US expels 35 Russian operatives over election cyberattacks

Donald Trump rejects intelligence claims, saying ‘we ought to get on with our lives’

The Obama administration struck back at Russia on Thursday for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, ejecting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the US and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services. Video: Reuters

 

The Obama administration struck back at Russia on Thursday for its efforts to influence the 2016 election, ejecting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the US and imposing sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services.

Those targeted by the sanctions include four top officers of the military intelligence unit the White House believes ordered the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organisations.

In a sweeping set of announcements, the US was also expected to release evidence linking the cyberattacks to computer systems used by Russian intelligence.

Taken together, the actions would amount to the strongest US response ever taken to a state-sponsored cyberattack aimed at the US.

“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior,” president Barack Obama said in a statement from vacation in Hawaii.

The Russian foreign ministry said on Thursday the sanctions were counter-productive and would harm the restoration of bilateral ties. Moscow denies the hacking allegation.

The sanctions were also intended to box in president-elect Donald Trump.

Mr Trump has consistently cast doubt that the Russian government had anything to do with the hacking of the DNC or other political institutions, saying US intelligence agencies could not be trusted.

Mr Trump will now have to decide whether to lift the sanctions on the Russian intelligence agencies when he takes office next month, with Republicans in Congress among those calling for a public investigation into Russia’s actions. Should Mr Trump do so, it would require him to effectively reject the findings of his intelligence agencies.

Asked on Wednesday night at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, about reports of the impending sanctions, Mr Trump said: “I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly.

“The whole age of computers has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.”

The Obama administration is also planning to release a detailed “joint analytic report” from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that is based in part on intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency.

A more detailed report on the intelligence, ordered by Mr Obama, will be published in the next three weeks, though much of the detail is expected to remain classified.

Real effect

Despite the fanfare and political repercussions surrounding the announcement, it is not clear how much real effect the sanctions may have, although they go well beyond the modest sanctions imposed against North Korea for its attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment two years ago.

Starting in March 2014, the US and its Western allies levied sanctions against broad sectors of the Russian economy and blacklisted dozens of people, some of them close friends of president Vladimir Putin, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and its activities to destabilise Ukraine. Mr Trump suggested in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year that he believed those sanctions were useless, and left open the possibility that he might lift them.

Mr Obama and his staff have debated for months when and how to impose what they call “proportionate” sanctions for the remarkable set of events that took place during the election, as well as how much of them to announce publicly. Several officials, including vice-president Joe Biden, have suggested that there may also be a covert response, one that would be obvious to Mr Putin but not to the public. While that may prove satisfying, many outside experts have said that unless the public response is strong enough to impose a real cost on Mr Putin, his government and his vast intelligence apparatus, it might not deter further activity. “They are concerned about controlling retaliation,” said James A Lewis, a cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Obama administration was riven by an internal debate about how much of its evidence to make public. Although the announcement risks revealing sources and methods, it was the best way, some officials inside the administration argued, to make clear to a raft of other nations – including China, Iran and North Korea – that their activities can be tracked and exposed.

In the end, Mr Obama decided to expand an executive order that he issued in April 2015, after the Sony hacking. He signed it in Hawaii on Thursday morning, specifically giving himself and his successor the authority to issue travel bans and asset freezes on those who “tamper with, alter, or cause a misappropriation of information, with a purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions”.

Mr Obama used that order to immediately impose sanctions on four Russian intelligence officials: Igor Valentinovich Korobov, the current chief of a military intelligence agency, the GRU, and three deputies: Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, the deputy chief of the GRU; Igor Olegovich Kostyukov, a first deputy chief, and Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseyev, also a first deputy chief of the GRU. But GRU officials rarely travel to the US, or keep their assets here, so the effects may be largely symbolic. It is also unclear if any US allies will impose parallel sanctions on Russia.

The administration also put sanctions on three companies and organisations that it said supported the hacking operations: the Special Technologies Center, a signals intelligence operation in St Petersburg; a firm called Zor Security that is also known as Esage Lab; and the “Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization Professional Association of Designers of Data Processing Systems,” whose lengthy name, US officials said, was cover for a group that provided specialised training for the hacking. “It is hard to do business around the world when you are named like this,” a senior administration official with long experience in

Russia sanctions said on Thursday morning. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence.

Too slowly

But the question will remain whether the United States acted too slowly, and then, perhaps, with not enough force. Members of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign argue that the distractions caused by the leakage of emails, showing infighting in the DNC, and later the private communications of John D Podesta, the campaign chairman, absorbed an American press corps more interested in the leaks than in the phenomenon of a foreign power marrying new cybertechniques with old-style information warfare.

Certainly the US had early notice. The FBI first informed the DNC that it saw evidence that the committee’s email systems had been hacked in the fall of 2015. Months of fumbling and slow responses followed.

Mr Obama said at a new conference he was first notified early this summer. But one of his top cyberaides met Russian officials in Geneva to complain about cyberactivity in April. By the time the leadership of the DNC woke up to what was happening, the GRU had not only obtained those emails through a hacking group that has been closely associated with it for years, but, investigators say, also allowed them to be published on a number of websites, from a newly created one called “DC Leaks” to the far more established WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, several states reported the “scanning” of their voter databases – which US intelligence agencies also attributed to Russian hackers. But there is no evidence, US officials said, that Russia sought to manipulate votes or voter rolls on November 8th.

Mr Obama decided not to issue sanctions ahead of the elections, for fear of Russian retaliation ahead of election day. Some of his aides now believe that was a mistake. But the president made clear before leaving for Hawaii that he planned to respond. The question now is whether the response he has assembled will be more than just symbolic, deterring not only Russia but others who might attempt to influence future elections.

- New York Times/Reuters