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White House sanctions Russia over election hacks

“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. | Getty

In one of its final moves to keep Russia at bay and secure America from digital intruders, the Obama administration on Thursday slapped Moscow with a round of sanctions over its alleged election-season hacks.

The punishments hit several Russian individuals and entities, including the country’s primary security service, known as the FSB, and its main intelligence directorate, the GRU.

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The government is also booting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, and sanctioning top intelligence officers within the GRU.

“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

The move puts an end to months of speculation over how the White House would strike back against what it said was a widespread digital campaign orchestrated by senior Kremlin officials in an attempt to disrupt the recent U.S. election. More recently, intelligence officials have reportedly concluded that Moscow was actually hoping to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump with its hacking.


On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI published a declassified report about the cyber operations at Russian intelligence agencies, in an attempt to provide much sought-after specifics about Moscow’s meddling and to help the private sector root out other Russian infiltrations.

Obama had been under fire for his delayed retaliation from both congressional Democrats and a cadre of hawkish Republicans. Many had also pushed the outgoing commander in chief to act before handing over the reins to President-elect Donald Trump, who has dismissed the government’s allegations that Russian is responsible for any of the election hacks.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump told reporters late Wednesday at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The punishment also marks another post-Cold War low point in the increasingly frigid U.S.-Russia relationship, which has frayed over the Syrian civil war, failed joint operations against the Islamic State and Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, in addition to the alleged election-season hacks.

The administration in October blamed the Kremlin for the digital break-in at the Democratic National Committee, and later said Russia was also behind the the breach of Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta’s personal email account.

The cyberattacks roiled the Democratic Party on the eve of its nominating convention, exposing embarrassing internal emails and causing the resignation of former DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Later, the daily leak of Podesta’s emails on WikiLeaks fueled a series of negative headlines about Clinton’s campaign.

But the White House’s first official public retaliation didn’t come until Thursday.

In addition to the economic sanctions and ejections of Russian intelligence operatives, Obama said the State Department will shut two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York that are “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.”

The outgoing president hinted that the government may also conduct discreet responses.


“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” Obama said. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized.”

Russia has consistently denied any role in the election-season hacks and earlier in the week vowed to fight back against any U.S. punishment.

“Frankly speaking, we are tired of lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a Wednesday statement.

A Russian Foreign Ministry official on Thursday warned that the penalties would further erode bilateral ties between the two countries, Reuters reported, citing the Russian news agency Interfax.

Thursday’s sanctions add to the growing list of economic penalties the U.S. has levied against Moscow. Over the past two years, Washington has sanctioned Russia over the country’s annexation of Crimea.

With the latest round of Russian penalties, the Obama administration has now formally punished all four of its main digital adversaries for hacking the U.S.

The administration in 2014 indicted five Chinese military hackers and later sanctioned North Korea for the digital hijacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer system. And earlier this year, the Justice Department charged Iranian-backed hackers for infiltrating a U.S. dam.

But the most recent move represents the first time Obama has deployed an authority he created via executive order in April 2015.

The administration issued the order a few months after the bruising cyberattack on Sony. In announcing the new powers, Obama declared the rising tide of cyberattacks — which had also felled major retailers like Home Depot and Target, and large banks such as JPMorgan Chase — a “national emergency.”

The order gave the Treasury Department to power freeze the assets of any foreigners responsible for “cyber-enabled activities” that constitute “a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.”

Leading up to Thursday’s announcement, White House officials had been debating whether the executive order covered the alleged Russian election hacking, according to the Washington Post.

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The National Security Council reportedly was worried that the cyber meddling during the election did not fit under the terms of the executive order, which was established to punish hackers that damaged America’s critical infrastructure or pilfered U.S. trade secrets.

On Thursday, the White House announced it had expanded the executive order. The government can now use the tool to punish people that “tamper with, alter, or cause a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions.”

It was under this clause that the White House sanctioned the two major Russian intelligence services — the GRU and FSB — and four GRU officers. It also levied penalties on three companies that the White House says provided “material support” to the GRU’s cyber operations.

Although this is the first time the Obama administration has used the cyber sanctions, officials threatened to use the tool against China in 2015 over what the White House said was a government-orchestrated program to steal U.S. trade secrets and funnel the information to Chinese firms.

Officials believe the threat helped bring Beijing officials to the negotiating table, where the two sides struck a landmark deal to eradicate digital corporate theft.

According to administration officials and security researchers, Chinese cyber theft has dropped since then, although it has not ceased altogether, and some experts believe Beijing is merely shifting its strategy.

But it was suspected Russian hackers who continuously stole the show during the 2016 election.

The June 14 revelation that the DNC had been hacked kicked off five months of cyber intrusions that culminated with Trump’s surprise victory on Election Day.

According to researchers and government officials, Russia’s victims eventually grew to include state voter registration systems, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a ex-White House advance staffer, a State Department protocol employee and a Clinton campaign volunteer.

The hackers even hit a few Republican operatives and may have breached the Republican National Committee, a charge RNC officials deny.

The WikiLeaks release of Podesta’s personal emails — which began on the same day that the government formally blamed Russia for the hacks — proved particularly disruptive, with ripple effects beyond the election itself.

Some of the emails included embarrassing excerpts from Clinton’s private speeches to Wall Street firms. Others sparked a conspiracy theory that led to a gunman opening fire at a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.

DNC: John Kerry

Hacked documents, including confidential DNC and DCCC research memos, also appeared on the self-styled whistleblower website DC Leaks and the blog of a hacker persona who went by “Guccifer 2.0.” Researchers believe these digital operations were fronts for Russian intelligence agencies to launder the hacked materials.

In his final months in office, Obama has been building a case against Russia for such digital malfeasance.

In addition to officially blaming Moscow for the prominent election hacks, and then retaliating on Thursday, the president has also ordered the intelligence community to prepare a thorough report on attempts to sabotage recent presidential elections with cyberattacks. The report, which Obama will receive before leaving office, is expected to include an analysis of the 2008 and 2012 elections, but will almost certainly focus on this year’s events.

Many in Congress will likely use the report — and Thursday’s punishments — as a launching pad for upcoming congressional investigations into the alleged Russian cyberattacks.

Capitol Hill Democrats on Thursday immediately lauded Obama’s move, but some called for Congress to follow in his footsteps.

The White House’s retaliation is not “sufficient,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat.

“It is imperative the legislative branch now pick up the ball and move it forward,” he added in a statement. Congressional sanctions can complement and strengthen these new executive sanctions.”

While there is bipartisan consensus that potential Russian election hacking must be examined, lawmakers are split over how to proceed. Democrats have joined with a small nucleus of hawkish Republicans to push for a select committee to study the issue.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan insist the existing committees — such as the Senate and House Intelligence panels — can handle the probe.

Ryan on Thursday described the White House’s action as “overdue,” and “an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia.”

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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