Russia’s Cyberattacks Aren’t Meddling—They’re Acts of War
We need to stop watering down the language describing how Russia hacked the 2016 election and put Trump in the White House. No shots were fired, but it was an act of war.
Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President argues that interventions in the 2016 presidential election by hackers and trolls likely tipped the Electoral College toward Donald Trump. The hackers, tied to a Russian agency, gained unauthorized access to stored Democratic emails, data, and memoranda and distributed them to the media through WikiLeaks and other vehicles while the Kremlin-tied trolls created imposter social media accounts, videos, and other online content with the goal of undermining public faith in the U.S. democratic process. A grand jury indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations released by the Justice Department in January 2018 noted that the conspiracy was aimed at “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The title of this book asserts that these Russian activities can fairly be characterized as cyberattacks launched as part of an undeclared cyberwar. Before making that case, let me note that candidate Trump was onto something when, at a town hall in September 2016, he told his future national security adviser (the now-indicted) General Michael Flynn that “cyber is becoming so big today. It’s becoming something that a number of years ago, short number of years ago, wasn’t even a word.” Big, yes. But also weaponized. Although politics as war is a conventional metaphor and words such as campaigning and battleground no longer automatically evoke the sounds of guns, in 2016 an adversary engaged in a decidedly non-metaphoric attack in cyberspace on the U.S. body politic and on a U.S. candidate for president.
If by cyberwar one means “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption,” the 2014 specification offered by Richard Clarke, the intelligence analyst who foresaw 9/11, then the findings of our intelligence agencies that the activities were state-authorized satisfies the first part of the definition, i.e., actions by a nation-state. Whether attempted disruption of an election, rather than, for example, the electrical grid or the digital workings of Wall Street, satisfies the second, i.e., “causing damage or disruption,” is open to question. In 2017, Clarke did characterize it as warfare when he said of the trolls’ infiltration of social media that it was “[p]sychological warfare on a grand scale. They conducted the largest psychological warfare campaign in history and they won… They invaded our country. They invaded our political system and they won.”
Rhetorical analogues to the notion of “cyberwar on democracy” can be found in wars against poverty, drugs, and terror. The notion that a war can be ongoing even as its meaning evolves is evident in the label “Cold War,” used to convey the post–World War II standoff between the Soviet Bloc countries and the West. Like that state of affairs, Russian cyberactivities are ongoing and evolving, having involved opposing the 2017 nomination of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as Trump’s Secretary of State and amplifying discord after the 2018 killings in Parkland High School in Florida.
Helpful in situating these moves in context is the insight of Alexander Klimburg of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies who noted that the former Soviet Union envisioned that “a war could be waged and won without the other side’s knowing that war had been declared.” The weapons involved in such conquest included strategic psychological operations designed to dominate “an adversary’s decision-making process through various tools, including… semantics and the choice of terms in public discourse.” In a statement that aptly forecasts Russian efforts to affect voters, Klimburg explains that “[i]n every case, the goal is to deliver information to the target to incline it ‘to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.’”
The term “cyberwar” locates the sphere in which the attacks occurred; defines hacking, posting, impersonating, and strategic release of stolen content as weaponry; presupposes agents with ill intent; invites us to see the perpetrators as enemies; casts hackers and trolls as soldiers, saboteurs, and spies; sees the U.S. president as commander-in-chief; creates the expectation that the attacked country will retaliate; and implies the value of inviting the public to arm itself. Employing the mealy-mouthed word “meddling,” as leaders on both sides of the aisle as well as reporters are wont to do, and as USA Today did in a 2018 poll, obscures the enemy’s intent and circumscribes the invited response. Where “meddled” invites us to ask “in what,” “cyberattack” elicits the questions “on what,” “on whom,” “with what weapons,” “to what end,” “with what effect,” and “whether, when, and, if so, how should those attacked retaliate”? Where an appropriate response to an actor who “meddles” is “mind your own business,” the expected reaction to cyberattack is a hardening of one’s defense and a counterattack. In short, the nature, urgency, and extent of the invited response all change when one abandons “meddling” and “interfered” for “cyberattacked” and engaged in “cyberwar.”
Characterizing the Russian actions as “cyberwar” is precedented. During the fall 2017 hearings on Russian exploitation of the tech platforms, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) insisted to the lawyers representing Facebook, Google, and Twitter, “You don’t get it! This is a very big deal. What we’re talking about is cataclysmic. It is cyber warfare. A major foreign power with sophistication and ability got involved in our presidential election.” “Cyberwarfare with Russia ‘now greater threat than terrorism,’ warns British Army chief,” read a January 2018 headline in the Independent. “Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 13, 2018. To Megyn Kelly’s question “Can we contain Russia in cyber warfare?” Russian president Vladimir Putin responded, “I think it is impossible to contain Russia anywhere.”
The notion that we are engaged in a war is embedded in the title of Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. The reactions to the Russian hack-and-release that the Obama administration considered and then shelved could accurately be called response in kind. They included actions to “unleash the NSA to mount its own series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Russian-created websites, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets; to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut them down; and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control nodes.” Other sidetracked plans included “leaking snippets of classified intelligence to reveal the secret bank accounts in Latvia held for Putin’s daughters… Dump[ing] dirt on Russian websites about Putin’s money, about the girlfriends of top Russian officials, about corruption in Putin’s United Russia Party.” Where the title of their book characterizes Putin’s activities as war, the headline on the Yahoo! article about it (“The cyberwar that never happened . . .”) suggests that war only exists at the point at which the United States launches a counterstrike.
Some may argue that because the United States has a history of insinuating disinformation, deception, and funding into the elections of other countries, including Russia, taking umbrage at the Russian attacks and categorizing them as an act of war are hypocritical. “Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do the same,” proclaims an essay in The New York Times Sunday review. Here Russian president Vladimir Putin agrees, telling NBC’s Megyn Kelly in a March 2018 interview, “Please listen to me and take to your viewers and listeners what I am about to say. We are holding discussions with our American friends and partners, people who represent the government, by the way, and when they claim that some Russians interfered in the U.S. elections, we tell them (we did so fairly recently at a very high level): ‘But you are constantly interfering in our political life.’ Would you believe it, they aren’t even denying it. Do you know what they told us last time? They said, ‘Yes, we do interfere, but we are entitled to do so, because we are spreading democracy, and you aren’t, and so you cannot do it.’ Do you think this is a civilized and modern approach to international affairs?”
The likelihood that the United States is engaging in comparable activities may explain why terms more benign than “cyberwar” have been a mainstay of U.S. characterizations of the Russian interventions. Another rationale for avoiding the language of war and its invited actions is that the United States may be unprepared to deal with anticipated levels of possible escalation. By seizing Russian compounds in the States and imposing economic sanctions, the United States has to this point, publicly at least, responded to cyberattacks with economic penalties. Rather than warehousing the label “cyberwar,” one alternatively could think of these economic responses as counterattacks with a different kind of weapon.
A sampling of the outward signs of the Russian cyberwar reveals its range. One hundred and twenty-six million Americans were exposed to Russian-trafficked content on Facebook. At least 1.4 million Twitter users were subjected to the wiles of Kremlin-tied trolls and bots feigning allegiance to American values while, according to an assessment by the U.S. intelligence agencies, bent on fomenting dissent among U.S. citizens and defeating one of the two major party candidates. Among those conned by cyberspies cloaked in ball caps and team jerseys was a St. Louis, Missouri, hip-hop artist who thought he was creating videos for a group allied with Black Lives Matter. Instead, his work was posted to a Russian troll site. When they endorsed content originating with @TEN_GOP, an account exposed after the election as a Russian front, household names in conservative political circles became Russian pawns as well. The electoral systems of 21 states by one count and 39 by another were hacked. In locales from Florida to Minnesota, individuals unwittingly helped the Russians organize rallies. Some of these efforts were laughably inept. Although there are no coal mines near Philadelphia, trolls attempted to organize a rally of coal miners there. Others were adroit. Two of the troll-generated Florida events were subsequently featured on the website of a Trump supporter in the Sunshine State.
Adapted from Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Copyright © 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.