Russian cyber-attacks on the United States continue in spectacular and dismaying fashion.
Exhibit A: Russia hackers penetrated the computer networks at the World Anti-Doping Agency and leaked information showing that three top American athletes–Venus Williams, Serena Williams, and Simone Biles–received dispensations to use banned substances to treat pains and allergies at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The culprit is believed to be Fancy Bear, the name for a group of Russian hackers associated with Russian military intelligence, the GRU, which were also believed to be responsible for the hack of the Democratic National Committee in June. The motive is obvious: To put out a false storyline that American athletes are just as guilty of doping as the Russians, who had a large number of athletes disqualified for the Olympic Games after the exposure of a vast, state-sponsored doping conspiracy.
Exhibit B: The news media is full of articles reporting on the juicy contents of private emails that Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, sent to various people including Condoleezza Rice, another former secretary of state. The highlight so far: “He calls Trump an ‘a national disgrace and an international pariah’ who led a ‘racist’ birther movement. And he says that he resented Clinton dragging him into her email problems and that ‘everything [she] touches she kind of screws up with hubris.’ ”
It’s not clear at first blush how this helps Russia. Yet Russian fingerprints are all over this hack. Powell’s emails were posted at a site called DCLeaks that was set up earlier this year and first made a splash by posting emails from General Philip Breedlove, the former NATO commander who is known for having hardline views on the Russian threat. ThreatConnect, a leading cyber security firm, concluded that “DCLeaks is another Russian-backed influence outlet.”
That the Russians continue to steal emails and leak them should be no surprise because Vladimir Putin has paid no price for the earlier DNC hack, which U.S. intelligence has attributed to the Kremlin’s intelligence agencies, the FSB, and GRU. I have previously noted that President Obama has not been willing to retaliate. He still isn’t.
Why not? NBC News has some possible explanations: “Officials don’t want to reveal intelligence sources and methods that provide them insight into the activities Russian cyber spies; the U.S. is seeking Russian cooperation in Syria; and American officials worry that an escalating cyber tit for tat between the two powers could hurt U.S. interests more than it helps. U.S. officials are also concerned about any effect their pronouncements could have on the election itself, some say.”
All of these concerns are legitimate other than the fear of hurting U.S. chances of winning Russian cooperation in Syria–something that will never meaningfully happen anyway notwithstanding the latest faux cease-fire. But they sound more like the kind of excuses that a president cooks up when he really doesn’t want to do something rather than as legitimate deal breakers. Of course, there will always be costs and risks to action–but there are also costs and risks to inaction. And letting Russia get away with unanswered attacks on American computer networks followed by malicious leaks of sensitive information is a recipe for trouble.
We have seen this story before with countless tyrants over the ages: If unopposed, they become even more rapacious. Vladimir Putin is typical in this respect. If he feels that he can get away with any kind of intrusion into U.S. computer networks, what is to stop him from monkeying around with the vote in November?
As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Robert Knake, a former director of cyber-security at the Obama NSC, notes, “Russia could create chaos on election day simply by deleting voters from voter lists. These individuals would be forced to cast provisional ballots, causing delays at voting lines and throwing into doubt early election results.”
Knake suggests that Congress can prod Obama into action: “Congress should issue a resolution condemning interference in our election by cyber or other means, accompanied by a joint statement of the leaders of the House and Senate. The resolution should make clear that the United States will regard any foreign attempt to interfere with the outcome of the election as a hostile act. It must be clear that Congress will support the use of all instruments of national power in response to any attempt. At press briefings, when reporters ask if Congress would support military action against Russia, Congressional leaders should refuse to take any responses off the table.”
Given that Putin may well be attempting to elect Donald Trump, the most pro-Russian presidential candidate in American history, it would take some courage for Republican lawmakers to pass legislation that would support a strong response to Russia’s cyber-aggression. (Assuming that they actually want to elect Trump, which in many cases is doubtful.) But they need to put aside any partisan feelings they may have and act because it is the very integrity of the American electoral system which is at stake here.