Current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation say the CIA has been asked to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging “clandestine” cyber operation designed to harass and “embarrass” the Kremlin leadership.
The sources did not elaborate on the exact measures the CIA was considering, but said the agency had already begun opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation. Former intelligence officers told NBC News that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd on Friday that “we’re sending a message” to Putin and that “it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”
When asked if the American public will know a message was sent, the vice president replied, “Hope not.”
It is going to be an unmistakable “message” to Russia that no one in the global media will notice? At the very least, isn’t Moscow likely to complain loudly about a massive American cyber-attack?
According to retired Admiral James Stavridis, the idea seems to be exposing embarrassing information about Putin and his cronies, an action Moscow might be reluctant to draw attention to by throwing a public fit.
“It’s well known that there’s great deal [sic] of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs. It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we’ve seen,” Stavridis explained.
Analysts warned that the administration risks making itself look weak and indecisive if it threatens spectacular action but fails to follow through, something former CIA officers told NBC is usually the case, with both this White House and previous presidents.
These CIA officials said none of the cyber-war options developed by the CIA were “particularly good,” or “particularly effective,” while the Russians could strike back and “do worse things to us in other places.”
“Do you want to have Barack Obama bouncing checks?” one of the former officials pointedly asked.
As for the idea of embarrassing Putin with an oligarchy data dump, they pointed out he is “almost beyond embarrassing,” a judgment Putin critics disappointed with the subdued response to the Panama Papers leak would probably agree with.
While the NBC report speaks mostly of possible Russian hacking into computerized American election systems, others think the proposed CIA operation is meant as retaliation for Russian involvement in the “Guccifer 2.0” hack of the Democratic National Committee and the WikiLeaks exposure of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
WikiLeaks professed itself unperturbed by the prospect of retaliation by the U.S. government, dismissing the rumbles reported by NBC News as a public-relations stunt:
Russian President Vladimir Putin was also determined to show his feathers were unruffled this weekend, shrugging off the cyber-war threat as bluster that merely confirms that “official bodies of the United States are spying and eavesdropping on everyone.”
However, NBC News quoted some CIA insiders who insisted “there is a lot we can do.” Contrary to WikiLeaks’s assertion, and quoting from NSA documents leaked by none other than Edward Snowden, NBC noted the CIA has a cyber budget about 70 percent the size of NSA’s and that the Central Intelligence Agency has been working to develop offensive cyber-war capabilities for years.
Uncertainty is a major weapon in top-shelf digital warfare; using such capabilities exposes them and gives adversaries a concrete threat to prepare defenses against. Conversely, America’s cyber-warriors are not entirely certain what hostile state actors and allied hackers are capable of, and there are always concerns that Western powers are more dependent upon the Internet than most of our potential enemies. In an all-out computer war, we have more to lose. We must carefully consider sacrificing any of the uncertainty that could be working as a deterrence against those who presently lose sleep over what the Americans might be capable of.
It is interesting that the Obama administration responded to the massive Office of Personnel Management hack — which put millions of government employees and contractors at risk and dealt lasting damage to America’s intelligence efforts — with a fraction of the aggressiveness they are displaying now. The First Cyber War is not on the verge of breaking out. It has been in progress for some time now.