Rivals of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are seizing on news that Russia is trying to help his campaign as a way to take down the Democratic front-runner.
Candidates, who have spent little time tackling Russian election interference in previous debates, were eager to show their strength against Russian President Vladimir Putin onstage in Charleston, S.C.
“Vladimir Putin thinks Donald Trump should be president of the United States and that’s why Russia is helping you get elected. So, you’ll lose to him,” former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg charged.
Sanders shot back: “Hey, Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you won’t interfere in any more U.S. elections” — the first of many punches that candidates threw at the Russian leader throughout the night.
The news comes as intelligence officials warn Russian operatives are already interfering in the 2020 contest — not just on behalf of Sanders but also for President Trump, whom intelligence agencies found they sought to help in 2016. It’s not yet clear what form that interference is taking.
But it's clear by the fights onstage that even the suggestion of foreign election interference can cause divisions in American politics — which in itself could play into Putin's hands.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg charged that what Russia really wants isn’t for one candidate or another to win but to sow chaos in the United States.
Then he got his own digs in, suggesting that Sanders was Russia's favored candidate because he would be polarizing to the American electorate.
“Chaos is what is coming our way,” he said. “If you think the last four years has been chaotic, divisive, toxic, exhausting, imagine spending the better part of 2020 with Bernie Sanders versus Donald Trump.”
The fracas came just days before South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary, which marks the candidates' last chance to gather delegates and raise their profiles before Super Tuesday.
Democrats didn't limit their attacks to each other: They slammed congressional Republicans for not speaking out against President Trump when he’s frequently questioned whether Russia was truly responsible for the hacking and disinformation operation in 2016.
“Where are all these patriotic Republicans who wave the flag but when we’re under attack they side with our enemy?” billionaire entrepreneur Tom Steyer said. “We’re under attack and they’re not doing a darn thing about it.”
Steyer described Trump’s wavering position on Russia as a main reason he launched an advocacy group calling for the president’s impeachment in 2017.
“We have to oppose a president who sides with a hostile foreign power that commits cyber warfare against the United States of America. That's where we are,” he said.
Former vice president Joe Biden also attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for not cooperating with the White House to condemn Russian interference before the 2016 election — a charge he has leveled several times since 2016 that McConnell disputes.
“We went to Mitch McConnell and said, ‘Join us and point out what is happening here.’ He said, ‘No, we want no part of it,’ ” Biden said. The former vice president also warned that Russia is “engaged now, as I speak, in interfering in our elections.”
Biden bristled, however, at a question about a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee that found the Obama administration could have done more to combat Russian operations before the 2016 contest, saying the White House didn’t have all the information it needed then.
U.S. intelligence agencies put out a statement in October before the 2016 election blaming Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign and strategically leaking their emails to cause maximum embarrassment. But officials released far more information after the election, including about Russian efforts to game social media to hurt the Clinton campaign and help Trump.
We might find out more about what went on behind the scenes in the Obama administration: The Senate Intelligence Committee plans to release a volume of its report from its investigation into Russia's interference dedicated exclusively to the previous administration's response. It's being vetted by intelligence leaders. The final volume will focus on links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Biden demurred when debate moderator Bill Whitaker asked whether he’d launch a retaliatory cyberattack against Russia if it interfered in the 2020 contest.
“I’d make them pay for it and I’d make them pay for it economically,” Biden said. That puts him in line with many cybersecurity experts who warn that economic sanctions and other nondigital tools are often more effective responses than punching back in cyberspace.
U.S. officials are also often wary about getting into a tit-for-tat conflict in cyberspace because the United States is far more dependent on the Internet than most of its chief rivals, which means cyberattacks against it could be far more damaging.
That question also irked some cybersecurity experts.
Here’s Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher at the Wilson Center think tank:
Launching a retaliatory cyber attack is not the only or best response to an election interference campaign and leads when American public to believe that this is only about “hacking.” It’s not.— Nina Jankowicz (@wiczipedia) February 26, 2020
And Mieke Eoyang, vice president of the Third Way think tank’s national security program:
OMG I HATE cyber warfare rhetoric.— Mieke Eoyang (@MiekeEoyang) February 26, 2020
Making a fake twitter account is not an armed attack. It shouldn't trigger a kinetic response.
I have a whole soap box I carry around with me for this.
PINGED, PATCHED, PWNED
PINGED: A National Security Agency program that analyzed Americans’ phone calls and text messages yielded only one significant investigation before the agency shuttered the program in 2019, a study provided to Congress yesterday by an internal government civil liberties watchdog found. The report comes as the clock winds down on Congress's deadline to reauthorize the controversial law that made the $100 million spying program possible, Charlie Savage at the New York Times reports.
Moreover, the program only generated unique information that the FBI didn't already have two times in the four years of the program's existence, the study found.
Surveillance critics say the damning report is evidence that Congress shouldn't reauthorize the USA Freedom Act, which Congress passed in 2015 to rein in abuses highlighted by NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
“These documents further confirm that this surveillance program is beyond redemption and a privacy and civil liberties disaster,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey told Charlie. “The NSA’s collection of Americans’ call records is too sweeping, the compliance problems too many, and evidence of the program’s value all but nonexistent.”
The report did not reveal the subject matter or the outcome of the one significant operation spurred by information obtained through the controversial program.
The act expires March 15. The House Judiciary Committee meets today to mark up a bill that would renew an updated version of it.
PATCHED: Most of the nine government agencies tasked with protecting critical infrastructure such as banking, health care, energy and communications systems aren’t adequately measuring how well the sectors they oversee are implementing cybersecurity best practices recommended by the Commerce Department, a government watchdog report found.
That could leave those industries vulnerable to cyberattacks and physical attacks, the Government Accountability Office report notes. It also makes it difficult for the Homeland Security and Commerce departments to help the agencies improve their digital defenses, the report notes.
The GAO urged the Commerce Department to give the agencies a deadline for when they’ll be better able to track cybersecurity improvements.
PWNED: Julian Assange tried to warn then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before WikiLeaks dumped hundreds of thousands of pages of secret diplomatic cables in 2010, his lawyer said at his extradition hearing yesterday, Reuters's Michael Holden reports.
“Unless we do something, people’s lives are put at risk," Assange allegedly told the State Department on the phone. The State Department told him to call back later. Assange’s also initially tried to arrange for selected newspapers to release redacted versions of the cables, his lawyer told the court.
Assange faces extradition to the United States, where he’s charged with numerous offenses including hacking crimes for trying to help Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. Army soldier, crack a password that would help her leak more documents to his site. U.S. officials argue that the WIkiLeaks's actions put U.S. lives at risk.
— Cybersecurity news from the public sector:
— Another 14 businesses have signed onto an Aspen Cybersecurity Group coalition of businesses that have committed to hiring a more diverse pool of cybersecurity workers. The new members include Bank of America, Accenture, Casey’s General Stores, FireEye, Intel, Malwarebytes, McAfee, Proofpoint, Rapid7, Raytheon, Target, Tenable, U.S. Bank, and VMware. That brings the number of companies involved in the initiative, which launched in 2018, to 29.
— More cybersecurity news from the private sector:
THE NEW WILD WEST
—Cybersecurity news from abroad:
- RSA Conference 2020 is scheduled for Feb. 24 to 28 in San Francisco.
- The House Judiciary will mark up the USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act of 2020.
- The Cyberspace Solarium Commission will release of its final report and recommendations during a public event on March 11 at 2:30pm.