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U.S. Cyber Command Bolsters Allied Defenses to Impose Cost on Moscow

American officials are pushing ahead on efforts with allied nations to counter Russia's interference in democratic elections and other malign activities, military cybercommanders said on Tuesday, an effort intended to allow the United States to better observe and counter Moscow's newest cyberweapons.

American officials deployed last year to Ukraine, Macedonia and Montenegro, and United States Cyber Command officials said that their missions included defending elections and uncovering information about Russia's newest abilities. Cyber Command will continue some of those partnerships and expand its work to other countries under attack from Russia, officials said Tuesday.

The deployments, officials said, are meant to impose costs on Moscow, to make Russia's attempts to mount online operations in Europe and elsewhere more difficult and to potentially bog down Moscow's operatives and degrade their ability to interfere in American elections.

"We recognize and understand the importance of being in constant contact with the enemy in this space, especially below the level of armed conflict, so we can defend ourselves and we can impose costs," Maj. Gen. Charles L. Moore, the director of operations for Cyber Command, said Tuesday. "That is it in a nutshell."

With new authorities from the White House, as well as congressional legislation that declared online operations a traditional military activity, Cyber Command stepped up its election defenses last year, allowing commanders to develop a strategy to engage American adversaries.

In a rare briefing for reporters, Cyber Command showed off its new Joint Operation Center and spoke broadly about its work to defend American elections from interference by adversaries, including Russia.

Officials would not discuss the campaign, called Operation Synthetic Theology, conducted during the 2018 midterm elections. The offensive effort included sending direct messages to the Russians behind disinformation operations letting them know that they had been identified. It also included an attack that temporarily took offline the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm based in St. Petersburg that created some of the most notorious disinformation campaigns, during the midterm voting and election count.

Cyber Command has said its mission has been to engage and defend against adversaries, like Russia or China, in a level of conflict short of war, what some outside experts call "the gray zone."

"We are working in cyberspace, in an area with no sanctuary or operational pause," said David P. Luber, the executive director of Cyber Command. "It is the center of strategic rivalry in this era of renewed great power competition."

After the election, Cyber Command and the National Security Agency absorbed their so-called Russia Small Group into their daily operations to make the effort a permanent part of its operations. A spokesman said Cyber Command was readying for "a broader challenge in the upcoming 2020 election cycle."

The operations in the midterm elections, officials said, showed that Cyber Command could defend against Moscow's interference campaign without jeopardizing the N.S.A.'s access to Russian networks.

"In cyberspace, our operations are driven by intelligence," General Moore said. "When we conduct operations, we gain more intelligence, which feeds back into the system."

In addition to its efforts against nation-state adversaries, Cyber Command's Joint Task Force Ares, which led the electronic campaign against the Islamic State, is continuing its work against extremist groups. Maj. Gen. Matthew G. Glavy, the commander of that task force, said that with the loss of its territory, the cyberthreat from the Islamic State was degraded. But he said the transnational threat that the group posed online remained.

"We don't underestimate the enemy," he said. "We want to do our very best to deny, destroy and degrade their abilities."

Every online operation, particularly offensive missions, holds the risk that the tools used by the United States government could be discovered by adversaries, be they independent hacking groups or nation-states.

Symantec, the digital security firm, said this week that a Chinese intelligence agency had acquired American hacking tools made by the National Security Agency and repurposed them to attack allies and private companies in Europe and America.

The officials from Cyber Command did not address that report directly, but said before any operation, the government conducts a risk analysis, which includes assessing how likely online tools are to be reverse-engineered by adversaries.

"Safeguarding them is a priority for us, but when they are used in the cyberenvironment, once they are out there, they are out there," said Maj. Gen. Karl H. Gingrich, a Cyber Command official. "At the end of the day, once you have used the tool, it is out there, it is. I will just leave it at that."

[Source: By Julian E. Barnes, The New York Times, Fort Meade, Md., 07May19]

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