WASHINGTON, DC–December 18th, 2020–With the deaths within the last few weeks of novelist John Le Carre, author of the seminal cold war spy novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and From Russia With Love star Sean Connery, it seems that the forces of SMERSH have yet again been unchained, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed a finger squarely namely Russia as the culprit for the mass hacking of computer networks of numerous US government agencies and companies over the last year.
This was the first time Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly blamed Russia for the months long cyber hack of agencies across the U.S. government.
“This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity,” Pompeo told radio host Mark Levin in an interview released Friday.
“I can’t say much more as we’re still unpacking precisely what it is, and I’m sure some of it will remain classified. But suffice it to say there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of U.S. Government systems and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well,” Pompeo added.
Pompeo defended President Donald Trump for not publicly calling out Russia for the attack.
“I saw this in my time running the world’s premier espionage service at the CIA. There are many things that you’d very much love to say, “Boy, I’m going to call that out,” but a wiser course of action to protect the American people is to calmly go about your business and defend freedom.”
Meanwhile the Russians were quick to deny involvement and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations.
“Once again, I can reject these accusations and once again I want to remind you that it was President (Vladimir) Putin who proposed that the American side agree and conclude agreements (with Russia) on cyber security,” said Peskov, saying Washington had not responded to the offer.
“As for the rest, if there have been attacks for many months, and the Americans could not do anything about it, it is probably not worth immediately groundlessly blaming the Russians. We didn’t have anything to do with it.”
The US government is still in the dark over how deeply Russian hackers penetrated its networks during the worst ever cyber-attack on federal agencies, members of Congress warned on Friday.
At least six government departments were breached in a likely Russian intelligence operation thought to have begun in March. Although there is no evidence that classified networks were compromised, it is not known what the hackers may have stolen or how long it will take to purge them.
Members of Congress said the government is still scrambling to understand the fallout as details emerge. “This hack was so big in scope that even our cybersecurity experts don’t have a real sense yet in the terms of the breadth of the intrusion itself,” commented Stephen Lynch, head of the House of Representatives’ oversight and reform committee, after attending a classified briefing.
Congressman Jamie Raskin, another member of the committee, added: “There’s a lot more that we don’t know than what we do know. I’m hopeful the government will learn exactly how this was perpetrated on us and what is the full scope of the damage.”
US officials say they only recently became aware of the attacks on both the government and some Fortune 500 companies in which cyber spies roamed undetected for as long as nine months. The energy department and national nuclear security administration, which manages the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile, was among the agencies breached.
Tech giant Microsoft, which has helped respond to the breach, said it has identified more than 40 government agencies, think tanks, non-governmental organizations and IT companies infiltrated by the hackers. Four in five were in the US – nearly half of them tech companies – with victims also in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the UK, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Microsoft said in a blogpost: “This is not espionage as usual, even in the digital age. Instead, it represents an act of recklessness that created a serious technological vulnerability for the United States and the world.”
But Donald Trump, long reluctant to criticize his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has been conspicuously silent, focused instead on overturning an election that he lost. The US president is under growing pressure to speak out about what some described as an epic national security crisis
The Republican senator Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate, told SiriusXM radio: “What I find most astonishing is that a cyber hack of this nature is really the modern equivalent of almost Russian bombers reportedly flying undetected over the entire country.”
Describing the country’s cyber defenses as extraordinarily vulnerable and weak, Romney added: “In this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”
Trump’s absence on the issue implies that it will be left to his successor, Joe Biden, to retaliate through sanctions, criminal charges or other means. In a statement on Thursday, the president-elect said his administration “will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office”.
The damage, however, could take years to remedy. Thomas Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security adviser, wrote this week in a New York Times column: “While the Russians did not have the time to gain complete control over every network they hacked, they most certainly did gain it over hundreds of them. It will take years to know for certain which networks the Russians control and which ones they just occupy.
“The logical conclusion is that we must act as if the Russian government has control of all the networks it has penetrated. But it is unclear what the Russians intend to do next. The access the Russians now enjoy could be used for far more than simply spying.”