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Reports: Biden admin planning retaliatory cyber attacks against Russia within 3 weeks

Marines with Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command at Lasswell Hall aboard Fort Meade, Maryland, Feb. 5, 2020. (DoD/Released)
March 09, 2021

The U.S. is planning to retaliate against Russia within the next three weeks for its alleged role in the SolarWinds software hack. The retaliatory actions include clandestine cyber actions on Russian networks intended to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian military and intelligence, but not by the wider public, officials told the New York Times on Sunday.

Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, said the U.S. may use a combination of sanctions and private actions to force a “broad strategic discussion with the Russians,” according to the New York Times.

“I actually believe that a set of measures that are understood by the Russians, but may not be visible to the broader world, are actually likely to be the most effective measures in terms of clarifying what the United States believes are in bounds and out of bounds, and what we are prepared to do in response,” Sullivan said.

The reported retaliation comes in response to a hack against U.S. software firm SolarWinds that went unnoticed for months. Suspected Russian hackers gained access to SolarWinds’ software update systems and inserted malicious software into a software update, which thousands of product users may have then downloaded.

Initial estimates of the scope of the hack suggested as many as 18,000 users may have been affected, including entities within the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the State Department. The hack is suspected to have breached the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the U.S. agency that manages the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray also appeared to reference U.S. plans to respond to the SolarWinds hack.

“Discussing the response in any detail is probably something that would be better done in a classified setting,” Wray said. “That by itself might give you a little bit of a hint, but what we have found, speaking more generally, over the last couple of years in the cyber arena, in particular, is that we are at our most effective when we have joint sequenced operations.”

On Tuesday, Russian officials reacting to the New York Times’ reporting on the alleged U.S. cyber retaliation plans, denied responsibility for the SolarWinds hacks and warned against U.S. cyber operations of its own.

“This is nothing more than international cybercrime,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Peskov called the reporting by the New York Times “alarming” and “the Russian state has never had and has nothing to do” with “such cybercrime and cyber terrorism.” Peskov’s comments are in line with previous Russian denials of involvement in the SolarWinds hack.

The reported plans to retaliate against Russia for the SolarWinds hack also comes amid new reports China may have similarly breached Microsoft email systems.

The White House has reportedly been considering how to respond to the hacks.

Sullivan saw some of the challenges the U.S. has faced in responding to cyber attacks firsthand. During President Barack Obama’s presidency, Sullivan served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser when China stole 22.5 million security clearance records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Over the past four years following concerns of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, Sullivan has argued that the traditional U.S. response to cyber attacks of imposing new sanctions is not a sufficient retaliation against Russia or China to get them to stop their hacking campaigns and come to the negotiating table.