On Friday at his end of term press conference Barack Obama just put Pandora’s box on the podium, as he took Russia to task for tempering with US elections. Carefully keeping it closed in the crossfire of questions he spoke decisively about why the US will not let Russia lurk around its democratic heritage.
“They can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values.”
A closer look at his words might even reveal a faint thread of reference to Trump’s mysteriously fluctuating viewpoint of Russia’s recent actions.
Although Obama obviously didn’t want to spill the beans about the contents of the intelligence report that convinced the administration of Russian involvement before the elections, he appeared very determined to retaliate against the Kremlin for their role in the hacking of the DNC (Democratic National Committee). Asked if they had found the as of yet missing link between the allegedly Russian military intelligence that did the hacking and Russian high command, the President replied with a broad hint: “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.” Probably we will never know what exactly the intelligence teams have got on that, but it clearly strong enough for Obama to feel confident about officially accusing Russian leadership.
While we are still in the wait for the results of the deeper investigation conducted by intelligence agencies, there are a few things Obama made clear on Friday:
- At the beginning of the summer his administration was alerted to the possibility that the DNC had been hacked.
- At the time that they publicly announced that Russia was behind the hacking, they did not attribute motives or interpretation for why the Russians might do that. Also there was no discussion about what the effects of the hack might be. They just wanted to go public to inform people about what had happened. As Obama put it, “my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged”
- There was no direct Russian influence on the election and its system. Even until recently, cyber security experts were in the dark about whether APT28 and APT29, the groups that allegedly hacked the DNC servers, had found their way into the cyber infrastructure that run the actual elections.
- Obama told Russia directly to stop this activity and also indicated that there will be consequences for their actions.
But even after the full review is disclosed, not later than January 20th 2017, we won’t get the entire package. The President confirmed that although they are sharing everything they can with the American people they will never go fully public with all details of what has happened. Why? Because cyber security is an area where some information simply cannot be shared, just as in cases of military operations or law enforcement activity.
“The way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know and if we’re going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward we don’t want them to know that we know,” Obama said.
Even though the US has reserved the right to respond to a cyber-attack with military force, since the Pentagon’s 2011 report on the subject it is unlikely that we will see that response in its full glory. According to Obama the message will be directly received by the Russians and not publicized. Russia’s strategy of not announcing such operations has proven to be efficient. It is quite clear that the Americans might fight fire with fire this time.
In a recent interview by CNNMoney former CIA and Cyber Command head General Michael Hayden outlined a few interesting suggestions for the next president to retaliate against Russia. One of them worth pointing out is what Hayden simply calls a “name and shame” campaign. Hayden believes the US government and its hackers should go directly after the specific hackers personally responsible for the attacks. “Keep pinning their photos up in the global post office. Don’t be reluctant about it,” he said. American cyber forces could also try to damage or shut down infrastructure of Russian criminal gangs that are likely behind the support of such cyber attacks.
Besides all other economic and physical military options I believe the Trump administration will have a hard time identifying and gathering enough evidence to support retaliation, unless Trump really needs it. His approach seems direct enough without requiring reasons for a proper counterstrike. No matter how hard the Obama administration tried to avoid getting into some sort of cyber arms race, this event might rewrite America’s cyber history especially when Trump has the cyber pen in hand.