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As Trump questions intelligence community, Senators want U.S. to be more aggressive against cyber threats


By Steve Bittenbender
Editor, Government Security News

On Thursday, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee met for the first time since the presidential election to gather testimony regarding the cyberattacks that have since dominated news coverage after Donald Trump’s victory in November.

The purpose, according to Sen. John McCain, wasn’t to undermine that outcome. However, while the committee chairman echoed Trump’s and President Obama’s calls to move forward, committee members also put the President-Elect on notice that they will conduct more hearings and expect more aggressive action against Russia as well as other countries and organizations seeking to attack the country’s IT infrastructure.

“There is no escaping the fact that this committee meets today for the first time in this new Congress in the aftermath of an unprecedented attack on our democracy,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Marcel Lettre and Adm. Michael Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, testified at the hearing. The trio also issued a joint statement beforehand saying more than 30 countries are building up their abilities to conduct cyberattacks.

But, for the most part, the focus Thursday was on Russia.

“Russia is a full-scope cyber actor that poses a major threat to U.S. government, military, diplomatic, commercial and critical infrastructure and key resource networks because of its highly advanced offensive cyber program and sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures,” the three said in their joint statement, noting that the foreign power also has used such attacks to influence public opinion across Europe.

Further, the three said that Russia may use cyberattacks in the future as a first-strike capability to knock out another country’s infrastructure or disrupt its command and control capabilities before potentially moving on to other military tactics.

Intelligence officials have issued reports detailing how Russian leaders backed efforts to hack into servers storing Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign documents and emails. In addition, U.S. authorities also claim that the Russians also help disseminate “fake news” articles designed to further undermine the Democrat’s chance.

Clapper told the committee that intelligence officials will release another report detailing why Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the attacks. However, he noted that Russia had more than one reason to get involved.

Sen. Lindsey Graham compared the sanctions recently levied against Russia by President Obama as a pebble, and the South Carolina Republican said he’s ready to throw a rock.

“Putin’s up to no good and he better be stopped,” Graham said.

However, while Graham and other lawmakers and officials want harsher penalties against Russia, Trump may go in the other direction. The President-elect continues to question publicly, through his Twitter account, whether the intelligence community is correct about Russian interference. Further, he praised Putin for being smart in holding off on immediately countering Obama’s sanctions.

Sen. Jack Reed, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked the three officials if they have been engaged with the Trump transition team, which according to media reports, is considering a reorganization of the country’s intelligence-gathering infrastructure. Clapper replied that they had not been involved.

McCain, in his opening remarks, said that foreign threats see little risk in attacking our infrastructure and wants the Trump administration to come up with policies that will make those threats think twice.

“This appearance of weakness has been provocative to our adversaries, who have attacked us again and again, with growing severity,” he said. “Unless we demonstrate that the costs of attacking the United States outweigh the perceived benefits, these cyber threats will only grow.”


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