Russian Threat to U.S. Elections Persists Even Amid War in Ukraine, Officials Say

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NSA and FBI chiefs warn the Kremlin can balance midterm meddling with its cyberattacks on Kyiv. ‘We’re quite confident the Russians can walk and chew gum,’ FBI head says

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“We’re quite confident the Russians can walk and chew gum,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday.

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Sitting next to Mr. Wray at the International Conference on Cyber ​​Security, NSA Director Paul Nakasone said he doesn’t believe Kremlin-linked hackers will be overly preoccupied with Ukraine come November.

“That’s not a thought process that we go into ’22 with,” Gen. Nakasone said.

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Federal and state officials have fortified their election-security efforts since Russia unleashed cyber and disinformation campaigns in 2016 that US intelligence concluded were attempts to throw the presidential race to Donald Trump. A more recent assessment, declassified last year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a similar attempt to hurt President Biden’s 2020 campaign.

The Kremlin has denied those allegations. Russia’s embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Election threats have evolved over time, cyber experts say, with campaigns that blend hacking with disinformation operations, or that rely on nonstate groups acting as proxies for governments. The number of countries attempting to meddle in elections has also grown, Mr. Wray said, including an Iranian campaign in 2020 and the possibility of interference from China.

“We’re keenly aware that our adversaries are constantly innovating,” he said.

Gen. Nakasone and Mr. Wray, who said they talk about once a week, have improved coordination between their teams as other agencies have similarly bolstered their cyber proficiency. Officials have also increasingly turned to US tech companies and other businesses for help in neutralizing propaganda campaigns, disrupting hackers’ digital infrastructure and analyzing types of malware from countries such as Russia.

In recent months, Kremlin-linked hackers have joined their country’s war effort in Ukraine by launching volleys of cyberattacks against government agencies, banks and other targets. Western officials have warned such operations could spill over to other European countries and the US, but a barrage of hacks so far has had relatively little impact.

As Kyiv has countered the onslaught, Washington has provided cybersecurity aid in addition to weaponry and financial support. Gen. Nakasone said he stood by a recent interview with Sky News in which he said the NSA has aided Ukraine through “a series of operations across the full spectrum: offensive, defensive [and] information operations.”

On Tuesday, he reaffirmed those comments. “My comments stand in terms of what we are doing,” said Gen. Nakasone, who also heads US Cyber ​​Command. He declined to comment further on the possibility of cyberattacks launched in support of Ukraine.

Over the past several years, the NSA has tried to disrupt foreign hacking campaigns through proactive operations to stiffen cybersecurity in allied countries, an effort it calls “hunt forward.” The agency has conducted about 50 such operations across 16 countries in the past three years, Gen. Nakasone said, adding that the NSA tries to work with international partners.

“This is a growth industry for us,” he said. “We do have a series of operations that we’re conducting now and into the future as we approach the fall.”

Write to David Uberti at [email protected]


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