US warned France of Russian ‘cyber penetration’ ahead of presidential elections ‒ NSA chief
The US notified French officials that it had found evidence of Russian hacking ahead of France’s presidential elections on Sunday, even before internal documents stolen from candidate Emmanuel Macron’s political party were leaked, Rogers said without directly blaming Moscow.
“We had talked to our French counterparts prior to the public announcements of the events that were publicly attributed this past weekend and gave them a heads up: ‘Look, we’re watching the Russians, we’re seeing them penetrate some of your infrastructure. Here’s what we’ve seen. What can we do to try to assist?’'” he said.
Cyber Command is “doing similar things with our German counterparts, our British counterparts,” Rogers said. Both countries have elections later this year, and have expressed fears ‒ without providing any evidence ‒ that Russian hackers are trying to sway the outcomes.
In January, the intelligence community accused Russia of trying to undermine American democracy and the 2016 presidential election. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate, asked Rogers if he views Russia as a cyber adversary.
“I'm watching them engage in behaviors that I think are destabilizing, not in our best interests in cyber,” Rogers replied.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) referred to recent testimony by FBI Director James Comey that Russia is still interfering in American politics and that, among nation-states, Russia has the most capability and the biggest intent in terms of interfering in the future.
“Do you agree that it was Democrats in 2016, it could be Republicans in the next elections?” Graham asked, noting that the interference could come in congressional races, not just presidential politics.
“Yes. I would argue this is not about politics, this is not about party. This is about an effort against us, strategic interests of every citizen of this nation,” Rogers replied.
“If somebody doesn't make them pay a price, they're gonna keep doing this?” Graham asked.
“Yes,” Rogers responded.
In his prepared remarks, Rogers said that “state-based cyber actors” are his “main concern,” especially as “malicious activities have only intensified” since last year. He did not specifically mention Russia. “As we have seen, cyber-enabled destructive and disruptive attacks now have the potential to affect the property, rights, and daily lives of Americans.”
Russia is not the only country involved in cyber warfare and hacking though, Rogers explained during the hearing.
“You see every nation-state engage, they’ll penetrate a system, they will look to not just extract but study it, understand it, see where it connects to, can they use that as a jumping-off point to get to somewhere else,” he said. “I’ve seen nation-states engaged in the activity in the US where they clearly are interested in a long-term presence, not just extracting data.”
Rogers, who is also director of the NSA, had trouble deciding which hat to wear during the hearing, deflecting some questions about the NSA but answering others as he briefed on Cyber Command operations.
Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) asked Rogers if he had been aware of Russian entities penetrating infrastructure ahead of the election 2016 and what actions did he take.
Rogers first answered in his role as NSA director, noting the agency first found Russians trying to gain access in 2015 and informed the FBI. But as the head of Cyber Command, he said, his first concern was to secure the Department of Defense infrastructure because “they were coming after the DOD at the same time.”
Reed then asked him if he’d been tasked with disrupting such operations, would Cyber Command have been able to do so, to which Rogers replied yes.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) focused his questioning on how to prevent Russia from interfering in future elections, saying Moscow won’t stop unless they are “forced to pay a price.”
Sanctions are the preferred deterrent because they have proven to be an effective tool, Rogers replied, but noted that, while a cyber response could be appropriate, ”we need to think more broadly than just cyber... Just because someone comes at us in cyber doesn’t mean we should automatically default to, well, it’s gotta be an exact response in-kind. I think we need to think more broadly and play to our strengths as a nation.”
Russia has repeatedly denied meddling in other countries’ elections and internal politics.
“We never interfere, either in political life or in the political processes of other countries. We would also like that no one would interfere in Russia’s political life,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last Tuesday.
Both Kaine and Blumenthal pushed Rogers to discuss actions that Cyber Command or the NSA might take against Americans, especially “far-right Americans,” who “colluded with the Russians” in encouraging hacking, but the admiral deflected the issue, saying that any investigation would be under the FBI’s purview.
President Donald Trump has promised to release a new cybersecurity plan to combat Russian interference, but it hasn’t been released yet
“We’re still trying to figure out the right way forward,” Rogers admitted.