US not effectively countering Russia cyberthreat, top general says
The top US general in Europe has said he does not believe there is a unified effort across the US government to confront Russian cyberthreats.
When asked on Thursday how he would assess the whole government response to Russian threats during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti replied, “I don’t believe there is an effective unification across the interagency with the energy and the focus that we could attain.”
Scaparrotti is the latest senior official to signal that the White House has yet to marshal a thorough and focused response to the ongoing threat of Russian cyber-intrusions, particularly into US voting systems. President Donald Trump has only glancingly and grudgingly acknowledged the consensus view of US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential campaign with a view to helping him get elected.
In late February, US Cyber Command chief Adm. Mike Rogers told lawmakers that he has not been granted the authority by Trump to disrupt Russian election hacking operations where they originate.
Asked by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island if he has been directed by the President, through the defense secretary, to confront Russian cyber-operators at the source, Rogers said, “no, I have not.” He did say that he has tried to work within the authority he maintains as a commander.
Rogers, who also appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that while he didn’t agree with Reed’s characterization of the US as “sitting back and waiting,” it is fair to say that “we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors we are seeing” with regard to Russia.
On March 6, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the committee that intelligence agencies are having conversations with Trump about how to counter the threat of Russian attacks. He told lawmakers that he was describing discussions about combating cyberthreats broadly, not within the context of Russian election interference.
“It is a whole-of-government approach,” Coats told the committee. “I have discussed it personally with the President of the United States, and he has said I assume you are doing your jobs … all of you that head up these agencies relative to cyber, but if you need for me to say, direct you to do it — do it,” Coats told the committee.
Scaparrotti, the commander of European Command and the NATO supreme allied commander Europe, was not speaking specifically about Russian efforts to meddle in US elections but Russian activity more broadly and made clear his command was not responsible for safeguarding US elections.
He said Russian cyber-efforts have concrete targets as well as a larger, more existential goal.
“Typically, when you look at their (Russia’s) disinformation, their social media, it is generally targeted at the undermining of Western values, confidence in that government, confidence in their governmental leaders, almost always subtly just hedging away at that,” Scaparrotti said.
“Because of today’s capabilities and information, where they can use multiple platforms and generate great volume, it can really undermine a nation,” Scaparrotti told the lawmakers, “because all they have to do is just sow some confusion primarily, sow enough confusion so there is distrust in the government.”
He added that, “it’s not an uncommon thing to see,” and that it’s “subtle but it is constant.”
Scaparrotti said Russia’s cybertroops have also directed their weapons at US infrastructure.
“I’ve seen activity related to, you know, infrastructure, reconnaissance, et cetera in the United States, and I’ll leave it at that,” Scaparrotti said, without offering any more details.
The top US commander in Europe also said the US does not have a have good picture on how Russia is utilizing commercial enterprises in their cyber-activity. “We are getting a better understanding of it. I would not characterize it as a good picture at this point, not satisfactory to me,” he said.
However, he did say that he does have the resources needed for the US European Command.
“I have had my cyber-operations center reinforced substantially, we’ve made good progress, and over the next two years, thanks to the funding both here in Congress as well as CYBERCOM, that will continue to give me the skills that I need in my cybercenter,” Scaparrotti said. “I also upon request have the authorities that I’ve asked for with respect to Russia over the past year to 18 months.”