How not to respond to Russian cyber meddling

Let’s say you’re Vladimir Putin and your agents caused hacking of the emails of John Podesta and the DNC. If U.S. intelligence officials concluded that you were responsible for the hacking, what reaction would you want from the U.S. government?

My guess is that Putin would want the U.S. to be reacting just about the way it is now. He would want the president officially to accuse Russia of meddling in our elections. He would want a chorus of leading Democrats to do the same thing. He would want at least a few prominent Republican Senators to express concern. And he would want a high profile congressional investigation.

Why? Because it increases Putin’s prestige if the world believes he has the ability to hack leading Democrats. It increases his prestige even more if top U.S. political figures, including the president, ascribe to him the ability to influence the American presidential election.

Putin also accrues an advantage if Americans lose faith in the integrity of our electoral process. And the longer the story stays front and center, e.g., thanks to high-profile congressional hearings, the bigger these advantages become.

What’s the risk to Putin from the way things are playing out? The only significant one I can think of is that the U.S. might retaliate.

But Putin can easily discount this risk. As far as we know, President Obama has taken no meaningful action against Russia in response to its cyber attacks, and he is now a lame duck. President-elect Trump seems unlikely to retaliate because, it appears, he wants to start off his relationship with Russia on a positive note.

Nor does Trump seem willing to acknowledge Russia meddling in the election, notwithstanding the CIA’s view (or the view of some in the CIA) that the Russians meddled. Therein lies another possible advantage to Putin from the way things are playing out. He may drive a wedge between Trump and the CIA, such that Trump doesn’t trust that agency going forward. Already, Trump is publicly bashing the Agency over the Russian hacking issue.

How should the U.S. government respond to evidence of Russian hacking related to the 2016 election? Quietly and within the context of a broader inquiry into Russian cyber-intrusions.

Silence from the Executive Branch isn’t possible now. The administration’s friends within the intelligence agencies seem eager to talk with reporters about Russian hacking. But once Trump is president and his team is in place, it may be possible to investigate Russian cyber attacks while minimizing leaks designed to reinforce the Democrats’ election-driven narrative.

Silence on the Hill is probably impossible to achieve, but the decibel level can be reduced. If Congress investigates, the investigation should occur under regular order with regular committees, not through a special committee — always a recipe for attention grabbing. The investigation should encompass the full range of Russian cyber-threats. And it should occur mainly, if not entirely, in closed session.

Above all, if the investigation confirms Russian misconduct, serious consequences must follow. The Russians have to pay a price.

The consequences need not consist of retaliatory cyber attacks. There are other ways to injure Russia.

The retaliatory steps need not be made public. The key thing is that Russia (and other nations that are attacking us in cyber-space) know what we’ve done and why.

Right now, though, we seem to have the worst policy possible — play up Putin’s role in our election and decline to do anything about it. In short, whine loudly and carry no stick.

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