While Capitol Hill buzz centers on tax cuts and GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged sexual abuse of teenagers, a more troubling story has quietly unfolded about the unmasking of US cyber secrets, which could expose the nation and its businesses to relentless hacks, ransoms or worse.
A group calling itself the Shadow Brokers apparently breached the cyber moat protecting the National Security Agency last year, resulting in a stream of leaked information that threatens to compromise America’s national security. It could be the equivalent of an invasion, without missiles, tanks and soldiers.
Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told The New York Times, “These leaks have been incredibly damaging to our intelligence and cyber capabilities. The fundamental purpose of intelligence is to effectively penetrate out adversaries to gather vital intelligence. By its very nature, that only works if secrecy is maintained and our codes are protected.”
Infiltrating US cybersecurity is a lot cheaper and potentially more effective as a strategy.
Months of investigation have uncovered three leakers, but there is a lingering lack of confidence that all leakers have been discovered. The damage already done, experts say, exceeds what former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked, even though his disclosures earned more ink. Security experts say Snowden released code words; the Shadow Brokers shared actual code.
The Times article indicated that morale at NSA has plummeted. President Trump’s comments at the tail end of his Asia Pacific trip that expressed greater confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin than US intelligence didn’t bolster sagging morale.
Tax cuts, universal health insurance and the size of national monuments are important issues, but none may have the long-term impact of cyber leaks. Which makes the relative silence in the White House and on Capitol Hill unnerving. It’s possible there is a high-security secret effort to counter the damage. It’s also possible top US officials are paralyzed by the staggering task of building a new, more impenetrable cybersecurity system.
One of the fundamentals of any conflict is the ability to identify the enemy. US intelligence sources pin the ultimate blame for leaks on Russian cyber operatives. Ironically, US public opinion polls show Republicans view Putin and his credibility more favorably than many Russians.
The recurring dissonance between the Trump White House and US intelligence officers in the cyber trenches adds to the puzzlement. Writings by the Shadow Brokers reflect a knowledge of US politics, using phrases like “deep state,” and seem to back Trump. One message said, “The Shadow Brokers is wanting America to be great again.”
Russian operatives can be expected to reveal US malware planted in other nations’ systems, which could further undermine the US security apparatus. There is a fear, not unjustified, that American could be blocked out of what’s happening in the world’s shadows, including nefarious activity potentially affecting US safety.
If this seems to dwarf tax cuts, the Obamacare individual mandate and Roy Moore’s sexual peccadillos in terms of significance, it does. Maintaining US security is the undisputed role and responsibility of the federal government. That security seems as tenuous today as it did when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. Americans responded collectively to the attack in Hawaii. The response to a possible Russian cyberattack has been muted to non-existent. That is scarier than the attack.