All signs point to Russia in cyberattack, but Trump points to China
Contradicting his secretary of State and other top officials, President Trump on Saturday suggested without evidence that China — not Russia — may be behind the cyberattack against the United States and tried to downplay its impact.
In his first comments on the breach, Trump scoffed at the focus on the Kremlin and minimized the intrusions, which the nation’s cybersecurity agency has warned posed a “grave” risk to government and private networks.
“The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control,” Trump tweeted. He also claimed the media are “petrified” of “discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!).”
There is no evidence to suggest that is the case. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said late Friday that Russia was “pretty clearly” behind the attack.
“This was a very significant effort and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity,” he said in the interview with radio talk show host Mark Levin.
Officials at the White House had been prepared to put out a statement Friday afternoon that accused Russia of being “the main actor” in the hack, but were told at the last minute to stand down, according to one U.S. official familiar with the conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
It is not clear whether Pompeo got that message before his interview, but officials are now scrambling to figure out how to square the disparate accounts. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the statement or the basis of Trump’s claims.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has refused to blame Russia for well-documented hostilities, including its interference in the 2016 election to help him get elected. He blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has endorsed allowing Russia to return to the Group of 7 of nations and has never taken the country to task for allegedly putting bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Pompeo in the interview said the government was still “unpacking” the cyberattack and some of the details would likely remain classified.
“But suffice it to say there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of U.S. government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well,” he said.
Though Pompeo was the first Trump administration official to publicly blame Russia for the attacks, cybersecurity experts and other U.S. officials have been clear over the past week that the operation appears to be the work of Russia. There has been no credible suggestion that any other country — including China — is responsible.
Democrats in Congress who have received classified briefings have also affirmed publicly that Russia, which in 2014 hacked the State Department and interfered through hacking in the 2016 presidential election, was behind it.
It’s not clear exactly what the hackers were seeking, but experts say it could include nuclear secrets, blueprints for advanced weaponry, COVID-19 vaccine-related research and information for dossiers on government and industry leaders.
Russia has said it had “nothing to do” with the hacking.
While Trump downplayed the impact of the hacks, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has said it compromised federal agencies as well as “critical infrastructure.” Homeland Security, the agency’s parent department, defines such infrastructure as any “vital” assets to the U.S. or its economy, a broad category that could include power plants and financial institutions.
One U.S. official, speaking Thursday on condition of anonymity, described the hack as severe and extremely damaging.
“This is looking like it’s the worst hacking case in the history of America,” the official said. “They got into everything.”
Trump had been silent on the attacks before Saturday.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Brian Morgenstern told reporters Friday that national security advisor Robert O’Brien has sometimes been leading multiple daily meetings with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies, looking for ways to mitigate the hack.
He would not provide details, “but rest assured we have the best and brightest working hard on it each and every single day.”
The Democratic leaders of four House committees given classified briefings by the administration issued a statement complaining that they “were left with more questions than answers.”
“Administration officials were unwilling to share the full scope of the breach and identities of the victims,” they said.
Pompeo, in the interview with Levin, said Russia was on the list of “folks that want to undermine our way of life, our republic, our basic democratic principles. ... You see the news of the day with respect to their efforts in the cyberspace. We’ve seen this for an awfully long time, using asymmetric capabilities to try and put themselves in a place where they can impose costs on the United States.”
What makes this hacking campaign so extraordinary is its scale: 18,000 organizations were infected from March to June by malicious code that piggybacked on popular network-management software from an Austin, Texas, company, SolarWinds.
It’s going to take months to kick elite hackers out of the U.S. government networks they have been quietly rifling through since as far back as March.
Experts say there simply are not enough skilled threat-hunting teams to identify all the government and private-sector systems that may have been hacked. FireEye, the cybersecurity company that discovered the intrusion and was among the victims, has already tallied dozens of casualties. It’s racing to identify more.
Many federal workers — and others in the private sector — must presume that unclassified networks are teeming with spies. Agencies will be more inclined to conduct sensitive government business on Signal, WhatsApp and other encrypted smartphone apps.
“We should buckle up. This will be a long ride,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technical officer of the leading cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “Cleanup is just Phase 1.”
Florida became the first state to acknowledge falling victim to a SolarWinds hack. Officials told the Associated Press that hackers apparently infiltrated the state’s healthcare administration agency and others.
SolarWinds’ customers include most Fortune 500 companies, and its U.S. government clients are rich with generals and spymasters.
If the hackers are indeed from Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency, as experts believe, their resistance may be tenacious. When they hacked the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department in 2014 and 2015 “it was a nightmare to get them out,” Alperovitch said.
The Pentagon has said it has so far not detected any intrusions from the SolarWinds campaign in any of its networks — classified or unclassified.
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