Politico reports that the Trump White House is considering eliminating the top cybersecurity position within the administration. The push to drop cyber from the list of top concerns comes from new National Security Advisor John Bolton, who apparently views cyber warfare as considerably less threatening than the kind he prefers to encourage. Instead, the position may simply be absorbed as another function of one of Bolton’s assistants, moving cyber security concerns several notches down in importance.
Bolton is apparently all in favor of this idea, even though earlier this week the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia had conducted an “unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign” against the nation’s voting infrastructure. One in which Russia actually had the ability to change voter rolls, though it doesn’t appear that they took advantage of that ability. Yet. That vulnerability has so far not been completely addressed.
But, as Russian media analyst Julia Davis reports, the feeling about cyber warfare is very different on the side that is winning this conflict. While Russian’s English-speaking media concentrates on attempting to defuse stories about cyber warfare and either downplay or outright disown reports of Russian actions, the story that Russia tell to Russians loudly proclaims the country’s lead in cyber security issues and touts their ability to carry out operations that the West cannot stop.
Davis writes that Russia has been talking about their cyber warfare efforts within Russia for years, turning it into a matter of national pride. This includes not just the ability of Russian hackers to penetrate U.S. security, but Russia’s continued success in planting genuinely fake news stories in U.S. media and launching simulated news sites that push false stories to social media. On the Russian side, these aren’t things that are denied—they are points of pride.
In the meantime, the West is lagging far behind, having been caught unprepared for the onslaught of the fake news, encompassing a wide variety of topics, from Ebola to the election.
And the Trump White House, which has repeatedly rejected even the idea that Russian intrusion into the 2016 election was categorically different from previous efforts, seemed determined that America, at least, will remain far behind, and subject to even greater attacks.
In January, the Associated Press reported that Russia was already targeting its cyber warfare tools on the 2018 Senate elections. That included the deployment of the same Russian hacking team—many of them now under indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller—that worked to disrupt the 2016 election. Just as they supported Donald Trump in that election, Russians are moving to support Republican Senate candidates in 2018. With multiple races expected to be decided on a very narrow basis, it will be more difficult than ever to police these races for targeted distribution of false stories, ads designed to split the electorate on racial and social lines, and to detect genuine disenfranchisement of voters through alteration of the voter rolls.
In March, it was revealed that Russian hacking had even included intrusions into the US power grid, including nuclear facilities—a threat had long been suspected, but which the FBI has now confirmed.
However, the perception that Russian intrusion helps Republicans may go a long way toward explaining why Bolton and team are so ready to devalue defense against cyber attacks. While former members of the Obama administration have called the loss of a high level position dedicated to cyber security an open threat to the nation, Bolton and others at the Trump White House seem more than willing to accept that risk.
The current cybersecurity coordinator, Rob Joyce, is a rare commodity on the Trump team—a well-respected expert with years of experience in the field. But statements from Trump have continued to dismiss the idea of Russia involvement, no matter how many times the issue is raised by intelligence agencies or how dire the threat appeared. But Joyce is leaving, and no replacement has been named.
Expectation are that the functions of the position will, in the short term at least, devolve to Josh Steinman, a senior aide still in place from Michael Flynn’s stint as NSA. Steinman, despite lacking any expertise in the area, has been highly critical of Joyce and seems to be angling to not just capture his area, but critical of efforts to raise barriers against the actions that Russia took in 2016.