with Aaron Schaffer

When it comes to cyber diplomacy, America is back. 

That’s one of the key messages President Biden is sending as he this week jets across Europe in a series of top-level diplomatic meetings.

Those sessions have yielded a host of joint actions with allies condemning Russia’s aggression in cyberspace and its tolerance for ransomware hackers who operate in its territory. The United States and its NATO allies also endorsed a new cyber defense policy and pledged that their commitment to joint defense extends to hacking as well. 

Today the president will meet with European Union leaders where a key topic will be combating Chinese dominance in next-generation technology that U.S. officials say could vastly increase the risks of Beijing spying or digital sabotage. 

Such cyber diplomacy wasn’t absent during the Trump administration, but it was muddled by the chaos that regularly engulfed the administration. Efforts were also frequently undermined by then-President Donald Trump, who was hesitant to get tough with Russia and often undercut his own administration’s efforts to rein in China’s emerging tech dominance. 

“This last week has demonstrated a very high-level leadership with the president himself talking about these issues. That will make a difference,” Chris Painter, the State Department’s top cyber official during the Obama administration, told me. 

On Wednesday, Biden will go toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin in Switzerland, where he has promised to challenge the Russian president on espionage and criminal hacking and to set firm lines for when the United States will retaliate. 

“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas we can cooperate if he chooses," Biden said. “And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.” 

The intense focus on cyber diplomacy is no guarantee of progress with Russia. 

U.S. officials have warned against expecting any big breakthroughs in the Biden-Putin summit. They’re focusing instead on rallying allies to collectively respond to Russian cyber aggression.

But it could begin a long-term process of changing Russia’s behavior — especially if Biden follows up his warnings with concrete punishments for Russian hacking. 

“Will it make a difference in shaping Putin’s behavior in the short term? That’s going to be hard. I’m not highly optimistic there’s going to be any epiphany coming out of the Biden-Putin meeting,” Painter told me. 

He added: “But there won’t be the failure of the president coming out saying, ‘We agreed to have an impenetrable cybersecurity unit.’ We know what the low bar is.”

That’s a reference to Trump’s comments upon exiting his first meeting with Putin in 2017, which were widely pilloried even by Trump allies including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). 

There’s also a slight chance Biden and Putin could reach an agreement to limit ransomware gangs operating on Russian territory.

Those gangs have wreaked havoc in the United States and Europe recently, including an attack on Colonial Pipeline that strangled gas supplies in the southeastern United States before the company paid a $4.4 million ransom to unlock its computers. 

“The ransomware criminals operating within Russia’s borders are given a free hand, and are known to have received protection from the security services, but their activities relate only tangentially to Putin’s core domestic and national security objectives,” Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, and Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, wrote in a Post op-ed. “This makes stopping them exactly the sort of narrow, achievable objective Biden should pursue with Putin.”

There’s also a possibility, Biden can successfully rally NATO allies to be more competitive with China when it comes to next-generation technology. 

The allies stated in their closing communique that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order,” as Michael Birnbaum, Anne Gearan and Ashley Parker report.

Biden warned, “We’re in a contest — not with China per se — but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.”

The Trump administration convinced numerous allies in Europe and elsewhere to reject the Chinese tech firm Huawei from building their 5G telecommunications systems over spying concerns. But the former president repeatedly muddled that effort and undermined his administration’s national security argument by linking it with the broader U.S.-China trade dispute. 

The keys

A China-linked cyberespionage campaign targeted Verizon and the largest U.S. water agency. 

The known breach of the Pulse Secure security system also targeted dozens of previously unknown and not-yet-disclosed targets, cybersecurity researchers told The Associated Press’s Alan Suderman. Organizations use Pulse Secure to remotely access their computer networks. 

It’s unclear what information was compromised. The hack first came to light in April and was previously known to have affected the New York City subway system. 

The leader of the Justice Department division that prosecutes hackers is stepping down.

John Demers, a Trump administration appointee, will step down by June 25, Matt Zapotosky reports. His departure was preplanned, officials said, but comes in the wake of news that the Justice Department obtained secret subpoenas of phone records for journalists and Democratic lawmakers.

Mark Lesko, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, will replace Demers in the near term. President Biden has nominated Demers’s successor, Matt Olsen. Olsen previously worked for Uber, led the National Counterterrorism Center in the office of the director of national intelligence and was the National Security Agency’s top lawyer.

Reality Winner, who was convicted of leaking NSA documents to the media, was moved to a halfway house.

Her transfer was scheduled because of good behavior, Winner’s lawyer said. Winner, an NSA contractor, was accused of giving information about Russian hackers to the Intercept and pleaded guilty to mishandling NSA documents. She was the first person publicly accused of leaking government secrets to journalists during the Trump administration.

Winner probably will have the option of home confinement as she completes her sentence.

Hill happenings

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) called for international standards to distinguish unacceptable hacks.

The standards would distinguish cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, such as the Colonial Pipeline, from more run-of-the-mill hacks, Warner said at a Washington Post Live event. Watch a recording here or below.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) joins Washington Post Live on Monday, June 14 (The Washington Post)

Global cyberspace

Ransomware is the primary cyberthreat for most U.K. citizens, a top cybersecurity official said.

The volume of the attacks make them the “most impactful threat we face,” said Lindy Cameron, the CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, or NCSC. The organization is a cyber arm of the U.K.’s GCHQ signals intelligence service. The British government also faces challenges in responding to the hacks, Cameron said.

“We support victims of ransomware every day, but turning up to a ransomware incident as the NCSC feels like the fire service turning up to a house that has already burned down,” Cameron said. She noted that oftentimes organizations are forced to rebuild their computer networks as a result of the attacks.

Encryption wars

Securing the ballot

Government scan

Daybook

  • House Homeland Security Committee panels hold a hearing on lessons learned from the U.S. government response to a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline today at 2:30 p.m.
  • Dustin Moody, the head of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s cryptographic technology group, discusses the future of cybersecurity and quantum technology at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event today at 3 p.m.
  • Cisco CEO and chair Chuck Robbins discusses cybersecurity and other issues at a Washington Post Live event on Wednesday at 9 a.m. 
  • A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee panel holds a hearing on cybersecurity threats to state and local governments on Thursday at 10:15 a.m.
  • The University of Southern California’s Election Cybersecurity Initiative will hold its final spring workshop on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.
  • Jeff Greene, the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence who has been detailed to President Biden’s National Security Council, discusses Biden’s recent cybersecurity executive order at a National Security Institute event on Friday at 1 p.m.
  • The R Street Institute hosts an event on the implementation of President Biden’s cybersecurity executive order on June 21 at 3:15 p.m.

Secure log off

RIP Ned Beatty.