Politics

No White House Order to Combat Russia, Cybercom Chief Says

Third administration official says Trump has given no guidance on countering interference

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, says he has received no directive from the president to counter Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Russia hasn’t been sufficiently penalized for its meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and that has emboldened Moscow to continue interfering in American elections, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

“They haven’t paid a price sufficient to change their behavior,” Rogers said under questioning by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Though the United States has taken some actions, including imposing additional sanctions, and while special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has indicted more than a dozen Russians for their role in the interference, “it hasn’t changed the calculus,” Rogers said, adding that “it hasn’t generated the change in behavior that we all know we need.”

In another exchange with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Rogers said Russian President Vladimir Putin has probably come to the conclusion “that there’s little price to pay here, so I can continue the activity” of meddling.

Rogers confirmed that Moscow is in fact currently engaged in cyber operations against U.S. election systems. When asked by Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, whether Cyber Command could be tasked by President Donald Trump with disrupting the Russian efforts, Rogers said it could be but hasn’t.

Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, said he hadn’t been asked for any recommendations on how Cyber Command could thwart Russian efforts.

Rogers is one of the administration’s top cyber experts and the third senior administration official in recent days to tell lawmakers that Trump has not specifically asked U.S. intelligence agencies or the FBI to stop Russia from interfering in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Two weeks ago, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that they had received no specific orders from the Trump White House on deterring Moscow.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

Rogers said the American response to Russian meddling need not be limited to a tit-for-tat in cyberspace. “Be mindful of the trap that just because someone comes at us in cyber, we have to default to immediately going back and doing the exact same thing,” Rogers said.

The U.S. can use other tools such as economic sanctions, Rogers said. But committee Democrats argued that the Trump administration hasn’t used those tools effectively either. The administration has yet to fully implement the additional sanctions against Russia that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year.

Rogers is finishing his term as the head of Cyber Command this spring, and the Trump administration has nominated Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone to replace him. The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing for Nakasone on Thursday.

The command is in the process of becoming a standalone unit after operating under the aegis of the U.S. Strategic Command since its inception in 2009. The command will also split from the National Security Agency, with which it has been joined at the hip. Once independent, Cyber Command will become the tenth U.S. combatant command.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been urging the Pentagon to expand Cyber Command’s mission so it can take on the full spectrum of threats and challenges posed by adversaries.

“While our adversaries are freely conducting information operations, Cyber Command is still predominantly designed to conduct technical operations to either defend or attack computer systems — to sustain or impede the functioning of computers and networks,” Reed said in his opening remarks at Tuesday’s hearing. “It is not built to deal with the content of the information flowing through cyberspace, with the cognitive dimension of information warfare.”

While the Cyber Command has made some headway in holding off the Islamic State’s online propaganda and recruitment efforts, it “still has a long way to go, and must also focus on the strategic level of engagement, not merely on operational-tactical support to engaged forces,” Reed said.

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