Biden hints at US cyber revenge on Russia
US vice-president Joe Biden has suggested the Obama administration may launch a retaliatory cyber strike against Russia in response to what Washington believes to be interference by Moscow in this year’s election.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press to be broadcast on Sunday morning, Mr Biden said that “we’re sending a message” to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the election-related hacking. “He’ll know it.”
“We have the capacity to do it. It will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact,” he told NBC.
This week the White House said the US would respond in a “proportional” way to the attempt to interfere in the election and that sanctions and covert action were under consideration.
Mr Biden’s interview is the clearest hint that the administration will seek to use its own offensive cyber capabilities to retaliate. Asked if the public would ever find out about the nature of the US response, he said: “Hope not.”
“Their capacity to fundamentally alter the election is not what people think,” Mr Biden said. “And I tell you what, to the extent that they do we will be proportional in what we do.”
The fact Mr Biden is talking so cryptically about US retaliation underlines one of the main difficulties the administration faces in mounting a response. One of the objectives would be to deter Russia or any other country from attempting to use cyber attacks to undermine US elections, yet the deterrent impact of any operation would be limited if it were kept completely secret.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now exiled in Moscow, poked fun at this contradiction, noting on Twitter: “I get the feeling nobody told Joe Biden what “covert operation” means.”
The vice-president’s comments follow the formal claim last week by the US intelligence community that Russia was behind the publication of thousands of election-related emails that have been hugely embarrassing to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow,” said the Department of Homeland Security and Director of National Intelligence on Election Security in a joint statement, noting that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorised these activities”.
Some former officials have suggested the US could make public financial information and emails collected by US intelligence that would be embarrassing to Russian leaders.
Writing in Foreign Policy, former Nato supreme allied commander James Stavridis said the US should reveal the names of the Russian officials involved in “hacking of the American political system” and should also use cyber attacks to weaken Russian censorship of the internet, creating more room for criticism of Mr Putin and for political opposition.
“As a response to the Russian attacks on the US democratic system, this would be both proportional and distinctive,” Mr Stavridis wrote.
Michael Morrell, former deputy director of the CIA, said on Friday that Mr Putin was using the selective leaks of emails from Democratic officials to benefit Republican candidate Donald Trump.
“I am 100 per cent confident that he is aware of all this, he has approved it, he is directing it. This is Putin. This not some bureaucratic part of the Russian government,” he said on a call organised by the Clinton campaign.
Mr Morell said it was “a huge, huge deal” for the US intelligence community to publicly blame Russia for the hacking.