DOJ hints at shaming Russia for political hacks

DOJ hints at shaming Russia for political hacks
© Moriah Ratner

Top Justice Department officials dropped hints on Wednesday that they plan to hold Russia accountable for what is suspected to be a broad hacking campaign targeting U.S. political organizations and election databases.

Neither Attorney General Loretta Lynch nor Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, who leads the National Security Division, specifically mentioned pending action against Russia, which the Obama administration has refused to categorically say was behind the hacks.

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But both pointedly referred to other incidents of state-sponsored hacking against the U.S., which could be interpreted as veiled threats to the Kremlin.

“Whether you are a rogue hacker or a uniformed solider, the shadowy corners of the internet will not provide respite for long,” Lynch said during an event in Washington marking the 10th anniversary of the National Security Division.

“The light of our efforts is bright, the reach of our resolve is long. There literally is no hiding place.”

Carlin listed Russia as one of the “four main actors” involved in supporting hackers targeting the U.S., alongside North Korea, Iran and China. The U.S. has taken action against hackers from the other three states, he noted, over hacks against Sony Pictures, financial institutions and U.S. companies.

But he notably did not list an instance in which Washington had shamed Russia for digital spying or cyber theft.  

“You’ve seen us use it time and again,” he said. “The message is clear: You are not safe because you are doing it under another nation’s flag. We can figure out who did it ... and when we do, we’re committed to holding people accountable.”

The FBI is currently investigating hacks at Democratic Party institutions that this summer resulted in the release of reams of internal emails and other documents, including several embarrassing strings of messages. Signs of the hack point to Russia, though Moscow has denied any involvement.

Separately, Russia is suspected of being responsible for hacks into election systems in Arizona and Illinois, as part of what is reportedly being investigated as a sweeping effort to disrupt the November elections.

Government officials have refused to pin the blame on Russia for the hacks, citing the ongoing nature of the investigations. But FBI Director James Comey and others have affirmed that they take the incidents “very seriously.”

It’s unclear how the U.S. might respond if it were to prove conclusively that Russia was involved in the hacks as a way to meddle in the U.S. election.

The Obama administration could simply identify the Kremlin’s involvement as part of a “name and shame” strategy. It also might explore options for sanctions against Russian hackers or consider whether U.S. hackers ought to reciprocate the attacks.

“Russia is conducting cyberattacks to undermine American interests at every turn,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainKelly leads McSally by 9 points in Arizona McCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Senate outlook slides for GOP MORE (R-Ariz.), the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday following a hearing with senior cybersecurity officials.

McCain has criticized the Obama administration for failing to issue a public response to the alleged Russian cyberactivity.

“Our nation can and must do better if we are to enable our law enforcement, intelligence, and military professionals to effectively defend, deter, and respond to our adversaries in cyberspace,” he said.