Wednesday

November 22nd, 2017

Declassified

Why Russia keeps getting away with hacking the U.S.

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published Aug. 4, 2016

Why Russia keeps getting away with hacking the U.S.

Since 2014, President Barack Obama's administration has punished three of the four states considered the top cyber threats to U.S. computer networks: China, Iran and North Korea. The curious exception is Russia, the country experts and Hillary Clinton's campaign say was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee.

While senior U.S. officials have called out Russia in broad terms for its increasingly aggressive behavior in U.S. cyberspace, the U.S. has only once tied Russia to a specific attack. That was in 2015 when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter accused Moscow of probing a Pentagon system.

Compare that to recent actions the administration has taken against other states for cyberattacks. In 2014, the Justice Department charged five members of China's People's Liberation Army for stealing trade secrets from U.S. industries in cyberspace. This year, the Justice Department charged seven Iranian hackers it said were linked to the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps with hacking into U.S. banks and a Rye, New York, dam between 2011 and 2013. At the beginning of 2015, Obama sanctioned North Korea for the 2014 Sony hack.

Russia has yet to face any consequences like that. But with the growing consensus among experts inside and outside the U.S. government that Russia was behind at least the hack of the Democratic National Committee (if not the public disclosure of the stolen documents through WikiLeaks) there is mounting pressure on the White House to try to deter Russia's cyber aggression.

Speaking this week at the Aspen Security Forum, John Carlin, the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, issued a warning. "You haven't seen yet a public action against Russia," he said. "But it would be a mistake for them to assume that we are not going to apply this deterrence model when it comes to their action if they continue to intrude."

Earlier this week at a speech at Fordham University in New York, FBI Director James Comey sounded a similar note. He said cyberattacks from states and non-state actors "needs to be called out, it needs to be sanctioned, it needs to whenever possible be prosecuted."

All of this raises the question why Russia has gotten off the hook when other countries haven't. After all, this isn't the first time the Russians have done this kind of thing. U.S. officials have alleged that Russia was also responsible for hacking the State Department's unclassified email system in 2015 and other unclassified White House computer networks. In 2014, the Russians were widely viewed as having intercepted and leaked a phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

There are a few explanations. To start, U.S. intelligence agencies traditionally have seen cyberattacks by other nations as a window to collect intelligence on the attackers' own sources and methods. In this sense, the less said about an intrusion the better. The National Security Agency often chooses to respond to foreign government hacking with hacking of its own.

There are also diplomatic considerations. While the U.S. has sanctioned sectors of Russia's economy for the annexation of Ukrainian territory, Secretary of State John Kerry has also tried unsuccessfully now for a year to entice Russia to use its leverage with the Syrian regime to end the civil war there. A public response to Russian cyber-aggression could invite a diplomatic response from Russia in Syria.

A senior administration official told me Saturday that there was no "across-the-board policy regarding Russia when it comes to prosecution or attribution." Lisa Monaco, the president's adviser on homeland security on Saturday told an audience at Aspen that the administration approaches each cyberattack on a "case by case basis," depending on the quality and preponderance of evidence linking the hack to a state actor.

But one explanation for the lack of punishment is that, until recently, most of Russia's cyberattacks were aimed at probing networks and not destroying them or leaking the pilfered data onto the internet. Jason Healy, a senior researcher at Columbia University, told me Saturday, "Up until the annexation of Crimea, their aggression was largely espionage. So it doesn't surprise me we have not done indictments on Russian actors to date. Now that Russian actions are becoming much more disruptive, not just in the U.S., but in Ukraine and Western Europe, I expect the administration will feel the need to be more vocal and more aggressive in their response options."

So far, the Obama administration has not publicly pinned the DNC hack on the Russians, despite the growing consensus among experts that Russia was responsible. In public talks at Aspen, CIA director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Monaco all declined to say Russia was behind the hacks when asked.

U.S. officials say this is because the FBI is just beginning its formal investigation into the matter. These investigations can take time. Nonetheless, the president's own party wants Obama to go public. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees, asked the White House in a public letter this week to release and declassify any intelligence assessments of the DNC hack. "Given the grave nature of this breach and the fact that it may ultimately be found to be a state-sponsored attempt to manipulate our presidential election, we believe a heightened measure of transparency is warranted," they wrote.

It presents a dilemma for Obama. Accusing a powerful foe like Russia of such an attack without all the evidence can of course backfire. But there is also a consequence for keeping quiet. It might give Russian hackers the impression that the U.S. is uninterested in deterring them. Indeed, it appears they are under that impression already.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Previously:
07/19/16: When clues nearly led the FBI to America's favorite Saudi
07/12/16: General Flynn outlines an all-out war on terror
07/11/16: The Palestinian incentive program for killing Jews
06/28/16: Obama's Iran policy is at odds with Hillary's message
06/22/16: Is Israel a pariah? Not according to its powerful new friends
06/10/16: U.S. taxpayers are funding Iran's military expansion
06/08/16: It's for good reason that aiding Kurds in and around Iraq is among the only bipartisan goals on America's foreign policy agenda
06/07/16: Why the U.S. Needs Russian Rocket Engines to Spy on Russia
06/06/16: Hillary Targets the 'Blame America First' Republicans
06/02/16: Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong-Un
05/25/16: REVEALED: The secret history of the Iran-deal 'echo chamber'
04/27/16: Pakistan has a China connection to nuclear trouble
04/19/16: Obama still not finished reinvigorating Iran
04/08/16: 'Panama Papers' could help go after Assad's wealth
04/05/16: Fascist or con man: The duelling Trump narratives
03/23/16: Hillary's convenient evolution on Israel
03/21/16: Cruz assembles an unlikely team of foreign-policy rivals
03/07/16: Trump turns out to be a politician, and not a good one
02/17/16: As Obama urges Congress, military says it can't send Gitmo detainees to U.S.
02/06/16: Hillary's security clearance is under scrutiny
12/23/15: Iran deal restricts U.S. more than Congress knew
12/11/15: Iranian troops abandoning Assad, Western officials say
12/09/15: Obama team weighs cyberwar options on Islamic State
11/20/15: After the Paris attacks, Bush whiffs on his war speech
11/18/15: What Obama's incoherence and anger at post-Paris press conference reveals
11/17/15: Dems begin to embrace 'regime change' --- again
11/13/15: Hurt feelings, unsafe spaces and other Israeli crimes
11/09/15: Egyptian leader seen as target of jihad
11/04/15: How Ahmad Chalabi survived his war to free Iraq
10/26/15: Now we know: AIPAC and the Dems who supported Iran deal
10/21/15: GOPers at Hilary hearing taking cues from Dems?


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