On Thursday, 19 Democratic senators sent President Trump a letter urging him to direct the Energy Department to conduct an analysis of Russia’s capability to hack into and disrupt the U.S. electric grid.
The senators, led by Maria Cantwell of Washington, say the Trump administration did not respond to a request in March for such a study.
In April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed his department to conduct a wide-ranging study of U.S. electricity use. But that forthcoming analysis will focus on the degree to which tax and subsidy policies, including those that benefit wind and solar power, “are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants” such as coal-fired or nuclear plants, according to the memo asking for the study.
In their letter, Cantwell and the other Democrats asked the president to shift priorities.
“We are deeply concerned that your administration has not backed up a verbal commitment prioritizing cybersecurity of energy networks and fighting cyber aggression with any meaningful action,” the senators wrote.
Recent research from the cybersecurity firm Dragos revealed that Russian-allied hackers have created a cyberweapon, dubbed CrashOverride, capable of disrupting electric systems. That malware, researchers said, was used against Ukraine in December. The Washington Post reported on that research this month.
The Democrats wrote that the Dragos report made the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid to foreign cyberattack “increasingly clear.” They asked the White House to instruct the Energy Department, along with other relevant agencies, to report on the extent to which Russia is capable of damaging U.S. infrastructure and to which the Russians may have already tried to do so.
While individuals in the Trump administration have indicated they take the threat of Russian cyberattack seriously, Trump himself has largely been dismissive of the consensus within the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, both before and after being elected.
“Knowing something about hacking, if you don’t catch a hacker, okay, in the act, it’s very hard to say who did the hacking,” Trump said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in April.
During his confirmation hearing in January, however, Perry said he takes the threat of Russian hacking serious. “No matter what players, whether it’s a formal state or a group loosely associated, if they’re trying to penetrate into Americans’ lives, whether it’s private citizens or the highest level of government, you will see me engaged at the highest levels,” he said.
But the office whose job it is to make the electric grid resilient was among several at the Energy Department targeted with deep cuts under Trump’s budget proposal. If that budget passed, funding for that office, the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, could be cut by 41 percent. The Energy Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Following the Dragos report, the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the CrashOverride malware “could be modified to target U.S. critical information networks and systems.”