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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: DNC hack requires swift, forceful response from Washington

President Obama and other Western leaders need to send a strong and lasting message to Moscow that meddling in democratic institutions is off limits.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Kremlin on July 14.
    Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters
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The question isn't whether Russia tried to influence the American presidential elections, it's what the US should do about it? 

As The New York Times and others have reported, key cybersecurity companies and the Intelligence Community are convinced that Russian intelligence services stole reams of emails and other documents from the Democratic National Committee.

It's not yet as crystal clear that Russian spies leaked those emails as part of a covert action to influence the US election. But the White House still needs contingency plans in case it proves to be true – and I suspect it will be.

Recommended: Meet Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, Russian groups blamed for DNC hack

President Obama should start with a series of brushback pitches to show Russian President Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services that US democracy is off limits. Perhaps because of his KGB background, Mr. Putin appears to see such interference as normal. We must convince him it's not.

This starts with the Obama administration demystifying the technical evidence that led the US to pin the hack on Russia. To free the president’s hands for more strident actions, the American people and political elites must see this not as election-year partisanship but share outrage over an attack on democracy.  

Especially with Donald Trump actually egging on Russia to release more of Hillary Clinton's emails, the president must be clear this is not about partisanship but defense – almost literally – of our constitutional system of government.

Fortunately, the media hasn't portrayed the DNC hack as a "cyber" story and buried in tech sections. Instead, it's splashed on front pages. Still, the president should consider declassifying some intelligence to help convince the electorate that our constitutional system is under attack.

With this kind of foundation, the president and his national security team have more leverage for a mix of public and private statements calling out Putin’s actions.

But words aren't enough. The US probably won't have enough good evidence to bring indictments against the Russian cyber operators who are responsible, which has been a tactic that seems to have reduced Chinese espionage.

The US could pursue financial or other sanctions even though similar international punishment following Russia's actions in Ukraine didn't significantly change Moscow's behavior. One option is to expel Russian diplomats (who may actually be intelligence officers) though that wouldn't be enough.

Cyber Command now has teams ready to disrupt adversary operations. The president should command them to develop options and be ready immediately for a close-in fight with the Russian espionage teams.

The US national security team must instead rely on the tool bag of covert actions against Putin and his cronies. Such secret operations may be the only way to convince him of the power of US demands. Maybe a Moscow version of the Panama Papers is in order?

The administration must also enlist other Western capitals in its response to Moscow. With important elections coming up in France and Germany, the West should be unified in its message that tampering with elections is a direct attack on democracy (even if it is an expectation in Russia).

There are also larger security issues leading up to Election Day. What if Putin's intelligence operatives try to change votes at the polling sites before they are tallied? Our voting machines, polling sites, and state election authorities are hardly secure enough to thwart even modestly talented hackers.

In Ukraine, hackers broke into the Central Election Commission to tamper with voting results in the electoral database – yet another incident traced to Russia. Various Latin American parties paid one talented hacker was to steal campaign strategies and sabotage opponents.

If the election is close, could Putin push enough votes so that Mr. Trump – not Mrs. Clinton – wins? With rival nations tampering with US elections, the travails of Bush v. Gore would seem trivial: just the kind of pot-stirring that Putin loves.

To bolster digital security at the polls, President Obama should task his Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity to examine steps to make voting harder to hack. Already, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Verified Voting, and others have strong ideas for improving security at the polls.

He should also work with Congress for an emergency grant to states to bolster their cyber defenses. Representative Jim Langevin (D) would be an excellent ally for this effort, as a founding member of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus as former Rhode Island’s Secretary of State, overseeing that state’s elections.

If anything, the DNC email breach reveals that hackers are now able to infiltrate and attack our constitutional government. For all of us who have ever pledged to protect the Constitution, it's time for unity against this threat whether you're a Democrat or a Republican.

This attack makes previous ones such as the Office of Personnel Management breach carried out by China or North Korea's assault on Sony Pictures seem like mosquito bites. This one is a bear attack. And because of that, Washington's response must be swift and forceful. 

Jason Healey is senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Healey.

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