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US attacks Russia’s power grid as warning to Putin, NYT says

The Cyber Operations Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., is home to signal and military intelligence noncommissioned officers, who watch for and respond to network attacks from adversaries as varied as nation-states, terrorists and "hacktivists." The center was sanitized of classified information for this photo. (Michael L. Lewis U.S. Army)
June 17, 2019

The United States is increasing its offensive cyber strategy against Russia in a show of power and warning, a new report revealed over the weekend.

U.S. intelligence officials have launched “aggressive computer code” into the Russian power grid and other targets in response to Russia’s disinformation and hacking campaigns in to U.S. elections, an exclusive New York Times report said on Saturday.

The Times spoke with current and former U.S. officials who said the strategy is a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is derived from the official cyber strategy released by the White House last year.

The U.S. has been probing the Russian power grid since 2012. However, new aggressive actions and never-before-deployed devastating malware were only authorized in last year’s cyber strategy, officials told the Times.

“It has gotten far, far more aggressive over the past year,” one official told the Times. “We are doing things at a scale that we never contemplated a few years ago.”

President Donald Trump announced a White House cyber strategy in September 2018 – the first released in 15 years – which included an aggressive offensive and counter-offensive framework that permitted the U.S. to carry out attacks on foreign adversaries – namely Russia and China.

Trump was reportedly not briefed on the latest attack on the Russian power grid, citing concerns over his reaction, or fears that he would halt the operation or compromise it through discussions with foreign officials, the Times reported.

The President tweeted about the story over the weekend.

“Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia. This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country,” Trump tweeted Saturday night.

“ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” he added in another tweet.

The Times said it informed U.S. Cyber Command Chief Gen. Paul Nakasone, National Security Advisor John Bolton and the National Security Council of their reporting – none of whom protested to security concerns about the report.

Last week, Bolton delivered a conference speech during which he said, “We thought the response in cyberspace against electoral meddling was the highest priority last year, and so that’s what we focused on. But we’re now opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act in.”

“We will impose costs on you until you get the point,” he said in a warning directed to nations the U.S. has decided to take cyber action against.

During the November 2018 midterm elections, a report indicated that the Pentagon had collaborated with intelligence agencies with a cyberattack plan against Russia in the event of “direct evidence of Russian interference.”

Just a month earlier, a CNN report had revealed that the U.S. Cyber Command targeted Russian operatives suspected of attempting interference campaigns in the midterm elections. Among the actions taken by Cyber Command were phishing messages, messages of warning from public officials and other efforts intended to impede Russian interference.

Last month, President Trump confirmed that the U.S. carried out a cyberattack against Russia last year.

Citing intelligence constraints, Trump could not release details of the attack, but said the attack occurred “during my administration” and insisted “nobody’s been tougher to Russian than me.”