Security Agencies Don’t Know How to Stop Russia’s Next Election Attack, Counterintelligence Chief Says

  • Evanina cites changing technology as lawmakers quiz Twitter
  • ‘Putin’s intent has been accomplished’ using simple techniques

Top Spy-Catcher on Cyber Threats, Election Meddling

National security agencies are certain Russia will try to influence future elections, but they don’t know how to stop it, according to the head of U.S. counterintelligence.

While Russia exploited social-media networks such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. last year, agencies are struggling to predict what methods and technology Moscow will use in 2018 and beyond, according to William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

“We have to understand what the capabilities will be in two years versus what’s the format and platform two years from now, which we don’t know,” Evanina said Thursday in an interview at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau. “That’s the challenge for us analytically: To be able to prevent it two years from now, three years from now, what’s it going to look like? And that’s really a gray picture for us.”

Evanina spoke as lawmakers blasted Twitter for what Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called a “deeply disappointing” and inadequate briefing Thursday on suspicious Russian activity on its network. Warner has criticized both Twitter and Facebook for failing to do more to investigate manipulation of their platforms and share more information with Congress.

But Evanina cautioned against the temptation to impose new regulations on companies such as Twitter and Facebook, underscoring his view that the next Russian attacks may target new and emerging technologies.

Watch a QuickTake video on how Facebook is at the center of the Russia probe

Russia didn’t carry out a particularly sophisticated operation in last year’s presidential campaign, and some of what it accomplished was probably accidental, Evanina said. The effort had a surprisingly out-sized impact that’s paid off for Russian President Vladimir Putin in his aspirations to make his country a global power, he said.

“Someone over there had a really good idea and it worked,” Evanina, 50, said. “Putin’s intent has been accomplished.”

“If at the end of the day -- and I’m being hypothetical here -- all this influence gets attributed to some kid in New Jersey, it doesn’t make a difference because the success and the propaganda mindset of the Russians has already won here,” he said.

While Putin has denied any interference in last year’s campaign, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that operations approved at the highest levels in Moscow were aimed at hurting Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately helping elect Republican Donald Trump. Multiple congressional investigations are under way, as is a federal criminal probe into whether anyone close to Trump colluded with Russia.

Moscow was “probably more successful than they expected to be” and didn’t need much help from anyone inside the U.S., said Evanina, who’s under consideration to be nominated by President Trump to stay in his position.

Twitter said it told congressional investigators on the Senate and House intelligence committees about suspicious activity on its network during the election in the closed briefings Thursday. Facebook previously disclosed that about $100,000 in election-related ads last year could be traced back to Russia. Executives from Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have been asked to appear at public hearings before committees on Capitol Hill.

Read More: Twitter Rebuked by Lawmakers for Election-Meddling Response

Evanina said a company like Facebook “is in a tough spot right now” because it’s a global business. The government can help increase awareness about what Russia and other countries are doing, Evanina said.

“The ability to utilize our own system against us has been successful,” said Evanina, who previously held senior positions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The question that we have now in my world is how do we combat that,” he added. “It’s a tough strategic question. I think the answer is it starts with education and awareness. What is a botnet? How does it work? How do they drive 20,000 messages in five minutes? If we don’t educate the American public and the media in how that works we can never defend against it.”

— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis, and Billy House

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