The U.S. is still pondering an appropriate response to Russian attempts to interfere with the election, but it may not be delivered in cyberspace.
James R. Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, yesterday revealed concerns that cyber-countermeasures against Moscow, following intelligence assessments that Russian government-supported hackers had broken into the emails of Democratic Party operatives—and subsequently arranged for their release through Wikkipedia, could set off a mini-cyberwar that could do lasting damage to the U.S. economy.
“The assumption that there is an equally…exquisite cyber-response (to Russian actions) is not necessarily right,” he told an on-the-record meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York yesterday.
Clapper said U.S. dependence on the Internet made it vulnerable to hackers, whether they were affiliated with another state or not; so Washington’s reaction needed to be “asymmetrical.”
The intelligence chief did not go beyond earlier official statements that the response would be at a time and place of America’s choosing, and he dropped strong hints that Washington considered Russian leader Vladimir Putin the main architect of the cyber-hack.
“We believe the directions came from the highest levels,” he said. “I’m not going further.”
Asked directly by PBS host Charlie Rose, who chaired yesterday’s session, whether “there is a sense they’re not paying a price?,” Clapper responded, “Maybe not yet.”
The intelligence chief said he believed this wasn’t the first time Moscow had tried to influence the outcome of a U.S. election—or other elections in other states—citing Soviet behavior during the Cold War. But he said that ultimately such attempts would get nowhere in the U.S.
“Our strength in this case is the highly decentralized nature of our voting apparatus (which makes it) very hard to affect the outcome,” he said, though he noted that the fact that voting machines were now connected to the Web added a new vulnerability.
Clapper refused to comment on why GOP nominee Donald Trump appeared to cast doubt on intelligence assessments suggesting Russia was behind the latest attempt. He said the presidential candidates of both parties had been given full briefings, as part of a tradition dating back to the Harry Truman Administration.
Candidates were free to accept or reject what they learned, he said.
Clapper said the U.S. was now reaping the results of inattention to the Internet’s potential as a channel for security threats. Although there was an increasing awareness among the private sector of the need for “cyber-hygiene,” policymakers were still slow off the mark in focusing on the “substance or psychology” of cyber-deterrence.
Asked why Washington had waited several months before linking Russia to cyber dirty-tricks efforts, he said the intelligence community wanted to be sure of its ground.
“In our business, it’s always better to have multiple sources when you’re going to dime out a nation state,” he said, adding, “You can’t be too transparent (or) you risk losing sources.”
He proposed that the next Administration create a dedicated cyber-security agency, independent from the National Security Agency, which currently oversees cyber issues, in order to beef up the nation’s ability to detect and counter threats. “We’ve reached a point where those two responsibilities should be separate,” he said.
And he called for a project to develop “international norms in cyber-behavior,” an undertaking he said would be analogous to the long and arduous negotiations that resulted in the Law of the Sea.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.