•As U.S. battles Russia over email hack
By Emma Emeozor
The collapse of the Soviet Union on December 21, 1991, and the consequent paradigm shift in its ideological and economic policies made America’s neoconservative political commentators conclude that America had conquered Russia, especially as it also signalled the end of the Cold War, which started at the end of World War II. The thinking at the time was that the United States would exercise its dominion across the world without threats from a ‘crippled’ Russia and that there would be a united world devoid of armed struggle fuelled by East-West ideological forces. But 25 years after the end of the Cold War between Russia and the U.S., the two countries are now engaged in a ‘code war.’
After months of allegations and denials over who hacked the emails of former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the November 8, 2016, presidential election, the President Barack Obama administration, last week, expelled 35 diplomats (suspected to be spies) from the Russian embassy in Washington and its consulate in San Francisco. Two buildings in New York and Maryland said to have been used by Russian intelligence services were closed. Also, sanctions were imposed on two Russian intelligence agencies, FSB (successor of KGB) and GRU (Russian military intelligence organisation), as well as nine entities and individuals. The expelled diplomats, who were given 72 hours to leave the U.S., have since returned home with their families.
The emails in question were stolen from Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, and from the servers of her party’s national committee. The stolen emails said to contain embarrassing information were posted by an online person known as Gucifer 2.0. The incident led to the immediate resignation of the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman, as they caused much damage to the electoral fortunes of Clinton while favouring her opponent, President-elect Donald Trump.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow would not retaliate over the expulsion of its diplomats. Putin’s response is a masterstroke in international diplomacy, biding his time, he is obviously looking forward to working with Obama’s successor, Trump. Meanwhile, Washington’s action has brought to the fore the age-long tit-for-tat relationship between the two countries just as it has raised questions on future relations and the likely impact the code war could have on global cyber operations.
As Obama hands over to Trump on January 20, 2017, his reaction to the email hacking is a clear message that the U.S. would not tolerate cyber attacks from any quarter. But the incoming President is also at the centre of the row with Russia. It is believed that Russia deliberately hacked the emails to enable Trump defeat Clinton.
“Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyber attacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me,” Clinton said.
Trump reacted to Putin’s response to the expulsion of Russian diplomats with a bang. He described Putin as “very smart.” “Great move on delay, I always knew he was very smart!” Trump tweeted. Would he rescind the sanctions imposed on Russia and recall its diplomats after he is sworn in as President, especially as he has repeatedly expressed doubts over Russia’s culpability? Already, his Secretary of State pick, Rex Tillerson, is a friend of Russia. He was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship by Putin some time ago. Also, he is said to be at the “heart of ambitious plans for oil exploration in the Artic, the Black Sea and Siberia.”
Last week, U.S. lawmakers (Democrats and Republicans) and intelligence officials were unanimous in their conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking. Senior Republican Senator and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain (apparently expressing the position of his colleagues, said Russia must face a penalty for the cyber attacks. “When you attack a country, it’s an act of war,” he said in an interview with the Ukrainian TV channel, 1+1, while on a visit to Kiev. The verdict of the lawmakers and the intelligence officials was like giving Trump a blow below the belt.
But in a major shift yesterday, Trump accepted the conclusion of the lawmakers and the intelligence community, saying his government may take action in response.
Reports quoted his incoming chief of staff and former Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, as saying that Trump understands that Moscow was behind the intrusions into the Democratic Party organisation.
“He accepts the fact that this particular case was (initiated) in Russia, so that’s not the issue,” Priebus said on Fox News Sunday.
Priebus said Trump plans to order the intelligence community to make recommendations as to what should be done. Depending on these recommendations, “actions may be taken,” he said.
How Obama arrived at his decision
The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had on October 7, 2016, announced that Russia was behind the hacking. In a statement, he said: “The U.S. Intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organisations.”
A week after Clapper’s statement, Vice President Joe Biden appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, further highlighting the position of government. “We’re sending a message” to Putin, he said. But he stopped short of disclosing the details, when and how it would be delivered. “It will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact,” he added.
The details of the message and the time of dispatch came after the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Investigation of Bureau (FBI) submitted their report. According to U.S. media, the 13-page joint analysis accused Russian intelligence services of involvement in “an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens.” It further said: “In some cases, (the Russian intelligence services) actors masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online persons designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack.”
U.S. intelligence sources said the joint analysis was the first such report to attribute malicious cyber activity to a particular country or actors. It was also the first time the U.S. has officially and specifically tied intrusions into the Democratic National Committee to hackers with Russian civilian and military intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, expanding on an October 7, 2016, accusation by the Obama administration. The sanctions on Russia were the first use of a 2015 executive order for combating cyber attacks against critical infrastructure and commercial espionage.
Obama considered launch of cyber war
But for several considerations, the Obama administration would have launched a cyber war against Russia. It also considered a nuclear strike, according to reports. NBC revealed the U.S. government’s plan to launch a cyber war against Russia. According to the report, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was asked “to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging ‘clandestine’ cyber operation designed to harass and ‘embarrass’ the Kremlin leadership.”
Interestingly, Russia was also arming itself for a fight back. Russia had initially decided to expel American diplomats in a reprisal.
Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry had recommended expelling 31 U.S. diplomats from Moscow and four from St. Petersburg. The ministry also suggested banning U.S. diplomats from their holiday homes (called dachas) in Serebryany Boe near Moscow and a warehouse on Moscow’s Dorozhnaya Street. There were also reports that Russia planned to close the Anglo-American school for children of diplomats.
But why did Obama fail to go on with the launch of a cyber war? His government must have realised that covert cyber attack goes with unknown consequences. It was reminiscent of the experience in Iran. During Obama’s first term, he had ordered the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran and the action had far-reaching consequences, as the advice of his spy chiefs proved wrong.
The attack destroyed about a thousand of Iran’s centrifuges used for enriching uranium. Besides, the international community declared the action as “an illegal act of war and the first instance of cyber war.” But, more importantly, all the three claims by his spy chiefs proved “incorrect.”
They told the President that “the computer viruses would not escape the facility, would not affect any other computers if they did escape, and would never be traced back to the United States in any case.”
But, regrettably for the Obama administration, “the viruses did escape, they infected tens of thousands of computers in many countries and they were quickly traced back to the U.S.”
In addition, “the operation was a burst” as “it destroyed a small fraction of the intended centrifuges and only slightly delayed Iran’s enrichment.”
The Obama administration realised to its chagrin that its action only helped to motivate Iran into creating its cyber command, which “retaliated by destroying 30,000 computers belonging to a U.S. oil supplier. U.S. banks were also attacked,” said a report. As it is now, the international community would have to wait to see how the code war unfolds.