White House Confirms Pre-Election Warning to Russia Over Hacking
By DAVID E. SANGERNOV. 16, 2016
Voting in the Bronx on Nov. 8. There is no evidence that voting or counting of ballots was disrupted on Election Day. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Over the past month, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has received two starkly different messages about hacking into American computer networks from the current and future presidents of the United States: Don’t you dare, and don’t worry, we’re not even sure it was you.
The White House confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that eight days before the presidential election, the United States “contacted the Russian government directly regarding malicious cyberactivity” that was “targeting U.S. state election-related systems.” It sent the message over a rarely used system: a hotline connecting the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in both countries, which they had agreed three years ago could also be employed to deal with major cyberincidents.
The pre-election warning — only the latest after verbal cautions by President Obama, his defense secretary and the director of national intelligence — was reported by The Washington Post.
The warnings to Russia against further hacking into polling or registration systems, or any further effort to affect the outcome of the election, are being hailed by the Obama administration as a success in deterrence. After all, they argue, a year and a half of Russian hacking activity seemed to slow, or halt, and there is no evidence that voting or counting of ballots was disrupted on Election Day.
But more than a few experts in deterring cyberattacks take a more skeptical view. They say the Russians had already achieved their main goal: to demonstrate how they could disrupt the American electoral process with the leak of hacked emails, including from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
Mr. Putin suffered nothing worse than a warning, they note — no sanctions, no counter cyberstrikes, no embarrassing revelations engineered by the United States. And he now has the satisfaction of dealing with President-elect Donald J. Trump, who during the campaign praised him, promised to build a more productive relationship with Russia and maintained there was no evidence that the Russians were behind the hacking.
“Anytime anything wrong happens they like to” blame the Russians, Mr. Trump said in an Oct. 10 debate with Mrs. Clinton. “She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking.”
Mr. Trump contended that the allegations of Russian activity were intended to “tarnish me” for advocating a new relationship with Moscow. He frequently repeated similar sentiments in the last weeks of the campaign, suggesting the hacking was a fabrication. The leaks of emails worked largely to his advantage, embarrassing Democratic leaders like Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who was forced to resign as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Trump’s larger strategic message is that the United States and Russia need to cooperate on a range of issues.
But for now the situation underscores the uncertainty around the world about the direction of American foreign policy and gives Mr. Putin the opportunity to exploit differences between the current president and his successor until Mr. Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20. It is also raising the question of whether the Obama White House pushed back hard enough when American intelligence agencies concluded on Oct. 7 that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
James A. Lewis, a computer expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, dismissed the administration’s claim that it had deterred Russia’s hacking.
“It seems a little bold to claim this is a success for deterrence, since the Russians weren’t deterred from doing anything,” he said. “Their hacking work was mostly complete. The issue now is whether they will be deterred in the future, and the guessing is they will not. Strong private warnings aren’t enough to constitute deterrence.”
In fact, the Russians appear to have paid less of a price for their hacking around the election than North Korea did for its attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014. That attack melted down about 70 percent of Sony’s computers and servers at its studios, wreaking considerable damage, and embarrassed many Sony executives. It was in response to the release of a movie, “The Interview,” that imagined a C.I.A. plot to kill Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.
After the Sony episode, the United States issued more sanctions against North Korea and encouraged China to limit the North’s internet access, all of which runs through Chinese switching centers. Many experts had expected the White House to follow a similar path with Russia.
Instead, the White House concluded that the warnings, and the unstated suggestion that the United States had the power to reach inside Russian networks and see the origin of attacks, might suffice. It is not clear if the administration plans any other actions against Russia before Mr. Obama’s departure from office, but that seems less and less likely.
The Oct. 31 warning did not deal with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee or Mr. Podesta’s account, which James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, had previously said was conducted with the knowledge of the Russian leadership. Instead, it referred only to the concerns about hacking around the election process itself, and the fear it was originating from Russian territory, though it stopped short of saying it was a state-sponsored attack.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/17/us/po ... cking.html