The White House has ordered a little-known investigative group to examine the implications of a series of cyber-attacks by suspected Russian hackers against U.S. election data systems.
The attacks include breaches of a voter database used by the Democratic National Committee and voter registration sites in Illinois and Arizona.
The group, known as the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee, works within the Central Intelligence Agency and is a holdover from the Cold War. The committee, whose membership and activities are secret, originally was formed to investigate attempts by foreign agencies to counteract foreign intelligence.
News of the White House order was disclosed by NBC News, which also reported finding a consensus in the intelligence community that Russia is attempting to undermine confidence in the U.S. election system.
The involvement by the Russians or other foreign actors was addressed by FBI Director James Comey in his speech to the Symantec Government Symposium in Washington Aug. 30.
In his speech, Comey directly addressed the cyber-espionage activities of Russia, China and other nation-states, expressing his concern. In response to a question, Comey said, “We take very seriously any effort by any actor including nation-states, especially nation-states, that moves beyond the collection of information about our country and that offers the prospect of an effort to influence the conduct of affairs in our country, whether that’s an election or something else.”
Comey had explained during his speech that some activities by other nation-states, such as gathering information about the United States and its capabilities, are regarded as a normal activity. But the U.S. government takes note when another nation’s online activities go beyond information-gathering.
He mentioned the 2014 cyber-attack again Sony Pictures Entertainment carried out by North Korean hackers as an example, saying that this breach by a foreign government of data resources relating to the free expression of any American online entity was unacceptable.
Comey also said that cyber-attacks on U.S. companies by government entities in China were another example of those unacceptable activities. He said that the theft of intellectual property by the Chinese simply to help their business activities was recently addressed by the administration in meetings with Chinese officials, and that he was seeing some progress in that area.
However, the FBI is investigating the cyber-attack on the two state voter registration databases and on the Democratic National Committee. In addition, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has asked the FBI to investigate the possibility that Russia’s intervention is really an attempt to tilt the election to Donald Trump, but there’s no indication that the FBI has agreed to investigate that angle.
At this point, there’s no indication that the Russians or anyone else is attempting to change the outcome of the November presidential elections. However, a scenario that’s gaining traction in both the security and the intelligence communities is that the real goal of the cyber-attacks is to sow dissent and chaos into the atmosphere surrounding the election and, in the process, shake the faith of Americans and others in its outcome.
Cold War Group to Probe Russian Hacks of U.S. Voter Databases
Such a loss of faith easily could lead to the kind of protracted vote counts and legal challenges that George W. Bush and Al Gore dealt with in the disputed 2000 presidential election—except this time there would be more than hanging ballot chads as evidence of suspicious activity. Whether that could delay the certification of votes in swing states remains to be seen, but considering the delays caused by in the Gore vs. Bush election, it could.
One thing that could help prevent such chaos was mentioned specifically by Comey in his speech. The director was listing changes the FBI was working on in regards to cyber-crime and cyber-attacks, and one of his main points was his attempt to add real consequences to such activities.
“We’re trying to impose costs,” Comey said. “We want to lock some people up.” But if that can’t happen, as in the case of the unidentified agents of foreign governments, he wants to call them out.
“We want to name and shame through indictments, sanctions or public relations campaigns who is doing this and exactly what they’re doing,” Comey said. This may explain the FBI’s new willingness to name Russia as the nation-state currently attacking the U.S. election process.
One other item in Comey’s speech that may illustrate the FBI’s change in focus is the director’s emphasis on finding ways to work with the U.S. private sector to get a handle on cyber-crime and other cyber-attacks.
Comey said that while he understands the reluctance on the part of businesses to bring in the FBI in response to activities such as data breaches or ransomware attacks, he believes that the only way to stop the activity is by getting the FBI involved.
The FBI and others in the law enforcement and intelligence community need to engage in what Comey calls “adult conversations” with the private sector to find solutions to today’s cyber-security threats.
“We need to recognize that there are no evil people involved in this conversation,” Comey said, which is a reference to the atmosphere of mutual distrust that currently exists between private sector and government law enforcement authorities when it comes to cyber-security policies.
The fact that the FBI is heavily involved defending the U.S. electoral process from disruption by foreign cyber-attacks is encouraging. While Comey acknowledged that it’s impossible to prevent such attacks, he said he believes they can be deterred. But even if deterrence isn’t possible, the act of shining a bright light on such activities will on its own help keep the potential for chaos at bay.