Spy chief: US should use all tools to counter Russian hacking

Senators talk about economic and military options as retaliation for alleged Russian election hacking

The U.S. government should consider a broad range of retaliations against Russia for its attempts to interfere with November's presidential election, the outgoing director of national intelligence recommended.

The default response to cyberattacks shouldn't necessarily be a cyber one, intelligence director James Clapper said Thursday. "We should consider all instruments of national power," he told a Senate committee. "We currently cannot put a lot of stock ... in cyber deterrence. Unlike nuclear weapons, cyber capabilities are difficult to see and evaluate and are ephemeral."

Clapper didn't lay out his suggested alternatives to cyberattacks, although some senators called for more economic sanctions. One senator asked about military options.

Clapper and National Security Agency director Michael Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee they are more confident than ever that the Russian government directed hacks on the Democratic National Committee and Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign leading up to the election. A public report from U.S. intelligence agencies on the election hacks is due to be released next week, Clapper told senators.

President-elect Donald Trump, who defeated Clinton in the election, continues to question the conclusion of the intelligence agencies, and Russia has denied involvement.

Trump on Wednesday quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who published DNC and Clinton campaign documents. 

Assange suggested a 14-year-old could have hacked Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Trump tweeted. "Why was DNC so careless?" Trump added. " [Assange] also said Russians did not give him the info!"

Trump on Thursday then denied siding with Assange. "The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange -- wrong," he tweeted. "I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against 'Intelligence' when in fact I am a big fan!"

Nevertheless, several senators, including some of Trump's fellow Republicans, said they believe the intelligence reports on Russian hacking.

While the goal of the intelligence review of the election hacking isn't to question the results of Trump's election, "every American should alarmed by Russia's attacks on our nation," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and committee chairman. "There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference."

McCain asked if it would be an act of war if Russia had managed to change the results of the U.S. election.

The Russians didn't change any vote tallies, and intelligence agencies have "no way of gauging" the impact of the Clinton leaks and an extensive fake news campaign, Clapper said. Whether an attack on the U.S. election system was an act of war is "a very heavy policy call that I don't believe the intelligence community should make," he added.

McCain criticized President Barack Obama's administration for lacking a strong policy on cyberdeterrence. "It seems clear that our adversaries have reached a common conclusion that the reward for attacking America in cyberspace outweighs the risk," he said. "For years, cyberattacks on our nation have been met with indecision and inaction."

While Trump has questioned how intelligence agencies can attribute the election attacks to Russia, Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the hackers didn't make a major effort to cover their tracks. 

"In this case ... detection and attribution were not so difficult, the implication being that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may have wanted us to know what he had done, seeking only a level of plausible deniability," Reed said.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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