Blaming Russia for U.S. Hacks Is Easier Than Responding to Them

Putin Denies Russian Involvement in DNC Hack
  • Confidence in origin of attacks raises pressure for response
  • ‘We can’t let a foreign adversary’ attack us, McCaul says

Determining that the Russian government has been hacking political groups and election systems may have been the easy part for the U.S. intelligence community. Now the Obama administration has to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

While officially the FBI and intelligence agencies are still investigating a series of hacks that have roiled the U.S. presidential campaign, a number of cyber specialists who have reviewed the evidence as well as U.S. officials familiar with the investigation say with high confidence that Moscow is to blame.

That’s raising the pressure on the administration to respond.

"We can’t let a foreign adversary attack our country and attack our election system and get away with it," said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "I hope that the administration will come out soon with a very bold denouncement of this and a plan to respond."

Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly denied involvement in the U.S. attacks. If the administration publicly accuses Russia, it will be expected to provide evidence, which could range from the computer infrastructure used in the attacks to the names of individuals sitting behind keyboards. There’s tension, however, over what should be released publicly to back up the charges and build a legal case versus what should be kept secret to protect intelligence sources and methods, the officials said.

Here’s a look at the possible responses the U.S. government could take:

Law Enforcement

Using a playbook it has deployed against alleged Iranian and Chinese hackers, the administration could indict individuals who have carried out the attacks. This strategy is intended to name and shame those responsible, prove that the U.S. can identify hackers and ultimately obtain arrests and prosecutions.

Economic

The U.S. could impose economic sanctions on the Russian government, companies or individuals as a way to impose direct financial punishment. President Barack Obama issued an executive order in April 2015 that allows the Treasury Department to impose financial sanctions on hackers who pose a significant threat to national security. The order was issued after the U.S. publicly accused North Korea of conducting a destructive hacking attack against Sony Corp.

Political Response

The U.S. could enter into diplomatic negotiations with Russia to establish rules-of-the-road governing hacking. Following the indictment of Chinese military hackers in 2014, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement banning hacking to steal trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage. Monaco said there has been a "diminishment" in the level of Chinese activity since the accord.

Direct Action

The U.S. could carry out attacks on Russian targets, whether physical or through hacking. The attacks might be public or secret, depending on the message that the U.S. wants to send.

"Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean that your government is not doing something to try and change behavior," Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said Sept. 14 at a conference in Washington.

Nothing At All

Not taking any action would be met with criticism, but it could allow intelligence agencies to gather more information on tools and methods used by its adversaries for a more effective response down the road.

Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism adviser, said the administration plans to respond.

“Folks should stay tuned," she said at the Washington conference. "Nobody should think that there is a free pass when you’re conducting malicious cyber activity, just like they shouldn’t think there’s a free pass on terrorist" activity.

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