Why America must retaliate after massive cyberattack from Russia


American government agencies and private companies were victims of an espionage attack last week. Security experts have said the hacker group Cozy Bear, managed by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia, was responsible. The scope of the breach is considerable and could be the largest spying operation in history against the United States.

It exposes flaws in our intelligence system as numerous federal agencies were targeted, including the Homeland Security Department. This attack by Russia marks a clear existential threat to the United States. The breach needs to be taken as a potential act of war against the United States and necessitates a certain and swift retaliation from the government.

But the action by President Trump has been neither swift nor certain. He has taken a similar regretful posture toward this breach as he has toward other cases of aggression from Russia. Despite the mounting evidence of responsibility, Trump has undercut those assertions by security experts, and even by his own administration officials, that Russia was behind this. Trump also made a baseless assertion that China held responsibility and falsely said the attack affected voting machines in the election.

Joe Biden has already indicated that he will take decisive action against Russia after taking office and work with our allies to counter the threat of its aggression in a way that Trump has mostly failed to do. Biden declared the United States needs to work “with our allies to set up an international system that will constitute appropriate behavior in cyberspace” and “hold any other country liable for breaking out of those basic rules.”

His incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain said the response from the new administration to an attack of this magnitude would run beyond sanctions and include steps “to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to repeat this sort of attack.” Given the grave threat posed by Russia, a bold retaliation by the United states, like the one Klain suggests, must be the only response. Russia has conducted similar breaches in recent years. In late 2016, codes from Russia were discovered in the system of a Vermont public utility. Russia did not activate the codes to launch an attack, but this presence showed the success at penetrating our firewalls.

As a federal government report later described, the activity was “part of an ongoing campaign” of cyber operations directed at the United States and its citizens. These include spear phishing attacks against government agencies, critical infrastructure, political groups, think tanks, universities, and companies, which lead to the theft of data and information.

As I write in my latest book, there is one fundamental idea to remember about the cyberwarfare from Russia. Leaving aside the particulars about individual breaches, which targets are most vulnerable, and what we must do to protect our systems, we have to realize the broader goal of Vladimir Putin extends beyond any one achievement of specific attacks.

Putin does not mind stealing our secrets. It is clear he is also interested in exploiting our systemic vulnerabilities. But more than anything, he wants to delegitimize American institutions, erode faith in democracy, and foster cynicism in citizens about the honesty or reliability of what they are told by their leaders and the media. This is the true objective of Russia. Given the connection between the two authoritarian regimes, I would be remiss to not mention the cybersecurity threat we face from China.

With an advanced ability to manipulate data, penetrate security networks, and even to infiltrate our election systems, Russia and China are the major cyberwarfare players. The worldwide threat assessment from the United States intelligence community maintains that these two countries “pose the greatest espionage and cyberattack threat” to our American national security. It is a strong judgment that should now be evident.

In order to confront the threat from Russia and China, we must bolster our alliances with our partners in Europe, a task that Trump often approached with disinterest or outright scorn. Biden enters office with the mandate to gather countries in favor of democracy to a stalwart resistance to counter the militaristic belligerence and aggression from Russia and China. This is a difficult feat that we must not and cannot achieve alone.

Douglas Schoen is a political consultant who has served as adviser to Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags cybersecurity Election Government International President Russia Security

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