WASHINGTON—U.S. officials are discussing whether to respond to computer breaches of Democratic Party organizations with economic sanctions against Russia, but they haven’t reached a decision about how to proceed, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Levying sanctions would require the White House to publicly accuse Russia, or Russian-backed hackers, of committing the breach and then leaking embarrassing information. The U.S. has frequently opted not to publicly release attribution for cyber-assaults, though Washington did openly accuse North Korea of carrying out an embarrassing breach of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. in 2014.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. intelligence agencies have been studying the Democratic hacks, and several officials have signaled it was almost certainly carried out by Russian-affiliated hackers. Russia has denied any involvement, but several cybersecurity companies have also released reports tying the breach to Russian hackers.
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On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told reporters, regarding a breach of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spearheads the Democratic House campaigns: “I know for sure it is the Russians” and “we are assessing the damage.”
She added, “This is an electronic Watergate…The Russians broke in. Who did they give the information to? I don’t know. Who dumped it? I don’t know.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has publicly disavowed any connection to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other groups. “It is so far-fetched,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference last month. “It’s so ridiculous. Honestly, I wish I had that power.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel was briefed on the matter last week and that he is among those urging that “when the administration believes it has sufficient evidence of attribution, it will make that attribution public as well as consider any other steps necessary.”
The process of deciding on sanctions could be lengthy. Even if U.S. officials have concluded the hackers were Russian-backed, they must decide to disclose that publicly—then weigh a range of possible reactions.
The U.S. and Russia are at odds over a variety of issues, from the war in Syria to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and U.S. officials must decide whether this episode is worth exacerbating those tensions.
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order making it easier for the U.S. to impose sanctions against anyone tied to a “cyber-enabled” activity that impacted U.S. national security, foreign policy, economic health or financial stability.
This order was seen at the time as a way of warning China to halt attacks aimed at U.S. companies, but it could also pave the way for the U.S. to issue sanctions against Russians or anyone else it believes was involved in a significant breach.
Many countries, including the U.S., steal information from other nations using computer attacks, and to some degree that is considered traditional espionage. But several former U.S. officials said the DNC breach is different because the stolen information was then released with the apparent purpose of embarrassing certain individuals.
Officials still haven’t determined whether the cyber-attackers were attempting to influence the presidential election or simply believed it was appropriate payback for alleged U.S. meddling in other countries’ elections.
“They believe we are trying to influence political developments in Russia, trying to effect change, and so their natural response is to retaliate and do unto us as they think we’ve done unto them,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said last month. Still, he stopped short of saying Russia was definitively behind the DNC breach.
The U.S. has already imposed an array of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.