How does the U.S. fight the Kremlin’s strategy of hacking political targets’ private communications and dumping the material online through third parties such as Wikileaks? The head of U.S. Cyber Command has an answer: call out the behavior for what it is. That may seem as simple as it is obvious, yet that’s not the tactic President Donald Trump is taking. Rather, his recent statements have tried to call into question the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Speaking on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Adm. Michael Rogers, the head of Cyber Command and the NSA, said that letting the Kremlin conduct phishing operations without calling them out publicly would be a huge mistake, one that almost guarantees that such attacks will continue.
“In the case of the Russians,” Rogers said, “we need to publicly out this behavior. We need to have a public discourse on this.”
The NSA had been in contact with French authorities in the runup to the France’s May 7 final election, Rogers said, to share evidence of Kremlin activity meant to boost Putin-friendly National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. “We had talked to our French counterparts and gave them a heads-up — 'Look, we're watching the Russians. We're seeing them penetrate some of your infrastructure. Here's what we've seen. What can we do to try to assist?'" Rogers said.
That was hardly the first notice given to Russia’s efforts to meddle in the French elections. As early as January, cyber security researchers were noting Russian-backed phishing attempts in France. Last month, multiple private cyber security firms, notably Trend Micro and Flashpoint, had called out suspected Kremlin cyber activity targeting French political candidates. A group widely believed to be affiliated with the Russian military, called APT 28, Pawn Storm, and Fancy Bear, was sending malware-laden emails to the Macron camp. (The emails asked permission to open a Google Doc, a sophisticated trick that researchers had not yet seen “in the wild.”)
How has President Trump responded to mounting evidence of continuing Russian efforts to target’ Western elections? So far, he has remained silent on the allegations involving France. That concerns cyber experts who spoke to Politico’s Eric Geller. More importantly, some of Trump’s recent public statements have undermined public perception of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russians targeted last year’s U.S. presidential election, according to other intelligence experts. This began last October, during a debate with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. More recently, on April 30, Trump told “Face the Nation’s” John Dickerson that he doubted the IC’s assessment. “I'll go along with Russia. Could've been China, could've been a lot of different groups.”
Lawmakers have noted that the President is not on the same page as the U.S. government’s spies and analysts. On Monday, during a subcommittee hearing, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, put this question to James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence: “Does it serve any purpose for high officials, like the President, to say, ‘Well it could have been somebody else, it could have been China’? I mean does that really — does that help us, or does that help Russia?”
Clapper answered, “You could rationalize that it helps the Russians by obfuscating who was actually responsible.”