WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Saturday contradicted his foreign minister and other top officials, suggesting without evidence that China – not Russia – might be behind the cyberattack against the United States and attempted to minimize its impact.
In his initial comments on the violation, Trump scoffed at the focus on the Kremlin and downplayed the intrusions that the country’s cybersecurity agency warned posed a “serious” risk to state and private networks.
“The cyber hack is far greater in the fake news media than it is in reality. I was fully informed and everything is well under control, “tweeted Trump. He also claimed the media was “petrified” “debating the possibility that it could be (it could be!) China”.
The cyber hack is far bigger in the fake news media than it is in reality. I have been fully informed and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the primary chant when something happens because Lamestream is petrified of … for mostly financial reasons.
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2020
There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Friday that Russia was “pretty clear” behind the cyberattack against the United States.
“This was a very significant effort and I think it is the case that we can now say quite clearly that it was the Russians who took part in this activity,” he said in an interview with the presenter of the radio Talk show, Mark Levin.
White House officials had agreed to issue a statement Friday afternoon accusing Russia of being “the main actor” in the hack, but were asked to resign at the last minute, a US official familiar with the talks spoke at the press conference Condition of anonymity through private consultations.
It’s not clear whether Pompeo received this news prior to his interview, but officials are now trying to figure out how to balance the different accounts. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the testimony or the basis of Trump’s claims.
During his presidency, Trump has refused to hold Russia responsible for well-documented hostilities, including meddling in the 2016 election to aid him in the election. He accused his predecessor Barack Obama of annexing Crimea by Russia, advocated Russia’s return to the G7 group of states and never brought the country to justice for allegedly imposing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Pompeo said in an interview that the government is still “unpacking” the cyberattack and part of it is likely to remain secret.
“Suffice it to say, however, that significant efforts have been made to use third-party software to essentially embed code within US government systems, and it now appears that private companies and corporations and governments around the world have systems” , he said .
Although Pompeo was the first Trump administration official to publicly hold Russia responsible for the attacks, it was clear to cybersecurity experts and other US officials last week that the operation appears to be Russia’s job. There was no credible evidence that any other country, including China, was responsible.
Democrats in Congress, who have received classified briefings, have also publicly confirmed that Russia, which hacked the State Department in 2014 and hacked in the 2016 presidential election, was behind it.
It’s not clear what the hackers were looking for, but experts say it could include nuclear secrets, blueprints for advanced weapons, research related to COVID-19 vaccines, and information for dossiers on government and industry leaders.
Russia has said it has “nothing to do with the hacking”.
Federal agencies compromised
While Trump downplayed the impact of the hacks, the agency for cybersecurity and infrastructure security has said it put federal agencies and “critical infrastructure” at risk. Homeland Security, the agency’s parent company, defines such infrastructure as a “vital” asset to the US or its economy, a broad category that could include power plants and financial institutions.
A US official, who spoke on Thursday about a matter of investigation on condition of anonymity, described the hack as serious and extremely harmful.
“This appears to be the worst hacking case in American history,” the official said. “You got involved in everything.”
Trump had been silent about the attacks before Saturday.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Brian Morgenstern declined to discuss the matter on Friday, but told reporters that National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien sometimes had multiple daily meetings with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community to look for ways to mitigate the hack.
“Rest assured we have the best and brightest who work hard every day,” he said.
Democratic leaders of four House committees who received government classified information about the hack have complained that they were “left with more questions than answers.”
“Administration officials were unwilling to share the full scope of the violation and the identity of the victims,” they said.
Pompeo said in an interview with Levin that Russia is on the list of “people who want to undermine our way of life, our republic, our basic democratic principles. … You are watching the news of the day regarding your efforts in cyberspace. We have seen this for a very long time and have used asymmetric skills to put ourselves in a place where they can impose a cost on the United States. “
18,000 organizations infected
What makes this hacking campaign so special is its size: 18,000 companies were infected with malicious code from March to June based on popular network management software from a company called SolarWinds in Austin, Texas.
It will take months to kick elite hackers from the US government networks that have been quietly rummaging through them since March.
Experts say there simply aren’t enough skilled threat detection teams to properly identify all government and private systems that may have been hacked. FireEye, the cybersecurity company that discovered the intrusion into US authorities and was among the victims, has already claimed dozens of victims. It’s about identifying more.
Many federal employees – and others in the private sector – have to assume that unclassified networks are full of spies. Agencies will be more inclined to conduct sensitive government business using Signal, WhatsApp and other encrypted smartphone apps.
If the hackers are actually from the Russian secret service SVR, as experts believe, their resistance may be stubborn.
The only way to make sure a network is clean is to “burn it down and rebuild it,” said Bruce Schneier, a noted security expert and Harvard official.
Florida became the first state to acknowledge being a victim of a SolarWinds hack. Officials told The Associated Press that hackers appeared to have infiltrated the state health authority and others.
SolarWinds’ customers include most of the Fortune 500 and the US government’s customers are rich in generals and spy masters.
Contributors to this report were associate press writers Frank Bajak in Boston, Eric Tucker in Washington, and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida.