What Congress is doing to stop Russian hackers next time

On Thursday, the Senate passed fresh Russian sanctions. Congress is also looking at US digital defenses and has four committees investigating Russian meddling in 2016.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/File
A general view shows the Spasskaya Tower and the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, on May 5, 2016.

In the past week, a series of dramatic congressional hearings have sought to plumb possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – or possible presidential obstruction of justice over the matter, which special counsel Robert Mueller is now reportedly investigating.

But this spotlight, while an important line of questioning into last year’s interference, overshadows other steps that Congress is taking to prevent Russian meddling in future elections. Absent an administration that is staffed up or a president inclined to go hard on Moscow, Congress is looking to define its own strategy.

“We don’t really have a Russia strategy” to prevent a repeat of election meddling, says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Congress is trying to figure out what that should be.”

Specifically, it’s looking at several areas: sanctions, what exactly Russia did in the last election and appropriate countermeasures, and US digital defenses.

New sanctions on Russia

On Thursday, the Senate took concrete action against Russian interference in the 2016 election, passing a set of Russian sanctions as part of an Iran-sanctions bill.

Among other things, Thursday’s bill codifies present sanctions against Russia relating to its actions in Ukraine and enacts new ones over Moscow’s activities in Syria and its interference in the US presidential election. It also gives Congress the ability to stop any effort by President Trump – or any president – to roll back sanctions on Russia. Trump has publicly doubted the intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the election, and lawmakers are worried he will move to roll back sanctions.

“We cannot let Russia’s meddling in our elections go unpunished, lest they ever consider such interference again,” said Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York on the Senate floor Wednesday. The bill passed by a veto-proof majority of 98-2. The House has yet to take it up, but sentiment there for Russia sanctions is strong.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on Capitol Hill this week warning against anything that would restrict the president’s “flexibility.” He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration needs to be able to turn up the heat, but also “maintain constructive dialogue.”

Mr. Lewis says that while the actual economic effect of sanctions is limited, Russians hate them – and they’re particularly painful for Russian President Vladimir Putin, says Lewis, because Mr. Putin had expected Trump to lift sanctions.

What exactly did Russia do? 

Four congressional committees are looking into various aspects of Russian interference, but the Senate and House intelligence committees have made it their mission to find out what exactly Russia did.

Yes, they are looking at the collusion and obstruction questions, but they are also fact-finding on the election meddling, and are expected to produce reports that summarize their findings and make policy recommendations.

“Time’s a wastin,’ ” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, speaking to reporters this week. The next election is less than 18 months away.

On the Senate side, members of the committee express confidence that they can finish their work in time to make a difference in those midterm elections. But some members of the committee say their work is already having a positive effect.

“Just the public hearings and the public conversation already gets the attention of the states,” says Sen. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma. One of the problems last year was that “no one exposed it early.”

The senator, walking briskly to this week’s hearing with Attorney General Sessions, says his committee’s policy recommendations are going to be “exceptionally important.” Will it be able to resolve tensions over the role of the federal government in state-administered elections?

“What happens when the FBI comes to an entity and says, ‘You have a problem,’ and they say ‘I don’t,’ ” he asks. “Because that’s happened in the past.”

Defending against hacking

Members of Congress are working to clarify the rules of the game when it comes to digital meddling and waging cyber attacks.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota is heading up a new Senate Armed Services committee panel that will examine how the Defense Department responds to digital tumult – and what level of attack constitutes cyber warfare. The US is still establishing a system to coordinate how and when government agencies respond to digital attacks that don’t cause physical damage or death.

After last year’s election campaign, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson labeled election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. That would allow US government funding to go to protecting vote tabulation systems, voter registration databases, and voting machines from digital attack – though this raises federal-state questions.

Indeed, Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, says there is “not the bipartisan will there yet” to strengthen the infrastructure of voting at the state and local level and invest in a new generation of voting machines.

Meanwhile, top defense officials say the US military is boosting its preparedness for dealing with cyber attacks – efforts made possible by congressional funding.

On Tuesday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told senators this week that 70 percent of the Defense Department’s 133 cyber mission teams – tasked with penetrating and disrupting foreign networks – were ready to be deployed in cyberspace.

Defense Secretary James Mattis also testified that the agency is on track to elevate the status of Cyber Command – the US military’s top offensive hacking unit – to a unified combatant command, giving elite cyberwarriors a direct line to the Pentagon’s brass.

There’s growing evidence that suspected Russian digital interference, which includes hacks, leaks, and fake news that US intelligence agencies say aimed to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, was even more extensive than previously understood.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Russian hackers managed to infiltrate voter databases and software systems in 39 states. And National Security Agency documents leaked to The Intercept last week indicated that a Moscow-based intelligence agency may have attacked a company that provides voting-management software in several US states. 

The scope of the threat is leading Pentagon officials to analyze defensive vulnerabilities in their systems. In Senate testimony, Mr. Mattis confirmed that the agency is working on a broad strategy to counter digital threats from Russia, and is honing intelligence and cyberdefensive capabilities ahead of its release.

But even as Congress and defense officials consider this challenge, Lewis warns that Moscow may already be moving on to Plan B.

“They may think up a new set of tactics, realizing, it worked once and everybody knows about it. They need a new bag of tricks.”

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