Cyber War vs. Russia: Did We Or Didn’t We?

The New York Times reported yesterday, in an anonymously sourced article attributed to “current and former national security officials,” that the U.S. has planted malware designed to attack power plants and other infrastructure into Russia’s power grid:

The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.

In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.

Advocates of the more aggressive strategy said it was long overdue, after years of public warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. that Russia has inserted malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies in any future conflict with the United States.

Normally one assumes that leaks from the intelligence and defense agencies come from Democratic Party sources who are hostile to the Trump administration and are trying to undermine it. But this story doesn’t seem to fit that pattern, as noted below.

Last night, President Trump denounced the Times report, via Twitter:

So Trump unequivocally says the Times report is false. The Times helpfully anticipated the president’s reaction by including in its story the suggestion that he may not be aware of the cyber intrusions:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid.

Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

It is hard to know what to make of this episode. The overall theme of the Times story, that the U.S. is becoming more aggressive in conducting cyber warfare against our enemies, or preparing to do so, is undoubtedly true. The story cites Congressional and executive actions intended to bring about a more aggressive cyber posture, and responsible officials like John Bolton and Gen. Paul Nakasone have been open, if vague, about our stepped-up offensive cyber capabilities. And I assume the Trump administration wants our adversaries to know that we are no longer asleep at the switch, as we apparently were during the Obama years. At the same time, Russia’s software capabilities are at least equal to ours, and I doubt that actions directed at Russia have remained secret for long.

But Trump’s furious reaction suggests that something else may be going on. The idea that the Department of Defense would have conducted offensive operations against Russia without telling the president is ridiculous, I think. So why did Trump emphatically deny that we are “substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia”? Perhaps the Times story disclosed some detail about our efforts that would not have been known to the Russians. That would explain Trump’s reaction, but reviewing the story, I don’t see anything specific enough to qualify. And the Times story includes this:

Officials at the National Security Council also declined to comment but said they had no national security concerns about the details of The New York Times’s reporting about the targeting of the Russian grid, perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians.

Maybe this really is a case where Trump, justifiably enraged by the leaks that the Times and other newspapers have published for years, flew off the handle and tweeted something that wasn’t true and served no apparent purpose. But in that case, it is hard to understand the vehemence of the president’s reaction–“This is a virtual act of Treason.” The Times lies about President Trump just about every day, and often has published leaks that compromised national security. So why the outrage over this seemingly innocuous story?

I confess that I don’t get it.