The Obama administration is contemplating an unprecedented cyber covert action against Russia in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.
Current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation say the CIA has been asked to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging “clandestine” cyber operation designed to harass and “embarrass” the Kremlin leadership.
The sources did not elaborate on the exact measures the CIA was considering, but said the agency had already begun opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation. Former intelligence officers told NBC News that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd on Friday that “we’re sending a message” to Putin and that “it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”
When asked if the American public will know a message was sent, the vice president replied, “Hope not.”
Retired Admiral James Stavridis told NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden that the U.S. should attack Russia’s ability to censor its internal internet traffic and expose the financial dealings of Putin and his associates.
“It’s well known that there’s great deal of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs,” he said. “It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we’ve seen” in Russia’s alleged hacks and leaks targeting U.S. public opinion.
Sean Kanuck, who was until this spring the senior U.S. intelligence official responsible for analyzing Russian cyber capabilities, said not mounting a response would carry a cost.
“If you publicly accuse someone,” he said, “and don’t follow it up with a responsive action, that may weaken the credible threat of your response capability.”
President Obama will ultimately have to decide whether he will authorize a CIA operation. Officials told NBC News that for now there are divisions at the top of the administration about whether to proceed.
Two former CIA officers who worked on Russia told NBC News that there is a long history of the White House asking the CIA to come up with options for covert action against Russia, including cyber options — only to abandon the idea.
“We’ve always hesitated to use a lot of stuff we’ve had, but that’s a political decision,” one former officer said. “If someone has decided, `We’ve had enough of the Russians,’ there is a lot we can do. Step one is to remind them that two can play at this game and we have a lot of stuff. Step two, if you are looking to mess with their networks, we can do that, but then the issue becomes, they can do worse things to us in other places.”
A second former officer, who helped run intelligence operations against Russia, said he was asked several times in recent years to work on covert action plans, but “none of the options were particularly good, nor did we think that any of them would be particularly effective,” he said.
Putin is almost beyond embarrassing, he said, and anything the U.S. can do against, for example, Russian bank accounts, the Russian can do in response.
“Do you want to have Barack Obama bouncing checks?” he asked.
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell expressed skepticism that the U.S. would go so far as to attack Russian networks.
“Physical attacks on networks is not something the U.S. wants to do because we don’t want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us,” he said. “My own view is that our response shouldn’t be covert — it should overt, for everybody to see.”
The Obama administration is debating just that question, officials say — whether to respond to Russia via cyber means, or with traditional measures such as sanctions.
The CIA’s cyber operation is being prepared by a team within the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, documents indicate. According to officials, the team has a staff of hundreds and a budget in the hundreds of millions, they say.
The covert action plan is designed to protect the U.S. election system and insure that Russian hackers can’t interfere with the November vote, officials say. Another goal is to send a message to Russia that it has crossed a line, officials say.
While the National Security Agency is the center for American digital spying, the CIA is the lead agency for covert action and has its own cyber capabilities. It sometimes brings in the NSA and the Pentagon to help, officials say.
In earlier days, the CIA was behind efforts to use the internet to put pressure on Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 1999, and to pressure Iraqi leadership in 2003 to split off from Saddam Hussein.
According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the CIA requested $685.4 million for computer network operations in 2013, compared to $1 billion by the NSA.
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden, who ran the CIA after leading the NSA, wrote this year: “We even had our own cyber force, the Information Operations Center (IOC), that former CIA director George Tenet launched and which had grown steadily under the next spy chief, Porter Goss, and me. The CIA didn’t try to replicate or try to compete with NSA… the IOC was a lot like Marine Corps aviation while NSA was an awful lot like America’s Air Force.”
“I would quote a Russian proverb,” said Adm. Stavridis, “which is, ‘Probe with bayonets. When you hit mush, proceed. When you hit steel withdraw.’ I think unless we stand up to this kind of cyber attack from Russia, we’ll only see more and more of it in the future.”
By Joe Tacopino
New York Post
October 14, 2016 | 11:09pm
The Obama administration is threatening to launch a vast cyber war against Russia in response to the country’s alleged interference with the presidential election.
Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News Friday that “we’re sending a message” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and that the wide-ranging “clandestine” cyber operation will take place.
“We’re sending a message,” Biden said during an interview with “Meet the Press” that will air on Sunday. “We have the capacity to do it. It will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact,”
The vice president belittled Russia’s alleged interference in the US election but stressed their efforts, however futile, would be responded in kind.
“Their capacity to fundamentally alter the election is not what people think,” Biden said.
“And I tell you what, to the extent that they do we will be proportional in what we do.”
It was not clear whether the American public would be alerted when or if an attack actually took place. When asked about whether the public would even be aware an attack took place Biden simply said “Hope not.”
Intelligence officials told NBC News that CIA has already begun “opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation.”
James Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral who served as the supreme allied commander at NATO, told NBC that the CIA should “embarrass” the Kremlin by exposing financial dealings of Putin and his cronies.
“It’s well known that there’s great deal of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs,” Stavridis said. “It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we’ve seen” in the recent hacks into US political figures and committees.
The US publicly blamed Russia last week for the recent cyberattacks against Democratic Party organizations.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement last Friday. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
The talk of an impending cyber war between the two countries takes place while the powers struggle to collaborate in the war against ISIS and inside Syria.
The ultimate decision on whether to launch to cyber attack would rest with President Obama, officials said. Sources told NBC News that there are diverging view within the administration about how to proceed.
“I think unless we stand up to this kind of cyber attack from Russia, we’ll only see more and more of it in the future,” Admiral Stavridis said.
Gen. Michael Hayden: Russia launches cyberattacks to “mess with our heads”
One of the most critical issues facing the 2016 presidential nominees is national security. In this installment of “Issues That Matter,” retired four-star Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden – who served as director of the CIA and the NSA, as well as principal deputy director of national intelligence – takes a look at the threats the next president will have to confront.
The Obama administration is “ ” that Russia is trying to interfere in the presidential election – and so is the former CIA and NSA director, Gen. Michael Hayden. Though Russia has the allegations, Hayden says he thinks Russia is trying to “erode” Americans’ larger confidence in the political process.
“The Clinton campaign has said they’re doing it to pick a winner. I don’t think that’s true,” Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, told “CBS This Morning” Friday. “It’s to mess with our heads. It’s to do to us what he thinks we do to him and his political processes. It’s a way of his pushing back against what he views to be American pressure.”
Hayden believes Russian criminal gangs, directed by the Russian state, are behind the hack of Clinton campaign chairman. Clinton has vowed as president to fight cyberattacks like any other assault on the country, with “serious political, economic and military responses.” Hayden agrees, but thinks cyberattacks should be examined in a larger context.
“Don’t put this in the ‘cyber problem’ box. Put this in the ‘Russian problem’ box,” Hayden said. “Put this in that box with all these other indicators – actual Russian behavior to which we should respond – in my view, respond more robustly than we’ve responded.”
Hayden said the Obama administration’s response to the Russia’s intervention in Syria has been “too light,” agreeing with criticism that the U.S. has created a “vacuum” in the war-torn country. Hayden suggested different ways U.S. actions could be “more robust” to create a “tectonic shift in a Russian pressure point.”
“Can we be more robust in Ukraine, with regard to what we may or may not provide them? Can we be more robust in Syria, with how much space we give the Russians to operate?” Hayden said. “Getting out of the narrow box, why don’t we make it American policy to wean the Europeans off of Russian gas? Why don’t we simply say, ‘We got it, we’re going to exploit it, and we’re going to ship it.’”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have found little common ground on issues in the presidential campaign, but both have suggested setting up some form of safe zones in. Hayden agreed, but said it would be complicated to do – especially given Russia’s presence there – and suggested creating “relatively thin zones” along the Turkish and Jordanian borders.
“And here’s where it really gets tough, all right? And at this point you actually got to say to all the players,’We’re serious. This is a safe zone.’ Now we got responsibilities. We can’t let one side or the other operate out of there and conduct attacks. That’s our policing function, it’s not yours, you can’t go there,’” Hayden said.
Hayden – who has yet to endorse either candidate but has said Trump was– said he agreed with Republican vice presidential nominee ’s statement that the U.S. should be to strike military targets of the Assad regime, if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes.
“I thought (that) was far more robust. Unfortunately, he was disowned by his own presidential candidate,” Hayden said, referring to Trump’s claim in the that he with his running mate on the Syrian matter.
Former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden
“But I do think on a raw, humanitarian basis, we’ve got to do more,” Hayden said.
Hayden also addressed other critical foreign policy issues confronting the next president, ranking them on a timeline according to “how bad is it, how much time do you have?” Hayden set terrorism – cyberattacks included – first on the timeline, then, three to five years from now, threats from “ambitious, fragile and nuclear” states including North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
“And then… when I run the timeline out here about ten years, I got this bubble way up here that’s really important and that’s the Sino-American relationship,” Hayden said. “Not saying China’s an enemy, but if we don’t get that right, over the long term, that’s pass-fail.”