Former intelligence officials talk cyberattack options against Russia

Last Updated May 11, 2017 10:10 PM EDT

Two former intelligence officials and a retired Navy admiral told a Senate committee Thursday that the U.S. should consider responding to Russia's intrusion in the 2016 presidential election with a military cyberattack of its own.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, and retired Admiral James Stavridis said the U.S. should consider targeting the bank accounts of Russian President Vladimir Putin or wealthy Russian oligarchs. But former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that any cyberattack against Russia could invite severe retaliation.

Stavridis outlined two ways the U.S. could go after Putin's wealth:

"By attacking his accounts, and diminishing them, or by simply revealing them to his people," Stravidis said. "You are currently seeing Prime Minister (Dmitry) Medvedev under enormous political pressure in Russia, a whole series of demonstrations around the country, tied to revelations about his offshore financing, his yachts, his multiple luxury goods. That kind of reveal would have a salutary effect."

However, Stavridis, who led the U.S. European Command and was NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013, said less extreme options than trying to undermine Putin include targeting the offshore bank accounts of Russian oligarchs and lower-level government officials.

The former officials' testimony came just before a separate hearing where the Senate Intelligence Committee received a Worldwide Threats report from the Director of National Intelligence. The report called out Russia as "a full-scope cyber actor that will remain a major threat to US Government, military, diplomatic, commercial, and critical infrastructure." 

"We assess that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the 2016 US election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets," the intelligence community wrote in the report.

Hayden said another possible option is attempting to undermine the Russian government's ability to monitor what its citizens say and do on the internet, by creating and spreading tools that protect anonymity.

"You have Russians attacking the foundations of American democracy, so we return the favor, we use cybertools to attack the foundations of Russian autocracy, which is the ability of the Russian surveillance state to follow its own citizens," Hayden said.

While debating these options, Clapper repeatedly cautioned that while Russia could respond with a similar attack — for instance, "let's go after President Trump's bank account" — more widespread retaliation is also possible.

"They could go after our critical infrastructure, for example," Clapper said, adding, "if we're going to attack, we need to be prepared for a counterattack."

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  • Graham Kates

    Graham Kates is an investigative reporter covering criminal justice, privacy issues and information security for