Task Force Urges Trump to Develop Better Cyber Deterrent

New administration challenged to confront Russia, China in cyber space

Donald Trump
• January 5, 2017 3:50 pm


Donald Trump's administration needs to develop new policies to better deter and respond to nation-states engaging in hostile behavior in cyber space, according to a task force on cyber security at a U.S. foreign policy think tank.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies' task force on cyber policy, chaired by Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), released a comprehensive set of recommendations on Thursday for the incoming administration to better deal with cyber espionage, crime, and attacks amid rising concerns over hacking threats from Russia, China, and other foreign nations.

The task force recommended that Trump's administration develop a new international strategy to adjust to the current global security environment in which Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are increasingly looking to cyber space to target the United States. The incoming administration must also focus more on reducing and controlling cyber crime and raising the costs of launching cyber attacks on the United States, in addition to securing critical infrastructure to prevent hostile actors from exploiting vulnerabilities, the report stated.

The task force noted that the Obama administration has made "uneven progress" on the issue of cyber security and that nation-states and hostile actors have grown more skilled in hacking and more willing to exploit cyber vulnerabilities.

"There has been an erosion of American influence and the arrival of assertive challengers. Russia's use of cyber as an instrument of state power is impressive and worrying," the task force said. "Significant incidents—such as North Korea's and Iran's hacks against Sony and the Sands Casino, and the Chinese hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)—reflect a growing willingness to use cyber tools against us."

"Our cyber opponents have found ways around American deterrence as it is currently implemented," the report states. "Few companies or agencies can prevent, or even detect, efforts by our most advanced opponents to gain access to their networks. At the same time, Russian active measures in cyber space show that vulnerabilities can be exploited for more than the theft of data."

The task force, also chaired by cyber security experts Karen Evans and Sameer Bhalotra, recommends that the new administration consider organizational improvements at government agencies, including by strengthening the Department of Homeland Security's focus on cyber–possibly by making cyber security an independent operational component agency at the department, like Customs and Border Patrol.

The new White House also needs to bolster its system for managing cyber security policy and decisions, the task force recommended, and appoint a cyber security coordinator to advise Trump as an assistant to the president.

The task force's report was released the same day that intelligence community leaders testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on foreign cyber threats and addressed shortcomings of the Obama administration's policies for deterring and responding to cyber aggression.

"The Russians are a peer competitor in cyber. If you look broadly beyond the Russians to cyber at large, the level of capability of nation-states and actors around the world continues to increase," Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, said in response to questions from Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.).

"I can't think of a single significant actor out there who is either decreasing their level of investment or getting worse in their trade craft or capability," Rogers said.

Marcel Lettre, the current undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the government has more work to do on cyber deterrence and response to cyber attacks.

"We have a lot more work to do to put the right deterrence and response framework in place on cyber," Lettre said. "This is somewhat of a new domain of operations and in some cases warfare, and in my personal opinion the next administration would be well-served to focus very early on those questions and continuing to develop our overarching policy, a comprehensive approach and an increasingly robust and refined deterrence framework."

Lawmakers largely focused on the recent conclusions of the intelligence community that Russia directed cyber attacks on U.S. individuals and organizations, including political institutions, in order to influence the 2016 presidential election. Intelligence officials are preparing to release a report on the investigation into the attacks next week, after briefing President Obama, President-elect Donald Trump, and Congress on the findings.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate panel that the investigation found that Russia waged a "multi-faceted campaign" to influence the election, which also involved propaganda, disinformation, and so-called "fake news."

The intelligence community first accused Russia in October of directing cyber attacks to meddle in the presidential election. The Obama administration retaliated against Russia last week for the hacking, announcing sanctions on state entities and individuals and expelling Russian intelligence operatives from the United States.

Some lawmakers including McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, have criticized the Obama administration's lack of responses to cyber aggression from Russia and China.

"I am pleased to see the Obama administration is finally responding to Russian meddling, including by sanctioning key operatives and expelling Russian spies from the United States. But these actions are long overdue," McCaul said last week. " I have urged the administration to respond to the election-related hacks, and for years I have pressed them to stand up to Russia and other cyber intruders. Instead, President Obama's ‘look-the-other-way' foreign policy has emboldened Moscow time and again and opened us up to attack."

Trump is set to receive a briefing from high-level intelligence officials on the Russian hacking on Friday. The president-elect has been skeptical of the intelligence community's conclusions about Russia being behind the cyber attacks, opening him up to criticism from some lawmakers.