Pressure is growing on the White House to respond to Russia’s apparent hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), placing President Obama in a delicate political position.
Evidence has mounted that the Russian government was behind the theft of tens of thousands of damaging internal emails from the DNC, leading prominent lawmakers from both sides of aisle to call for some form of response.
The ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee have all issued calls for Obama to “seek justice” for the alleged attack.
But should Obama publicly point the finger at the Kremlin, it could expose covert intelligence capabilities and damage already touchy discussions over Russia’s behavior in Syria and Ukraine, experts say.
That dynamic reflects one the central challenges the White House faces in responding to cyberattacks. Without any international rules of engagement, officials must weigh a response to each attack individually.
The FBI has opened an investigation into the hack, but because of the risks, experts say, the public is unlikely to ever know the results, even if it is able to prove Russia’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Obama has a slate of possible responses at his disposal, but each carries its own set of problems.
“They are really in between a rock and a hard place. Everything they do has a downside,” said Herb Lin, a senior research scholar who studies cyber policy and security at Stanford.
Here are some of the options.
“Name and shame”
The president could publicly denounce Russia for its involvement in the hack.
But it is next to impossible to attribute any cyberattack with absolute certainty, security experts say, and the White House may be unwilling to go that far without definitive proof.
“If you’re going to name Russia, you have to really be willing to go to the mat with them,” Lin said. “You don’t get the last move. There’s no such thing as a one-move chess game.”
Even if officials had a smoking gun, it would be difficult to show it without exposing embedded operatives or drawing attention to U.S. intelligence capabilities overseas.
And like many of the options whose punitive value is largely symbolic, naming Russia risks damaging other diplomatic goals that the White House might consider more important, such as the fragile peace deal between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Naming Russia could also undermine U.S. attempts to secure Moscow’s support in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Use of offensive cyber weapons
The U.S. could hack back at Russia.
That action could take the form of a tit-for-tat cyber theft, the exposure of information important to the Russians or disrupting the command-and-control systems that the Russian hackers used to infiltrate the DNC, among other things.
But taking any offensive action against Russia in cyberspace risks escalating the conflict.
There are no formal “rules of war” governing acceptable behavior in cyberspace, making it difficult to predict how Russia will respond.
Russia is one of a handful of nations believed to be capable of causing a massive power grid blackout in the U.S.
If the U.S.’s counter strike were seen as a sufficient threat, President Vladimir Putin could decide to retaliate. Although it’s an extreme scenario, Lin notes, Russia still has a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons that could be turned on the United States.
Another consideration Obama has with a cyberattack is that it would likely be done in secret, meaning he would continue to face pressure to respond to Russia.
In April, Obama issued an executive order giving the Treasury Department the authority to impose sanctions on individuals or entities behind malicious cyberattacks and cyber espionage.
The order has yet to be used, but during negotiations over an anti-hacking pledge signed with China in September, Obama repeatedly reminded Beijing that it was at his disposal. Some policy experts credit that pressure with the successful signing of the agreement.
The White House could employ a similar tactic with Russia — either imposing sanctions or leveraging the threat of sanctions — but experts note that the U.S.’s financial ties with Russia are far shallower than its ties with China.
Because there are many sanctions already in place, the impact of such a tactic would be limited. It could anger Putin without exacting any meaningful punishment.
The U.S. could also treat the attack as a law enforcement issue.
In 2014, the U.S. issued indictments for five People’s Liberation Army officers on hacking charges.
Although the charges prevented those individuals from traveling to the U.S., they never led to extradition or arrest in China.
But the move did prompt China to walk away from cybersecurity discussions with the U.S. Beijing eventually came back to the table, but not until a year later.
Much like sanctions, indictments could simply risk Russian retaliation rather than act as a meaningful deterrent for future hacks.
One thing that Obama could do is put out a general public statement drawing a red line at attacks on the electoral system.
This would allow the administration to “deliver the message” that the hack of the DNC was unacceptable without directly calling Russia out in a public forum, some say.
But critics calling for outright retaliation are unlikely to be satisfied by an indirect response.
Perhaps the most likely response to the hack is that State Department officials will raise the issue with their Russian counterparts, something that Secretary of State John Kerry has already done.
“I raised the question, and we will continue to work to see precisely what those facts are,” Kerry said last month.
A more aggressive move would be to kick out the Russian ambassador or any Russian intelligence official that the U.S. knows is in the country.
Both the White House and the Kremlin have suggested that the hack — and whatever action the U.S. might take in response — would only be symptomatic of an already frayed diplomatic relationship.
“If, in fact, Russia engaged in this activity, it’s just one on a long list of issues that me and Mr. Putin talk about and that I’ve got a real problem with,” Obama told reporters earlier this week. “And so I don’t think that it wildly swings what is a tough, difficult relationship that we have with Russia right now.”
“We are at such a black spot in our relationship, it is unlikely that anything could make it worse,” Kremlin spokesman Demitry Peskov told The Washington Post.