Following the Kremlin-directed cyberattacks that upended the Democratic Party last summer, then-President Barack Obama reportedly approved the use of cyberweapons targeting sensitive Russian computer systems, according to a new report from the Washington Post—one of the most comprehensive so far to describe the administration’s response to the Kremlin’s aggression.
The covert measures followed intelligence gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency from inside the Russian government that convinced Obama and his intelligence chiefs that President Vladimir Putin of Russia had personally ordered cyberattacks against the US with the intention of swaying the 2016 presidential election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Amid these attacks—now the focus of ongoing investigations at the Justice Department and in both congressional chambers—Trump repeatedly praised Putin and called for the Russian hackers to continue their assault on his rival, Hillary Clinton.
Publicly, Obama has only hinted lightly at the prospect of a cyber offensive targeting Moscow. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing some of which will not be publicized,” he said in a late-December statement, in which he unveiled sanctions against nine Russian entities and individuals. Thirty-five Russian diplomats were also ejected from the country.
The cyber operation, which continues to this day and is said to be in its early stages, reportedly involves a joint program combining members of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the US Cyber Command. Their mission is to deploy “implants” in key Russian systems, which may be “triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression,” the Post reports.
A legal review of the cyberweapons, which were developed by the NSA, determined their use would be a “proportional” response, as required under international law, to a variety of scenarios involving Russian cyberattacks targeting, for example, the next presidential election or the US power grid.
The inauguration of President Trump did nothing to hinder the evolution of this program, the Post reports. Obama’s authorization was all that was needed to carry the program forward after his presidency. To cancel the operation, Trump would need to “issue a countermanding order to stop it,” the report states.
Post sources familiar with the measures say that as of yet there’s been no attempt by Trump to stop them.