White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest promised on Tuesday that the U.S. would deliver a “proportional” response to Russia’s alleged hacking of American computer systems.
In addition to pledging that the U.S. “will ensure that our response is proportional,” Earnest told reporters flying on Air Force One that “it is unlikely that our response would be announced in advance.”
“The president has talked before about the significant capabilities that the U.S. government has to both defend our systems in the United States but also carry out offensive operations in other countries,” he said as the press corps traveled with the president to a Hillary Clinton campaign event in North Carolina. “So there are a range of responses that are available to the president and he will consider a response that is proportional.”
After months of speculation to that end, President Barack Obama’s administration officially pointed the finger last week at Russia, blaming it for cyberattacks against political targets in the U.S. Most notably, cyberattacks earlier this summer exposed the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee by making public emails from former Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other top officials.
The disclosure of internal emails detailing the preference among the DNC chair and her allies for Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary prompted the Florida congresswoman to resign just days before her party’s nominating convention in Philadelphia. Other hacks have leaked the personal emails of former secretary of state Colin Powell and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” said Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, in a statement last week. “Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there.”
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington unequivocally denied the allegations.
“This is another piece of nonsense! Putin’s website is attacked by tens of thousands of hackers daily. Many attacks are traced to the US territory,” said Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the president of Russia in a statement last week. “But we don’t go blaming them on the White House or Langley every time.”
Earnest’s “proportional” response language echoes the administration’s approach following the bruising cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that shut down the movie studio’s computers and spilled its salacious internal emails.
After accusing North Korea of orchestrating the digital assault as repercussion for the studio’s satirical film “The Interview” — which depicted the assassination of the reclusive state’s leader, Kim Jong Un — President Barack Obama vowed to “respond proportionally.”
Weeks later, the administration slapped Pyongyang with additional economic sanctions.
While sanctions are one potential response the Obama administration is currently weighing as retaliation for Russia’s alleged digital assault on the U.S. electoral system, it’s not the White House’s only option.
On two previous occasions, the Obama administration has indicted alleged government-backed hackers for attacking the U.S. In 2014, the Justice Department charged five members of the Chinese military with the digital theft of trade secrets from American companies. And earlier this year, the DOJ indicted hackers tied to the Iranian regime for illegally accessed a small water dam in New York.
Law enforcement officials say they have not ruled out such an approach in the current spate of election hacks.
Several people tracking the discussions indicated that the White House was likely still deliberating what action it will take, careful of the escalation that any move will generate.
Some took Earnest’s remarks — especially the line, “it is unlikely that our response would be announced in advance” — to imply some type of covert retaliation.
But that’s not necessarily the case.
“They could also levy sanctions without warnings,” said Adam Segal, an international cyber policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.