines and motives in American politics can blur among foreign adversaries, U.S. dirty-tricksters, pranksters or speculators hoping eventually to sell the web addresses to campaigns or their rivals. None of the addresses for the senators appears to be associated with an operational website, obscuring motives for future uses. Unlike in cases where so-called squatters register web addresses they hope to sell for profit, there were no indications the addresses were being made available for resale or populated with ads to make money.

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