U.S. intel chief on Russia’s unrelenting cyberattacks: “The warning lights are blinking red”


“All of these disparate efforts share a common purpose,” he observed, “to exploit America’s openness in order to undermine our long-term competitive advantage.”

China has highly capable hackers working for a government, Coats said. But Beijing’s agenda was narrowly focused on stealing information and technical advances.

The threat from Russia, however, is unique. “What’s serious about the Russians is their intent. They have capabilities, but it’s their intent to undermine our basic values, undermine democracy, create wedges between us and our allies.”

There was “no question” that Russia was the “most aggressive foreign actor,” Coats said.

Analysts say that Russia, unlike the other state and non-state cyber actors, has a broader and more ambitious agenda for its cyber campaign against the United States and the West: Undermine U.S. democracy – and Western democracies more generally; divide the United States from its allies; weaken and undermine the post-Second World War institutions – NATO, the EU, the WTO — which helped the West become the dominant global economic, military, and political force; and destroy the post-Second World War rule-based international order, which the United States helped create and lead.

Regarding the mid-term and the 2020 presidential elections, he noted that a Russia-created problem in even one state could throw the midterms or the next presidential election into doubt. “We realize we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation [to 2016] repeating itself.”

Commenting on DOJ’s indictment of the twelve high-ranking Russian intelligence officers, Coats pointed to the indictment as showing “exactly what they’re trying to do or what they’ve done through their military intelligence relative to elections.”

Coats said that the intelligence community and other government agencies will speak more publicly about the threat of cyberattacks and cyber interference in order to increase public awareness of the problem.

DOJ’s Friday indictment of the twelve Russian government operatives was for cyberattacks against the Democratic Party and its candidate, but back in February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russians and three Russian companies over “information warfare against the United States,” related to election interference. The February indictment was over the disinformation campaign conducted for the Kremlin by the St. Petersburg based Internet Research Agency.

Coats stressed that these activities have not stopped.

“We continue to see individuals affiliated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency creating new social media accounts, masquerading as Americans and then using these accounts to draw attention to divisive issues,” he said.

Coats emphasized that Russia’s hostile cyber activities go beyond targeting elections and sowing division, to attempts to target vulnerabilities in critical U.S. infrastructure, trying to infiltrate energy, water, nuclear, and manufacturing sectors.

DHS and FBI, in coordination with international partners, have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors. The warning signs are there,” he said. “The system is blinking, and it is why I believe we are at a critical point.”

So that the audience would be in no doubt about what he meant, Coats repeated: “The warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack [by Russia].”

The various agencies of the U.S. national security establishment, particularly the intelligence community and the Pentagon, have been acutely concerned about Russia’s 2016 interference campaign, and continuing Russian efforts now underway.

This concern has not been shared by Trump, who dismisses the incontrovertible evidence about Russia’s sustained cyberattacks on U.S. democracy – and Russian attacks on U.S. critical infrastructure – as “fake news.”

The New York Times reports that Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, has helped position the intelligence agencies in the more hard-line camp, pushing for more aggressive actions to halt cyberattacks by Russia and other nations. In a speech last month in France, he outlined the recent history of Russian cyberattacks on elections and on candidates critical of Moscow.

Coats expressed frustration with cyberspace strategies which emphasize only defense, and which do not include offensive options. Pointing to President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War approach to the Soviet Union, Coats suggested that if Russia continued to try to take on the United States in the cyber arena, then the administration should “throw everything we have got into it.”

President Trump is expected to meet with Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki. Asked on Friday what he – Coats — would say to Putin if he had the chance, Coats said he would make clear that the U.S. knows Putin is the ringleader of Russia’s disruptive cyber activities—and would warn him that in a continued “tit-for-tat,” Russia would lose.

“If your goal is to strengthen Russia in the proper way, we can cooperate with you. But if your goal is to strengthen Russia at the cost to us … we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “President Putin, the decision is up to you. We know you run the shop. We know you’re making the decisions.”

“But if you want to stay in this tit-for-tat, we’re going to beat you.”