White House national security adviser John Bolton suggests that the U.S. is signalling Russian operatives that their identities are known. A critic says such signaling is “pretty ineffective.”
The U.S. is “right now undertaking offensive cyber operations” to safeguard next week’s midterm elections, though it was “too soon to tell” whether they are having an effect, says White House national security adviser John Bolton. Though Bolton did not specify the operation’s nature, U.S. Cyber Command has begun signaling to Russian operatives that their identities are known — an implicit warning not to attempt to disrupt American politics. The offensive cyber actions were aimed at “defending the integrity of our electoral process . . . and our adversaries [had] better know that and better understand that,” said Bolton, speaking at an event sponsored by the Alexander Hamilton Society, the Washington Post reports.
Bolton confirmed that the offensive activity fell below the level of armed conflict and did not “require the type of sign-off” from senior officials that would precede the use of military force. The White House has eased rules governing offensive cyber operations. Whether such signaling amounts to an offensive cyber operation depends on the method used, analysts said. Simply sending a text message or email would not, said Kate Charlet, a former Pentagon cyber official. But “if you had a banner or a pop-up on an adversary’s computer that says, ‘We’re watching you,’ that would be cyber-enabled,” she said. Brett Bruen, a former National Security Council official who has worked on countering Russian disinformation, called signaling “a pretty ineffective” warning shot. “What we have seen over recent months have been largely superficial steps, mostly for domestic consumption, to be able to say that we are doing something,” he said. CyberCom’s action by itself “is not going to be the linchpin that gets the Russians to stand down, but it is a reasonable component” of a larger strategy to change behavior, said Charlet, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.