CLEAR AWAY the hot air and deception, and recent disclosures about Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election offer a sobering glimpse of cyberconflict today. While President Vladimir Putin of Russia denies his government engaged in it, and President Trump calls it a “witch hunt,” the extraordinarily detailed indictment brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III shows the attacks on the election were carried out by uniformed military officers in a unit with a Moscow address. This is not amateur hour.
Mr. Mueller’s charges against 12 officers of the Russian military intelligence organization, the GRU, take the case down to street level, identifying the two units — No. 26165, located at 20 Komsomolsky Prospekt, Moscow, and No. 74455, located at 22 Kirova St., in Khimki, outside of Moscow — that carried out the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The indictment shows a dozen officers working to penetrate and disrupt the Democrats by emptying out their emails and computer data and then leaking it. They appeared to use relatively well-known methods such as spear-phishing to steal credentials, anonymous servers to spirit away the data and cryptocurrency to hide the money trail.
At the end of each operation, it was Mr. Putin’s officers who reaped the harvest. For years there has been much speculation that Russia’s spy services were hiring hackers or criminal elements to do their dirty work, and they probably are. But this case shows that the Russian state cyber-operators are not just boys from Tomsk.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats declared July 13 that warning lights on cyberattacks from Russia are “blinking red,” similar to threats seen before 9/11. A fresh example appeared this week when Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Democrat running for reelection, disclosed that her Senate computers had been targeted by Russian government intruders.
China, too, is a major state actor in cyberconflict; the U.S. intelligence agencies report that Beijing continues to steal intellectual property from U.S. companies despite a 2015 agreement intended to curb the practice.
Despite these urgent threats, there is scant sign of an effective U.S. government response. Mr. Trump’s National Security Council has been hampered by divisions and elimination of a White House cybersecurity coordinator. Rather than combat renewed Russian interference, the White House rails against the investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 campaign. A meeting of senior officials was finally scheduled for Friday. But the hour is late.
Cyberconflict is coming to the forefront of competition and coercion among states, with few rules of the road. The United States must be ready for this assault from Russia and others, and clear-eyed about it. Mr. Trump said dismissively in December 2016 of the election hacking: “It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace.” Now we know it was not.