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Executive Summary

The U.S. Cyber Command Division recently launched cyber operations to neutralize threats of foreign entity interference in the U.S. elections. This was in response to the much publicized 2016 Russian interference in the U.S. elections that saw some members of the Russian spy chief GRU interdicted, ridiculed, and deported. The U.S. is not only facing cyber-attack threats from Russia, China and Iran also have interests in the U.S. elections. China specifically has interests in intellectual property while Iran might be interested in retaliatory attacks and vulnerability assessments. Various security experts agree that sending a message to Russia that America is aware of their actions and is closely watching them is a big deal. Coming just after president Trump’s executive order NSPM 13 which allows top security agencies to launch medium attacks without a chain of command, this is a move in the right direction that will ensure that America is safe and secure from foreign interference.

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The Pentagon recently launched cyber operations to deter Russian interference in the midterm elections. The US security agencies and policymakers have expressed concerns about foreign interference in the US elections. This comes against the backdrop of the alleged 2016 Russian interference in the US election, an issue which is still under investigation. The Cyber Command Division has made it expressly clear that they will not entertain Russian interference in the elections. The command had deployed a special military unit that was responsible for offensive cyber attacks and hacking in case Russians attempt infiltrating the U.S. elections. This operation is the first under a new presidential order easing restriction on offensive cyberspace actions against external entities and represents Cyber Commands initial step to safeguarding the integrity of the U.S. elections. Presidents Trump’s security adviser John Bolton, while speaking in Moscow indicated that they considered Russian interference intolerable and as an act of aggression.

Reports further indicate that the U.S. is facing other adversaries apart from Russia. The recently launched cyber operations were meant to protect the U.S. from other countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea. The U.S. faces adversaries on various fronts and making sure that everything is working is a great way to deterring any potential attack. More specifically, the offensive cyber warfare was also directed to China. China is specifically interested in trade wars by stealing copyright information and innovations. The U.S. has expressed concerns that Chinese operatives have often attempted to compromise industry systems to steal intellectual property. Chinese attempts to steal intellectual property is one of the challenges facing the American commerce industry. In the past, there have been increased cases of hacking of company websites and information. The information obtained is normally used for fraudulent purposes such as blackmailing. However, the recently launched operations indicated that these concerns are under its spectrum, making it known that China will also be under strict surveillance. According to Nakasone, the U.S. military must be able to compete below the level of armed conflict. And with the great power competition amongst the three countries, there is a need for preparation for any aggression.

Various security experts agree that sending a message to Russia that America is aware of their actions and is closely watching them is a big deal. For instance, the premise of the operation was to send a message to Russia that in case they continue meddling in U.S. activities, then they become targets of American indictments and sanctions. For instance, in the recent past, the U.S. has indicted and imposed sanctions on Russian operatives who were hell-bent on undermining the America political system. Officers with the Russian spy agency, GRU, and individuals of the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, which is a troll firm operated by an oligarch close to Putin, have faced the fate. The justice department also recently charged a Russian woman for interfering in the US elections. These semi-covert messages are essential in injecting fear and friction in the Russian covert operations. These operations come after Presidents Trump’s executive order on Cyberspace operations, national security Presidential Memorandum 13 (NSPM 13) which reduced the layers required to launch offensive attacks against an aggressing body in case security officials deemed so. This conflicts with the Obama era strategies that required the approval of such attacks to be made by the Whitehouse.

Under the new directive, the Defense Secretary James Matis and Director of the National Intelligence Dan Coats have the powers to approve retaliatory strikes without having the approval of the Whitehouse or others in the government. However, one of the key takeaways of the new directive is that military operatives can prepare for cyber strikes, as required for in interagency agreements in advice, by accessing computer systems of the potential attacker before orders are given to attack or before a foreign operative has attacked. This makes it easier for the military to neutralize malware in the host computer systems when a directive is given to proceed with the attacks. Previous military operations were reluctant to accessing information about potential attackers in that such information could compromise spy operations. Additionally, there were only a handful of military professionals with information about hacking.

The new executive order will make it easier for the U.S. to prepare for any form of cyber attack, which has grown in its use and scope in the recent past. Directives by former president Obama allowed for emergency defensive actions by heads of various U.S. agencies, but response required a protracted process for premeditated deployment of cyber weapons. Major attacks were required to be approved by the president while other smaller attacks required the coordination of three committees, including the National Security Council Deputies Committee, and Principals Committee. Military officials have often expressed concerns that such committee is not related to the issue of cyber-attacks, and that the slow intervention process could compromise the security of U.S. interests. The Department of Defense often expressed concerns when the Transportation agency or any other unrelated agency would weigh into their operations, implying that the DOD was often hamstrung in its operations. However, with the new directive that has seen the launch of cyber defense operations, it is now easier for security agencies to counteract threats against the U.S.

  • Fryer-Biggs, Z. (2018). The Pentagon has prepared a cyber-attack against Russia. The Center for Public Integrity. Retrieved from https://www.publicintegrity.org/2018/11/02/22421/pentagon-has-prepared-cyber-attack-against-russia
  • Hennigan, W. (2018). Has the U.S. Done Enough to Stop Foreign Election Meddling? Time.
  • Nakashima, E. (2018). Pentagon launches first cyber operation to deter Russian interference in midterm elections. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-launches-first-cyber-operation-to-deter-russian-interference-in-midterm-elections/2018/10/23/12ec6e7e-d6df-11e8-83a2-d1c3da28d6b6_story.html?utm_term=.17cf67120ecb
  • The Independent. (2018). Midterms 2018: Pentagon launches first cyber operation to fight Russian interference in elections. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/midterms-2018-election-russia-hacking-cyber-security-trump-john-bolton-putin-trolls-a8598911.html

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