A top intelligence official warned Monday that the US doesn’t “yet have the political fortitude to say how we’ll strike back” against Russian misbehavior in cyberspace.
Natalie Laing, the deputy director of operations at the National Security Agency, added that the Trump administration should “absolutely” be considering a range of options, while working with the intelligence community, to respond to Russia’s election meddling attempts.
The US has not yet hit back against Russia “where it hurts,” Laing said at Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia. The US is considering a range of “next-level offensive capabilities,” but policymakers need to figure out what they are willing to do next, she told CNN after the panel.
A senior administration official told CNN that the White House is currently working on a whole of government response to follow up on recent sanctions and other punitive measures levied against Russia, consulting different agencies tracking Russian aggression in the run up to the November midterm elections, including the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and the rest of the intelligence community. The official also said the administration has levied severe consequences on Russia since January 2017.
However, it’s not the first time a senior NSA official has noted that more needs to happen to deter Moscow.
Laing echoed the message of NSA Director and US Cyber Command chief Adm. Mike Rogers, who told lawmakers in February that he has not been granted the authority by President Donald Trump to disrupt Russian election hacking operations where they originate. Asked by Democratic Sen. Jack Reed 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,” but noted that he has tried to work within the authority he maintains as a commander.
Rogers, like Laing, said that Russia has not “paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior.”
Unlike Russia and China, who more frequently launch offensive information warfare attacks, “we are not set up that way,” Laing explained. “I think we need to tear down some of our internal walls.”
Former NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett, who worked on the intelligence community’s 2017 assessment of Russian meddling in the election, told the audience “we suffer from inherent disadvantages in this space. … We tell the truth,” suggesting the US doesn’t publish the same kind of disinformation its adversaries do.
As the midterm elections approach, the President and policy makers will need to confront decisions about how to respond to Russia’s behavior, Laing warned.
“We don’t know, there may be a ticking clock,” she told CNN. “We’re in a big bureaucracy” where “nothing happens quickly,” she continued.
Laing’s comments, adding to Rogers’, stand in contrast to remarks made by the President’s homeland security adviser Tom Bossert on Sunday night in Sea Island. Bossert insisted that “we are deterring through increased defenses, punitive measures that impose costs, including military, economic.”
He said the US is holding the Russians accountable in “known and unknown ways,” citing recent sanctions imposed on a list of Russian oligarchs. He argued there are many who feel that the response to actors like Russia is “never good enough.”
Bossert also said he believes “no voter in this country was influenced by those ads,” referring to advertisements and events posted on social media by Russian bots and accounts during the 2016 US elections, a conclusion that differs from the verdict of senior intelligence leaders.