US Considers ‘Proportional Response’ to Russia’s Election Tampering

The Obama administration on Tuesday indicated it was considering a proportional response to retaliate against Russia for its efforts to influence the United States election process.

The administration last week officially linked Russian operatives to a series of cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee and other organizations, which apparently were designed to influence the November presidential race.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that leaks to WikiLeaks, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 were “consistent with methods and motivations of Russian efforts” during a press gaggle on board Air Force One on Tuesday, when President Obama was en route to Greensboro, North Carolina.

“The intelligence community has assessed that the theft of this information and its disclosure is an attempt to interfere with the U.S. political system,” Earnest said.

Russia has used similar tactics in the past to try to destabilize democracies in other parts of the world, but those other countries were not as “durable and resilient” as the U.S., he added.

Any U.S. response would be “proportional,” Earnest said, noting that it was “unlikely that our response would be announced in advance,” and that President Obama might choose options that would not be disclosed.

Asked by a reporter whether those options would include sanctions or retaliatory activity against Russia, Earnest said he would not be specific in terms of foreshadowing potential responses, but that a range of options, including the two mentioned, were on the table.

Battening Hatches

The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last week issued a joint statement saying they were confident that the Russian government was behind various hacks designed to interfere with the U.S. election.

The hacks included scanning and probing of election-related systems in Illinois and Arizona.

Based on the hack attacks’ scope and sensitivity, it appears they were authorized by senior-level officials in the Russian government, the joint statement says.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this week said that 33 states and 11 county or local agencies had requested cybersecurity services from DHS to defend against further hacks.

The services range from cyberhygiene scans on Internet-facing systems to risk and vulnerability assessments, DHS officials said. The hygiene scans are done remotely, and state and local officials are given a report showing vulnerable areas, along with recommendations for improving online voter registration systems, election night reporting systems, and other systems connected to the Internet.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. — who joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in pushing the Obama administration to go public with the allegations — praised the official release of the evidence linking Russia to the hacks.

“We should now work with our European allies who have been the victim of similar and even more malicious cyber interference by Russia to develop a concerted response that protects our institutions and deters further meddling,” he said in a statement.

Hold Fire

The process of naming Russia as the culprit has become heavily politicized, observed Martin Libicki, an adjunct management scientist at the RAND Corporation and a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. One side of the U.S. political aisle is calling out the Russians, while the other side is disputing the level of certainty.

“A U.S. administration response cannot help but play into the election season with the other side screaming bloody murder,” Libicki told TechNewsWorld.

It might make sense to wait until after the election to respond, he suggested. However, the Russians might then lose interest until the next presidential cycle.

It’s difficult to know definitively what specific evidence points directly at the Russian government, but it’s unlikely the hacks will change the outcome of the race, said Troy Hunt, a Microsoft regional director.

“However, there’s certainly something to be said about a foreign power attempting to influence a nation’s democratic process,” he told TechNewsWorld, “and they’ve attempted to do so using the same mainstream techniques that everyday cybercriminals would use.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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