WASHINGTON Dec 28 The Obama administration
plans to announce on Thursday a series of retaliatory measures
against Russia for hacking into U.S. political institutions and
individuals and leaking information in an effort to help
President-elect Donald Trump and other Republican candidates,
two U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
Both officials declined to specify what actions President
Barack Obama has approved, but said targeted economic sanctions,
indictments, leaking information to embarrass Russian officials
or oligarchs, and restrictions on Russian diplomats in the
United States are among steps that have been discussed.
One decision that has been made, they said, speaking on the
condition of anonymity, is to avoid any moves that exceed the
Russian election hacking and risk an escalating cyber conflict
that could spiral out of control. One example of an excessive
step might be interfering with Russian internet messaging.
The FBI, CIA and Office of Director of National Intelligence
agree that Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party
organizations and operatives ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential
election. There is also agreement, according to U.S. officials,
that Russia sought to intervene in the election to help Trump, a
Republican, defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Russia has repeatedly denied hacking accusations. Trump has
dismissed the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community.
Obama, in an interview earlier this month with NPR, said,
"We need to take action and we will" against Russia for
interfering in the U.S. election.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova,
promised retaliation on Wednesday against Washington in the
event of new economic sanctions.
Jim Lewis, a cyber security expert with the Center for
Strategic and International Studies think tank, said further
sanctions may be an effective U.S. tool in part because they
would be difficult for Trump to roll back and because Russia
"hates" dealing with them.
"For the rest of the world, it's like having 'scumball'
stamped on your forehead," Lewis said.
How to respond to the growing problem of cyber attacks
carried out or sponsored by foreign powers has bedeviled Obama,
whose eight years in office witnessed a torrent of major hacks
against the U.S. government and private organizations that were
attributed to China, North Korea, Iran and Russia.
In past cases, administration officials have decided to
publicly blame North Korea and indict members of China's
military for hacking because they decided the net benefit of
public shaming - and increased awareness brought to cyber
security - outweighed potential risks.
But determining an appropriate response to Russia's actions
has proven more complicated in part because Russia's cyber
capabilities are more advanced and due to fears about disrupting
other geopolitical issues, such as the civil war in Syria.
Obama may choose to invoke an April 2015 executive order
that empowered him to levy sanctions in response to cyber
attacks perpetrated by foreign groups targeting infrastructure,
such as transportation, or done for economic purposes.
One option, said a U.S. government official who has
participated in discussions on possible retaliation, would be
leaking material on Russian officials or actions that the United
States already has obtained in a way that would "parallel what
the Russians did, but be impossible to prove."
The official compared that option to Russian military and
civilian intelligence agencies providing hacked material to the
anti-secrecy group Wikileaks and trying - unsuccessfully, the
official said - to cover their tracks.
Another option would be further economic sanctions against
Russia. Washington has already sanctioned Russia over the past
two years to punish Moscow for its role in annexing Crimea. But
former U.S. officials say the existing measures leave Washington
plenty of room to slap new, tougher sanction on Russia in
response to cyber intrusions.
The Ukraine sanctions were "narrowly tailored" to hurt
specific sectors of Russian industry, such as the energy sector,
without causing the nation's economy to tank, said Juan Zarate,
a former assistant secretary of the Treasury for terrorist
financing and financial crimes.
The United States took a more measured approach, in part, to
reserve tougher measures in case the situation worsened, said
Zarate, chairman of the Financial Integrity Network, a private
consulting firm that advises on financial threats.
The United States is still unlikely to impose blanket
embargoes against Russia because of the danger it could harm the
economies of Western Europe, said Peter Harrell, a former senior
State Department official who worked on sanctions policy.
Instead, the United States may target specific Russian
intelligence officials or military divisions believed to be
involved in the cyber intrusions. "The Russian defense sector
would be fair game," Harrell said.
Looming over any action the Obama administration takes
against Russia is whether Trump will seek to reverse course once
he takes office on Jan. 20.
In addition to casting doubt on the conclusions of the U.S.
intelligence community about the hacks, Trump has repeatedly
praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and nominated people
seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Joel Schectman in Washington;
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Leslie Adler)