Cyber hackers [illustrative].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most knowledgeable observers are making a somber and shocking admissions about Russia’s unprecedented interference in a US presidential election: the US can do nothing to stop it.
On October 7, a joint statement from the US Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said they were “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions... [which] are intended to interfere with the US election process,” and that “based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s seniormost officials could have authorized these activities.”
Strictly speaking, it is not true that the US is powerless to stop Russia. Its cyber powers are greater than Russia’s, who many consider the world’s No. 2 cyber power.
However, many say the US has ruled out making cyber hacks painful enough for Russia to stop.
Last week, US Vice President Joseph Biden hinted that the US will escalate the level of countering cyber strikes, which signals a willingness to fight back against cyber attackers.
But that’s all.
Moreover, weeks or months into the hacks, all of the top officials and former officials being quoted are still talking in terms of a “proportionate” response and worries about where escalation would lead, as opposed to a singular focus on “cyber-bloodying” Russia into ending its hacks.
Some of this restraint stems from the US’s hope that the world will uniformly agree to a set of cyber activity rules, but turning the other cheek and reacting with caution may bring rogue cyber countries into the fold.
A fundamental tenet of US policy is to refrain from initiating a major offensive if cyber strikes on the US have not caused physical harm or harmed a critical infrastructure point, such as the electrical grid or airport control towers.
There is a very real fear that escalation will lead to the US getting hit far worse, perhaps even on Election Day, or that the US, an open democracy, is far more vulnerable than Russia in an all-out cyber conflagration.
In that case, Russia has less to lose by a fight and maybe would even enjoy demonstrating its ability to stand toe-to-toe with the world’s only super power.
The two problems with this thinking, when it comes to Russia’s latest hack, are that analysts agree that the validity of the democratic process is a critical US infrastructure, and that Russia clearly views US restraint as weakness.
Russian hackers are believed to have successfully hacked the White House and the US State Department for years before being discovered in 2015, meaning that Russia is getting consistently more aggressive in hacking the US.
How could the US hit Russia harder? Observers are now saying naming and shaming, indicting and limited sanctions – the plays until now – are insufficient.
The real options are exposing to Russian citizens the tools to cut through the government censorship; exposing leader Vladimir Putin’s reported massive assets and corruption; a cyber or covert military attack on the hackers; temporarily shutting down a vital Russian infrastructure point, or even a tailored military attack on some other Russian asset.
If Biden’s vague hints are any sign, some combination of these options may be in the works, but the delayed and understated methods may not send the message clearly enough to Putin to deter future cyber exploration.
This would also seem to be where the US is stuck with China, after numerous massive Chinese hacks.
If so, the US defense establishment may be conveying that it is not ready to pay or risk the price of stopping Russian interference in democratic operations.
There are many interpretations of the US-Russia 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but one holds that the moment both sides came close enough to the brink, they began to see restraint as a virtue.
If the US does not challenge Russia at this moment, there may be an even more audacious Russian cyber attack not far over the horizon.