US, Russia in ‘highly consequential war of ideas’

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For Russia, cyber is a no-brainer tool in exacting its desired effects in a “highly consequential war of ideas,” according to a panel of current and former government personnel. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., offered that the U.S. is not engaged in a new Cold War, but a battle of ideas pitting authoritarians against democracy.

Schiff, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, made his remarks at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on Wednesday, noting that with autocracy on the march, Russia has demonstrated a clear propagation of this model to tear down democracy in Europe and the U.S. as evidenced by the alleged recent influence operation in the 2016 presidential election.

Schiff called cyber a “wonderfully asymmetric weapon,” as it is easy to take an offensive approach but can be expensive to go on the defense. In comparison to tangible weaponry, cyber is cheap, and it can be done remotely and affords some level of deniability.

As part of this war of ideas, Russia is trying to weaken the rules-based order the U.S. and European partners have worked to build over the past 70 years through participation in the European Union, NATO and the United Nations, according to Julianne Smith, senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Speaking during a panel discussion following Schiff’s remarks, Smith said Russia is trying to weaken this order while simultaneously trying to divide European nations from each other and the U.S.

As indicated in the report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) about the alleged Russian influence operation in the U.S., Smith said Russia uses the media to create alternative news and fictitious narratives to sow discord and discredit institutions; the Putin administration has directly supported funding for RT, formerly Russia Today. She said the ways in which the U.S. is trying to counter these efforts are dwarfed by comparison because of a lack of U.S. innovation.

Rand Beers, former deputy homeland security adviser to the president and former acting secretary of homeland security, said during the panel that Russia poses the greatest threat to the U.S. in cyberspace. In parsing a U.S. approach to both understanding and dealing with the Russian cyberthreat, it is important to delineate the relationship between Russian organized crime — which is a reportedly a major entity within Russia — to the Russian state.

Russia has allegedly outsourced cyber probing to proxies. Currently, the country is not cooperating with the U.S. in criminal investigations involving data breaches against U.S.-based companies found to have been propagated from within Russia’s borders, Beers said. If the Russians aren’t prepared to cooperate, Beers added, how can the U.S. separate Russian organized crime and the Russian state? Beers believes this is how the focus on Russia, in regard to cyberspace, should be approached.

Schiff said he believes Congress should conduct an investigation into exactly what Russia did as it relates to the recently reported influence operation: What did Russia do? What vectors did Russia use to attack American democracy? Are there other vectors Russia used to affect American democracy?

In a joint statement on Jan. 25 from Schiff and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking member and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively, the two congressmen discussed priorities for an ongoing inquiry into “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.”

The inquiry will address:

  • Russian cyber activity and other “active measures” directed against the U.S. and its allies.
  • Counterintelligence concerns in regard to Russia and the 2016 U.S. election.
  • The United States’ response to Russian activities and its impact on intelligence relationships and alliances.
  • Possible leaks of classified information related to this matter.

When the Obama administration made its public attribution against Russia and many subsequently debated the responses, Schiff said he advocated for working with European partners to exact sanctions on Russia. He also believes there should be a “clandestine response” to Russia, demonstrating the U.S. can respond in cyberspace, though he later clarified the U.S. doesn’t need to do tit-for-tat cyber responses.

Schiff recounted the letter he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent to then-President Obama urging for a public attribution of Russia. The importance of a public attribution, he said, was that it is in the national interest and it could have been done without disclosing sensitive sources and methods, as the Russians are surely reverse engineering everything from the unclassified ODNI report to see how the U.S. knows what it knows.

He said the U.S. must do more in terms of offense as well as establish a deterrent in cyberspace. He said he was vocal about the Sony hack by North Korea because he felt a lack of response could be a damaging message to enemies, showing that cyber is a low-cost, easy way to attack the United States