Thursday, December 29, 2016

Obama’s Late Cyber Defense

He finally sanctions Russia, and Trump should get the message.

By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
December 30, 2016

President Obama promised retaliation against Russia’s cyber-meddling in this year’s U.S. elections “at a time and place of our choosing,” and on Thursday he followed through with an order to expel Russian agents and sanction Russian intelligence agencies. That’s a start, but the pity is that it comes at the end of a Presidency that held on to its Kremlin illusions for too long—and on the eve of another Presidency that risks making the same mistake.

Mr. Obama ordered that 35 Russian operatives be expelled and Russian intelligence compounds in Maryland and New York shut down. Nine Russian entities and individuals have been sanctioned, including four Russian military intelligence officers.

More important, technical data on Russian hacking methods will be declassified to help network experts “identify, detect and disrupt Russia’s global campaign of malicious cyber activities.” Mr. Obama also promised that he would take other steps, “some of which will not be publicized.”

Let’s hope so, because efforts to sanction Russia’s powerful FSB and GRU intelligence agencies won’t carry much sting with the officials and hired hackers who carried out the cyberattacks. Identities can always be changed and fake documents issued. The Kremlin has already promised that it will retaliate in kind, probably by expelling a similar number of U.S. diplomats from Moscow and stepping up its harassment of those who remain, washing out the impact of Mr. Obama’s order.

The larger flaw is that Mr. Obama’s order amounts to a far too late signalling exercise to underscore U.S. displeasure, rather than a serious retaliatory strike that imposes real costs on responsible Russian officials. House Speaker Paul Ryan was right to support Mr. Obama’s actions, but he was also right to add with no small irony that they are “an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia.”

A better response would begin by exposing the embarrassing financial details of senior Russian officials—of which, as April’s Panama Papers’ disclosure suggested, there are plenty. That would get the attention of Vladimir Putin’s political and financial courtiers.

Further up the retaliatory chain, the U.S. and its allies could deploy offensive cyber-capabilities to disrupt or cripple sensitive Russian computer networks, expand the 2012 Magnitsky Act to impose travel bans and asset seizures on Russians involved in hacking, and even cut off Russian banks from the Swift financial network.

The Obama Administration has fretted that the U.S. must maintain “escalation dominance” against Russia, which may explain why even Thursday’s steps were so modest. But Mr. Obama’s timid responses so far to Moscow—and to attacks from China and North Korea—have emboldened its hackers to meddle in the U.S. political process. The Russian regime is nothing if not a respecter of power, and only a U.S. President willing to exercise it will get the Kremlin to stop.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, who told reporters who asked about Kremlin hacking on Wednesday that the U.S. should “get on with our lives” and that “the whole age of the computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.” Lord knows what the President-elect means by that, but it seems to extend his strange and dangerous habit of making excuses for Mr. Putin and treating hacking as a nuisance, not a threat to U.S. national and economic security.

On Thursday the transition released a more considered statement from Mr. Trump repeating that it’s time to “move on” but that “in the interest of our country” he’d meet with U.S. intelligence officials next week “in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.” He’s wise to do so lest Mr. Putin treat him as a cyber-patsy the way he has Mr. Obama.

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