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What's An Appropriate Response To Foreign Cyber-Meddling In A U.S. Election?


Earlier today, my colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with President Obama, and the president said that when a foreign entity interferes with our elections, there must be a response.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of it may be explicit and publicized. Some of it may not be. But Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this because I spoke to him directly about it.

SIEGEL: We turn now to Susan Hennessey, a lawyer who used to work at the National Security Agency. She's now with the Brookings Institution. We wanted to explore this question raised by the Russian hacking story. What is an appropriate response to foreign cyber meddling in a U.S. election?

SUSAN HENNESSEY: It's important to sort of understand there's a spectrum. On one end, there's cyber warfare. There's also - on the other end of the spectrum, there's cyber crime. In between, there's sort of cyber terrorism, cyber espionage. And so it's not entirely clear where this would fit.

Typically whenever we talk about cyber warfare, we're talking about something that is the equivalent of an armed attack. While there aren't sort of firm definitions, traditionally the understanding that it would be something that involved very serious kinetic consequences.

SIEGEL: Give us a sense. What would be the possible options that would be responses to this kind of cyber intrusion into our politics?

HENNESSEY: Right, so certainly you could imagine offensive cyber operations - so sort of countermeasures. We've heard discussions about potentially retaliating by releasing sensitive documents about Russian President Vladimir Putin. There's also - the administration has really committed to sort of a name-and-shame strategy of deterrence - so pursuing criminal indictments against the people that they believe to be involved - and then also imposing sanctions.

SIEGEL: I mean some of the problems raised by that list are that there already are lots of sanctions against Russia, number one, for other things completely. And second, when, say, the Panama Papers disclosed that Vladimir Putin was doing dirty offshore deals - didn't seem to cause any problem for him at all in Russia.

HENNESSEY: Well, first, sort of the idea that additional sanctions wouldn't be effective - I'm not sure that that's necessarily true. We know that the Russian economy has been substantially harmed by sanctions. And actually one of the reasons - one of the speculations about why Russia would be more aggressive here is because they're operating from a standpoint of weakness.

It's undeniably true, though, that there is a vulnerability asymmetry here. The United States is more vulnerable because we rely on cyber and networks in general and also because our politicians are vulnerable in a way that politicians in places like Russia just are not.

SIEGEL: How would you describe and evaluate the response of the Obama administration so far to what's happened?

HENNESSEY: I think it's not unfair to say it's been a bit bumbling. Recent reporting in The New York Times, for example, said that sort of there was clear consensus that something needed to be done in response to Russian interference in the election, and yet nothing occurred. And so the administration has put forth sort of the notion that they would respond at the time and place of their choosing. It might not be visible from the outside.

The important thing in deterrence is really sending a message. And so while it's certainly plausible that there might be secret and effective counter-cyber operations, it's also important that that message be incredibly clear not just to Russia but also to anybody else who might be watching.

SIEGEL: Susan Hennessey of the Brookings Institution, thanks for talking with us today.

HENNESSEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.