By: Hank Thomas
Partner & COO of Strategic Cyber Ventures
Banner on the last Russian military train leaving East Germany in the 90’s reads “We will be back”
You do not need a security clearance to pinpoint the entity behind the cyber-enabled influence operations conducted during the 2016 U.S. elections. If we were using the law of land warfare, the evidence currently provided would be enough for us to return fire. And so, it should translate in cyber warfare. While no evidence exists of tampered or hacked voting machines on election day, more than enough evidence suggests that a foreign government attempted to alter our election prior to ballot casting though coordinated influence operations. Influence operations are actions intended to persuade or influence populations. For example, the production of fake news or the hacking and distribution of private emails. This social manipulation facilitated by the invasion of our country, in this case our country’s networks, an invasion via hacking, should piss every American off – whether Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent – because it is an attack on America. The attempted influence of our election process is far more than typical state on state espionage.
Every American should focus on the #1 national security issue facing the U.S. today – Cybersecurity. Cybersecurity trumps radical Islamic terrorism as the most significant threat to our way of life. This threat is increasingly hitting home for the average American, with the Chinese theft of billions in advanced military research projects, the hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that included millions of your friends and family’s records, ransomware impacting your healthcare, and seemingly endless breaches at everyday retailers, just to name a few. Rather than address the issue, some Americans blind themselves in questioning the validity of the threat, who is behind it, and doubt the ability of intelligence agencies to perform attribution in cyberspace. This level of confusion is called the fog of war and it is what our adversaries want. It gives them more time to dig into our country, we are adding to it by not coming together as a nation to solve it.
The occasional shoddy journalist and junior varsity cyber investigators’ false claims are also clouding our vision of the persistent enemy – an enemy bound and determined to sway our national conversation, casting doubt on the validity of the threat. It’s tough with an enemy committed to admitting nothing, denying everything, and making counter accusations that the real threat lies elsewhere. A threat within our own government, some fat guy in a basement, another organized adversary, or that it never happened at all. These threats are all very real, but it should not confuse our understanding of the recent surge of influence operations and their orchestrator. Influence operations may quickly evolve to advanced cyber-attacks and additional network colonization, disrupting our critical infrastructure, halting our way of life, and driving a wedge into our union. This is not a right or left wing conspiracy, these are real adversaries, in this case Russia, and we need to understand, demonize, defend, and retaliate against these enemies together as a nation.
It is time America starts treating cyber-attacks that cross a line, a line that was crossed in the election hack, as just what they are – warfare. In doing so, we need to trust in the entities protecting us from these threats. We commonly doubt intelligence agencies, probably because they are secretive and shadowy, seemingly more so in this case, while inherently trusting in our military. However, most our intelligence community consists of military personnel (as much of it falls under the Department of Defense and exists in all five military branches), highly skilled in discovering attacks and identifying enemies. Our military, and in-turn our intelligence agencies, are our best option for combating cyberwarfare. Due to the nature of their work they historically have provided the public very little in terms of evidence. This must remain the case for them to succeed on future battlefields. These are the same organizations that successfully employed intelligence capabilities to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deploy Stuxnet, if you are inclined to believe so, and captured Osama bin Laden. Plus, an entire host of classified success stories not yet released to the public. It is unrealistic for mainstream media and the public to demand a smoking gun when these affairs are highly classified and extremely technical. In the current fast moving, asymmetric, crisis environment of cyberwarfare, we must trust the intelligence community more than ever. We must let go of the smoking gun and settle for a warm one with a serial number on it.
It is imperative that we trust these bodies made up primarily of your sons and daughters, just like the rest of the military, dedicated to protecting the cyber integrity of the country in the current crisis environment. To begin, Congress needs to immediately dedicate more resources to halting the colonization of our networks by foreign invaders. We need to demand a show of force as retaliation for both the Chinese OPM hack and the Russian’s attempt to influence our elections. It is time to step back the rhetoric and let our own covert and overt actions continue. It is good to have a healthy skepticism of any part of government, but to believe Russia, Putin, or Julian Assange over our Generals, Admirals, and other patriots is preposterous and furthers the fog of war they want. It is time to stop villainizing the CIA, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), or the rest of the intelligence community as untrustworthy actors in this cyber war. It is our revered military or ex-military members embedded into these organizations that are leading much of the charge for us. Let’s get behind them, the rest of the intelligence community, and our other existing cyber forces. Let’s get pissed at the threat actors – Russia and China – for the silent war they are waging on our country and prevent their influence, espionage, wholesale theft, and all acts of war moving forward. Let’s pick up our own cyber guns and turn them as red hot as you should be.