Hack attack: Biden to go 'beyond sanctions'

Incoming White House chief of staff says Biden is mapping out response to curb foreign actors

US President-elect Joe Biden said on Tuesday that a widespread data breach of the government apparently carried out by the Russian government poses a 'grave risk' to national security that cannot 'go unanswered.'

WASHINGTON • The incoming White House chief of staff has said that President-elect Joe Biden's response to the massive hacking campaign uncovered last week would go beyond sanctions.

Mr Ron Klain said on Sunday that Mr Biden was mapping out ways to push back against the suspected Russian hackers who have penetrated half a dozen US government agencies and left thousands of American companies exposed.

"It's not just sanctions. It's steps and things we could do to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to engage in this sort of attack," Mr Klain said on CBS' Face The Nation.

Options being mulled over by the Biden administration to punish Moscow over its alleged role include financial penalties and retaliatory hacks on Russian infrastructure, people familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

The Kremlin denies any role in the hacking. Speaking at an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Russia's SVR foreign intelligence agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised its work, saying he was impressed by the "difficult professional operations that have been conducted".

Mr Biden, who becomes president on Jan 20, is likely to have bipartisan support for a muscular reaction to the espionage campaign, lawmakers indicated on Sunday.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney said on NBC's Meet The Press that the data breach was "extraordinarily damaging".

"This demands a response," he said. "This is something we have to address as soon as possible."

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on ABC that the hack could still be going on, and officials had yet to determine its full scope.

He backed Mr Romney's call for retaliation, saying Washington needed to make clear to adversaries "that if you take this kind of action, we and others will strike back".

Mr Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC that, in some cases, the digital clean-up of US networks "may mean burning down the whole system in order to make sure when we rebuild it they're not present".

Officials and cyber-security professionals across the United States are still struggling to get their hands around the scale of the hacking campaign, which used US tech company SolarWinds as a springboard to infect the Texas firm's clients - including the departments of Treasury, Commerce and Energy.

Up to 18,000 customers were left open to the hackers, but chief executive Kevin Mandia - whose company FireEye helped uncover the hacking - told CBS he estimated "only around 50 organisations or companies, somewhere in that zone", were "genuinely impacted".

President Donald Trump has downplayed the severity of the cyber attack on the US government and suggested China may have been responsible - even as other officials are convinced Russia was the perpetrator.

The Chinese government also rejected the accusation.

"US allegations against China have always been a farce made out of political motives in order to smear and denigrate China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said yesterday in Beijing. "Such behaviour and words are totally inconsistent with the US' standing as a major country."

The Trump administration is, meanwhile, suddenly reviving an old idea: to strip the general who leads the US Cyber Command of his second title as the director of the National Security Agency, the country's largest spy operation.

The idea has been kicked around Washington for years, and the intelligence world has hotly debated its merits. But a decision has always been put off because Cyber Command, the decade-old organisation that leads the military's offensive and defensive operations around the world, remains heavily dependent on intelligence provided by the NSA, the 68-year-old code-breaking agency.

In national security circles, there is debate over whether this is another example of Mr Trump's diminishing staff trying to push through lasting changes in their final 30 days in office, or perhaps retribution against General Paul M. Nakasone, the four-star cyber chief who holds both posts.

"The job is just too big for one person," said Mr Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, who frequently dealt with both organisations as former chief technology officer of cyber-security company CrowdStrike, which he co-founded.

But at a moment when investigators are about to begin examining how the two organisations performed in one of the greatest intelligence failures in modern times, it hardly seems to be the most urgent issue.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2020, with the headline 'Hack attack: Biden to go 'beyond sanctions''. Subscribe