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Amid mounting evidence of Russia’s involvement in the hack of the Democratic National Committee, the Obama administration’s options for confronting what some cyber experts have referred to as an “act of war” are diminishing.
And that may be intentional.
When asked about how the administration could be expected to respond to reports that Russia played a role in hacking into DNC computers, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday that “we are not quite ready yet to make a call on attribution.”
He noted that he was “taken aback a bit” by the “hyperventilation” over Russia’s alleged involvement in the hack.
Clapper was likely referring to the concern expressed in recent days among analysts and high-level officials that the hack was Russia’s way of making the Democratic Party look bad in order to garner support for Donald Trump. The Republican presidential nominee has expressed views that largely align with Moscow’s vision of the international order.
Earlier this week, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden claimed on Twitter that the US intelligence community — specifically, the NSA — has the technical ability to draw a straight line from the hack on the DNC back to Russia.
He then argued that it should use those capabilities if assertions about the Kremlin’s attempts to meddle in the domestic politics of a foreign adversary are to be taken seriously.
But some experts say that using the US intelligence community’s technology to trace the hack directly back to Russia — and then acting on that intelligence — has broader geopolitical risks that the Obama administration might not be willing to risk.
‘A motivation not to point fingers’
“What we choose to share publicly is a game that the United States played for decades with the Soviet Union, and we selectively choose what we care to share about our technological capabilities publicly and perhaps privately with the Russians,” said DJ Peterson, president of a Los Angeles-based global-intelligence firm that was involved in advising John Kasich’s presidential campaign on national security.
“There would be many reasons why the US would not want to make it known that it has these capabilities,” Peterson told Business Insider. “One is to not formally identify a technological capability. The second is that the US is actually trying to build a relationship with Russia around Syria.”
The hack was discovered as news emerged that US Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a new military cooperation deal with Russia in Syria. The deal, from Washington’s perspective, aims to use its intelligence about Al Qaeda as leverage to halt the Syrian regime’s aerial bombardments on civilians.
But there is no enforcement mechanism built into the agreement, known as the Joint Implementation Group. All parties are expected to act in good faith.
As such, Peterson said, “there is a motivation not to point fingers publicly because of other political policy objectives that the administration is trying to achieve.”
Those objectives would likely preclude Washington from taking any meaningful actions over the DNC hack, even if the intelligence community were willing and able to offer proof of the Russians’ involvement.
If it was the culprit, then Russia was likely aware of Washington’s conundrum if and when it ordered the cyber intrusion. That may explain why it felt bold enough to leave a mark: US intelligence officials told Reuters on Thursday that the DNC hackers’ activities aligned with Russian work days and political holidays, used Cyrillic characters, and had a tainted IP address.
“Either these guys were incredibly sloppy, in which case it’s not clear that they could have gotten as far as they did without being detected, or they wanted us to know they were Russian,” one US official told Reuters.
‘The cyber equivalent of buzzing NATO ships’
The tactic makes sense in light of Russia’s fondness for covert psychological warfare — specifically, the use of “black propaganda” that aims to disguise the true source of information in order to instill fear or paranoia in the perceived enemy.
“Not only is the Russian Federation benefiting from the fear and knowledge that they’re interfering in our political processes, but there is also evidence they did it and knew that we would find it,” Robert Caruso, director of Keep America Open and a former aide in the office of the secretary of defense, told Business Insider on Wednesday.
“That’s black propaganda — it’s a certain level of just intentionally screwing with somebody,” he said.
As one US official described it to Reuters: “Call it the cyber equivalent of buzzing NATO ships and planes using fighters with Russian flags on their tails.”
The DNC hack wouldn’t be the first time that Russia “intentionally screwed” with the US online in this election cycle. At one point, Russia’s infamous troll factories were likely being paid by the Kremlin to spread pro-Trump propaganda on social media.
It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War.
The disinformation campaigns are only one “active measure” tool used by Russian intelligence to sow discord among, and within, allies perceived hostile to Russia. It is a “time-honored KGB tactic for waging informational and psychological warfare,” Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and editor in chief of The Interpreter, wrote on Tuesday.
Clapper, the DNI, corroborated that assessment from Aspen on Thursday.
“It’s fair to say Vladimir Putin feels like he is fighting a low-level, asymmetric war with the United States,” he said.
To that end, it is becoming clearer that the leverage Russia has gained over the US internationally has also emboldened the Kremlin in the cyber realm. And the former largely precludes Washington from taking meaningful action, even if it had necessary evidence, against Russia for the latter.
“So you have well-meaning members of the intel community in a very tricky position now where they can’t blame Russia directly for these transgressions even though they know they are responsible,” Caruso said. “They are walking a very thin political tightrope.”