In one of its final moves to keep Russia at bay and secure America from digital intruders, the Obama administration on Thursday slapped Moscow with a round of sanctions over its alleged election-season hacks.
HITS RUSSIAN INDIVIDUALS
The punishments hit several Russian individuals and entities, including the country’s primary security service, known as the FSB, and its main intelligence directorate, the GRU.
35 INTELLIGENCE OPERATIVES
The government is also booting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, and sanctioning top intelligence officers within the GRU.
“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.
MONTHS OF SPECULATION
The move puts an end to months of speculation over how the White House would strike back against what it said was a widespread digital campaign orchestrated by senior Kremlin officials in an attempt to disrupt the recent U.S. election. More recently, intelligence officials have reportedly concluded that Moscow was actually hoping to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump with its hacking.
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI published for the first time a declassified report about a high-profile election hack of “a U.S. political party” — likely the Democratic National Committee.
GIVES NO MOTIVES
Although the report does not explain the hackers’ motives, it provides some much sought-after specifics about Moscow’s alleged meddling, and is intended to help the private sector root out other Russian infiltrations. The findings confirm many details about the DNC intrusion that private security researchers published during the campaign.
Obama had been under fire for his delayed retaliation from both congressional Democrats and a cadre of hawkish Republicans. Many had also pushed the outgoing commander in chief to act before handing over the reins to President-elect Trump, who has dismissed the government’s allegations that Russian is responsible for any of the election hacks.
“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump told reporters late Wednesday at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
The punishment also marks another post-Cold War low point in the increasingly frigid U.S.-Russia relationship, which has frayed over the Syrian civil war, failed joint operations against the Islamic State and Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, in addition to the alleged election-season hacks.
DIGITAL BREAK-IN DNC
The administration in October blamed the Kremlin for this summer’s digital break-in at the DNC, and later said Russia was also behind the breach of Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta’s personal email account.
The cyberattacks roiled the Democratic Party on the eve of its nominating convention, exposing embarrassing internal emails and causing the resignation of former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Later, the daily leak of Podesta’s emails on WikiLeaks fueled a series of negative headlines about Clinton’s campaign.
But the White House’s first official public retaliation didn’t come until Thursday.
TWO COMPOUNDS CLOSED
In addition to the economic sanctions and ejections of Russian intelligence operatives, Obama said the State Department will shut two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York that are “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.” A senior administration official told reporters in a Thursday conference call that the compounds would bar Russian personnel effective Friday at noon, but provided few details about the nature of the facilities.
The facility in Maryland appears to be one near Centreville. It has been used as a vacation spot for Russian diplomats dating back to the Soviet Union purchase of the compound in the 1970s, said Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Another senior administration official added that the diplomatic steps taken Thursday were a response to serial harassment of U.S. officials in Russia, culminating in a summer incident where a Russian police officer attacked an American diplomat.
The outgoing president hinted that the government may also fight back discreetly.
“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” Obama said. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”
RUSSIA DENIED ROLE
Russia has consistently denied any role in the election-season hacks and earlier in the week vowed to fight back against any U.S. punishment.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said Moscow will contemplate retaliatory measures in response to the White House’s actions, according to The Associated Press.
Thursday’s sanctions add to the growing list of economic penalties the U.S. has levied against Moscow. Over the past two years, Washington has sanctioned Russia over the country’s annexation of Crimea.
With the latest round of Russian penalties, the Obama administration has now formally punished all four of its main digital adversaries for hacking the U.S.
OTHER PAST SANCTIONS
The administration in 2014 indicted five Chinese military hackers and later sanctioned North Korea for the digital hijacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer system. And earlier this year, the Justice Department charged Iranian-backed hackers for infiltrating a U.S. dam.
EXECUTIVE ORDER APRIL 2015
But the most recent move represents the first time Obama has deployed an authority he created via executive order in April 2015.
The administration issued the order a few months after the bruising cyberattack on Sony. In announcing the new powers, Obama declared the rising tide of cyberattacks — which had also felled major retailers like Home Depot and Target, and large banks such as JPMorgan Chase — a “national emergency.”
The order gave the Treasury Department power to freeze the assets of any foreigners responsible for “cyber-enabled activities” that constitute “a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.”
Leading up to Thursday’s announcement, White House officials had been debating whether the executive order covered the alleged Russian election hacking, according to the Washington Post.
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL
The National Security Council reportedly was worried that the cyber meddling during the election did not fit under the terms of the executive order, which was established to punish hackers that damaged America’s critical infrastructure or pilfered U.S. trade secrets.
On Thursday, the White House announced it had expanded the executive order. The government can now use the tool to punish people that “tamper with, alter, or cause a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions.”
GRU AND FSB
It was under this clause that the White House sanctioned the two major Russian intelligence services — the GRU and FSB — and four GRU officers. It also levied penalties on three companies that the White House says provided “material support” to the GRU’s cyber operations.
Although this is the first time the Obama administration has used the cyber sanctions, officials threatened to use the tool against China in 2015 over what the White House said was a government-orchestrated program to steal U.S. trade secrets and funnel the information to Chinese firms.
Officials believe the threat helped bring Beijing officials to the negotiating table, where the two sides struck a landmark deal to eradicate digital corporate theft.
CHINESE CYBER THEFT
According to administration officials and security researchers, Chinese cyber theft has dropped since then, although it has not ceased altogether, and some experts believe Beijing is merely shifting its strategy.
But it was suspected Russian hackers who continuously stole the show during the 2016 election.
The June 14 revelation that the DNC had been hacked kicked off five months of cyber intrusions that culminated with Trump’s surprise victory on Election Day.
OFFICIALS LIST OTHER VICTIMS
According to researchers and government officials, Russia’s victims eventually grew to include state voter registration systems, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, an ex-White House advance staffer, a State Department protocol employee and a Clinton campaign volunteer.
The hackers even hit a few Republican operatives and may have breached the Republican National Committee; charge RNC officials deny.
The WikiLeaks release of Podesta’s personal emails — which began on the same day that the government formally blamed Russia for the hacks — proved particularly disruptive, with ripple effects beyond the election itself.
SOME FAKE NEWS
Some of the emails included embarrassing excerpts from Clinton’s private speeches to Wall Street firms. Others sparked a conspiracy theory that led to a gunman opening fire at a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
DNC AND DCCC
Hacked documents, including confidential DNC and DCCC research memos, also appeared on the self-styled whistle-blower website DC Leaks and the blog of a hacker persona who went by “Guccifer 2.0.” Researchers believe these digital operations were fronts for Russian intelligence agencies to launder the hacked materials.
In his final months in office, Obama has been building a case against Russia for such digital malfeasance.
In addition to officially blaming Moscow for the prominent election hacks, and then retaliating on Thursday, the president has also ordered the intelligence community to prepare a thorough report on attempts to sabotage recent presidential elections with cyberattacks. The report, which Obama will receive before leaving office, is expected to include an analysis of the 2008 and 2012 elections, but will almost certainly focus on this year’s events.