During the just-concluded G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, President Trump sardonically warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay away from the 2020 US presidential election. Responding to a reporter’s question, Trump playfully pointed his finger at Putin and said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin just laughed.
The president might think that the ongoing Russian efforts to interfere in American democracy is all just a big joke. But his administration doesn’t.
It was only a few days earlier that Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” for a June 15 story that revealed that U.S. Cyber Command had placed “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — deep inside the Russian electrical grid. Still mad about the story two days later, he tweeted that it was “fake news” and called on the newspaper to release its “phony” sources.
Even Putin was puzzled by the president’s reaction. “I am not sure how we should interpret that — if it means that they disclosed real information or it was a planted story,” he said during his annual “Direct Line” with Russian citizens. “But in any case, we have to respond one way or another; we must understand what this is about.”
Putin was asking the right question. What about the report had prompted the president’s unhinged response? Why was the president so upset about a report that the U.S. government was, after years of inaction, finally fighting back against Russian cyberattacks?
The little-noticed answer lies buried in defense legislation and executive orders signed by Trump himself. Although written in dense bureaucratese, what it says is pretty remarkable: Rather than work with the president when it comes to Russia, Trump’s administration has simply decided to work around him.
Like a parent with a obstinate child, the Trump administration, with an assist from Congress, cut the president out of the decision-making loop on national security decisions involving Russia. The Times, then, was a convenient scapegoat for the president’s impotent fury at his own people.
It’s no secret that Trump has long refused to acknowledge even basic truths about the Russian threat, but the consequences to U.S. national security aren’t so well known.
This definitive report in The Washington Post — based on interviews with more than 50 (!) current and former U.S. officials — described how the intelligence community was structuring the president’s daily brief (PDB) to avoid upsetting Trump.
“If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the PDB off the rails,” said a second former senior U.S. intelligence official….
Trump has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it, administration officials said. Although the issue has been discussed at lower levels at the National Security Council, one former high-ranking Trump administration official said there is an unspoken understanding within the NSC that to raise the matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront.“Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked,” Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, Philip Rucker, Dec. 14, 2017.
For far too long, the response to ongoing Russian cyberattacks was a big fat ZERO. That only encouraged Russia and other countries to wreak havoc in cyberspace.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Dan Coats, Trump’s own director of national intelligence warned in July 2018. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Then things started to change.
On August 13, 2018, Trump signed a defense bill that basically gave the U.S. military’s Cyber Command a green light to respond to Russia.
The aptly named John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act authorized Cyber Command to take “appropriate and proportional” action aimed at disrupting, defeating, and deterring Russian cyberattacks, including those aimed at our democracy. The bill also allowed the defense secretary to authorize clandestine military activity in cyberspace without prior presidential approval.
The conference report on the bill, written by Republican and Democrat members of both the House and the Senate, was revealing:
The conferees have been disappointed with the past responses of the executive branch to adversary cyberattacks and urge the President to respond to the continuous aggression that we see, for example, in Russia’s information operations against the United States and European allies in an attempt to undermine democracy. The administration’s passivity in combatting this campaign, as documented repeatedly in hearings before the congressional defense committees in the past 2 years, in the judgment of numerous executive branch officials, will encourage rather than dissuade additional aggression. The Congress has worked diligently to ensure that the Department possesses the necessary capabilities and authorities to combat, in particular, these Russian information operations, and this authorization represents further progress toward that objective. The conferees strongly encourage the President to defend the American people and institutions of government from foreign intervention.
Read that again and take a moment to reflect on that remarkable passage.
Two days after signing the McCain defense bill, the president signed National Security Presidential Memorandum No. 13. This still-secret memorandum freed the military to conduct offensive cyber operations “without a lengthy approval process,” so long as they don’t cause “death, destruction or significant economic impact,” The Washington Post reported last year.
Apparently without realizing what he was doing, Trump had just given the go-ahead for the types of operations described in the Times article that left him so unhinged.
Spearheading America’s aggressive response in cyberspace to Russia is General Paul Nakasone, the dual-hatted leader of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
Nakasone has pushed a strategy of “persistent engagement” with our Russian foes in cyberspace. In other words, we don’t sit back and wait for our enemies to attack; we take the fight to them.
Under Nakasone, U.S. Cyber Command has shifted from a response force to a proactive one that meets our adversaries in the foreign networks where they lurk. “If we find ourselves defending inside our own networks, we have lost the initiative and the advantage,” Nakasone told a professional military journal.
Securing the 2018 midterm elections was Cyber Command’s No. 1 priority, Nakasone told Congress, and it prompted him to create the “Russia Small Group.”
On Election Day last year, the Russia Small Group shut down the computer networks at the Internet Research Agency, the so-called St. Petersburg “troll factory” behind much of the social media manipulation during the 2016 election. The Russia Small Group also helped state election officials identify vulnerabilities and improve threat warning and it dispatched forces to beef up cyber defenses in Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine.
Much of its work remains secret, but U.S. senators hinted earlier this year that it was no coincidence that the 2018 midterms were not impacted by Russia. Further proof of the group’s success is the fact that it’s now a permanent fixture at the NSA/Cyber Command, housed in a new, $500 million cyberwarfare bunker at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Few Americans realize that the United States is flexing its muscles in the cyber realm, but Russia is keenly aware of what’s going on. “Vitally important spheres of our economy have been targeted with cyberattacks from abroad,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said in the wake of the Times report. An anonymous law enforcement source told RIA Novosti, a Kremlin-owned news outlet, that the Times story about U.S. incursions in the electrical grid is true, although the Russians say they’ve managed to stop the attacks so far. Last fall, Russian trolls and hackers received direct messages identifying them by their real names and warning them not to interfere in the affairs of other nations.
The only one who seems unsure of what’s happening is the president, who may have realized too late what he signed away when he gave his administration the authority to go on the offensive against Russia.
The implications of the decision to take decision-making authority out of the president’s hands are sobering. It was not a decision that was taken lightly.
It reflects a judgement on the part of Congress and the administration that when it comes to Russia, the 45th president poses a threat to the national security of the United States.