A long and tedious job is waiting for U.S. government researchers to try to understand the depth and veracity of the suspected Russian cyber-attack on several government institutions.
Dan Hoffman, a former CIA chief of station at three agency outposts, described the incident as a “massive intelligence failure” for U.S. explaining the nature of spying business. “We are still doing the forensics. We don’t even know how bad this is,” he said. “We are supposed to detect these threats… and preempt them before they cause harm.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington blamed U.S. media on the reports, calling them “unfounded attempts… to blame Russia for hacker attacks on U.S. governmental bodies.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Sunday Reuters reported, calling the agency’s services a crucial guarantee of Russia’s “sovereign, democratic, independent development,” which experts see as a victory lap amidst the major attack on U.S. cyberspace.
Last week, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Bill Barr pointed to Russia when asked about the source of the attack. Pompeo who was the director of CIA before becoming the Secretary of State, became the first member of the Trump administration to put blame on Russia last Friday in an interview on “The Mark Levin Show.” The attorney general echoed Pompeo on Monday. “It certainly appears to be the Russians,” Barr said.
President Trump downplayed the hack when he tweeted “The Cyber Hack is far greater in Fake News Media than in actuality,” and pointed to China being possible culprit.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in an interview with Chuck Todd of MSNBC this past Sunday that he is disappointed with President Trump’s response. “We’ve come to recognize that the president has a blind spot when it comes to Russia,” he said.
Fox News reported earlier this week, in a sign of the severity of the attack, the president’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien returned earlier from his trip to Europe to coordinate the government’s response. “Some issues are too sensitive to discuss,” he said on Christmas Eve when asked about the details of the operation.
President-elect Joe Biden called Trump’s response “irrational” blaming the administration for failing “to prioritize cybersecurity.” Biden, who will take office in less than a month, added, “This attack constitutes a grave risk to our national security.”
Former CIA chief Hoffman said this will be one of the issues the incoming administration will have to handle with great care. “Every single nominee who testifies for a position in the intelligence community in the Biden administration is going to be asked this question,” he said when describing how the U.S. administration will respond eventually.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are now asking for a more comprehensive policy against Russia. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence called for a new set of rules and finding new ways “to align with our allies to prevent this kind of activity from going forward,” on ABC’s “This Week,” last Sunday
The attack was severe and the U.S. does not really know the depth of the damage yet. Experts say the consequences will not be limited to a targeted response in cyberspace.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, says the U.S. shifted foreign policy priority to China in recent years as Russia is now seen as a declining power and cannot really pose a serious threat.
“This cyberattack once again highlights that this vision is wrong. Russia very much does pose a serious challenge, and it need not be a rising power to do so,” Borshchevskaya said. “We usually do not get Russia right. We vacillate between two extremes — call it a weak declining power on its way down, and then when a major Russia-driven crisis erupts and takes us by surprise, we elevate it to a genius-like status.”
She believes the U.S. will need to handle Russia more strategically. Russia and China are different, but the challenges they pose cannot be overlooked.
A senior fellow for Cyber Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, David Fidler suggested this attack should be a turning point on how the U.S. government and the private sector handles cybersecurity.
According to Fidler, “The Russian cyber operations reveal sustained vulnerabilities in the public and private sectors that cannot be mitigated by threatening to impose ‘costs’ on those seeking to do the United States harm in cyberspace.”