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Pentagon readies cyberattack for if Russia meddles in elections

Uniformed and civilian cyber and military intelligence specialists monitor Army networks in the Cyber Mission Unit’s Cyber Operations Center at Fort Gordon, Ga. (Michael L. Lewis/U.S. Army)
November 06, 2018

A new report revealed that the Pentagon has collaborated with intelligence agencies to establish a cyberattack plan against Russia in the event of interference in the U.S. midterm elections.

The Pentagon reportedly granted approval to U.S. military hackers to breach Russian networks and unleash their offensive cyberattack plan, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) on Friday.

Such a plan would be the first carried out by the U.S. under the Department of Defense Cyber Strategy announced in September – the first of its kind in 15 years.

The report does not specify details of the cyberattack plan, but it does mention that the attack would be triggered by direct evidence of Russian interference – beyond “malign influence … trying to sway peoples’ opinion or the way people might vote,” a senior official told CPI.

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Such interference includes attempts to alter voting registrations or vote tallies, an act that would spark “swift and severe action,” the official said. These attempts “fundamentally wrecks the natural process that we have established in this country,” the official pointed out.

Russian hackers already attempted to break into U.S. election systems in 2016, so it’s a real possibility they could try gain. They attempted to breach the systems of 21 states without success, but were able to breach voter registration data in Illinois.

The DOD Cyber Strategy includes aggressive offensives and counter-campaigns as a means of “defending forward to intercept and halt cyber threats,” naming China and Russia as specific threats.

The strategy permits Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to approve offensive cyberattacks without the approval of other government bodies. Additionally, they can breach the networks of potential targets ahead of time in preparation for deploying malware attacks.

The strategy paved the way for use of offensive cyberattacks instead of retroactively addressing breaches and disinformation campaigns.

It follows President Donald Trump’s decision in August in which he reversed Presidential Policy Directive 20, an Obama-era order that mandated a structured process to be followed before the U.S. carries out cyber actions targeted at foreign entities, The Wall Street Journal had reported.

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One administration official called it an “offensive step forward,” as the reversal paved the way for more aggressive responses that better countered cyberattacks.

Previously, The Obama-era order limited the response of intelligence officials, causing backlogging and frustration.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) would get frustrated when Transportation, or another agency would weigh in on things they wanted to do,” a former national security official said. “If DoD wanted to have access and be ready, they were hamstrung.”

“Our hands are not tied as they were in the Obama Administration,” said National Security Advisor John Bolton