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Russian President Putin appears on a computer screen in a 2006 live webcast. Photo: Denis Sinyakov/AFP via Getty Images

According to a Washington Post report Tuesday (and confirmations in Russian media), the U.S. Cyber Command disrupted the internet access of Russia's Internet Research Agency on Election Day in 2018 — a clear attempt to send a message to the so-called "troll farm" to back off.

Why it matters: The gambit is a public example of the Department of Defense's new "defending forward" emphasis in cyber defense, which aims to increase activities in foreign networks to disrupt potential attacks.

The big question: Does sending signals this way work? Experts from intelligence, national security and academia seem to think it's at least worth a chance.

The big picture: The IRA hackers are Russia's most prominent purveyors of social media misinformation. But they work year-round, election years and not.

  • Stifling the group on one day — even Election Day — would not be a crippling blow. That doesn't mean the move was meaningless.
  • Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA and current host of the Intelligence Matters podcast, explained it like this via email: "The action was most likely designed to do two things: one, stop any activities that Moscow may have had for Election Day itself, and two, send a message that we can — and will — reach out and take such actions in the future." 
  • "And, yes," he continued, "such a 'statement' can be effective. If an adversary believes that they are not going to be able to do what they want to do, they may well not even try. It is an important part of deterrence."
  • "Demonstrating that we are willing to make it more difficult for cyber adversaries and to throw up hurdles for them is worth doing,” said Lisa Monaco, former assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism in the Obama administration.

Yes, but: There are multiple unknowns on both sides of the message.

  • As of now, we're aware of two components of Cyber Command's signaling campaign: this Election Day move and an earlier effort to contact IRA operatives directly and ask them to knock it off — a not-so-subtle hint that we could identify who they were.
  • But there very well might be more than just those two actions in play.
  • "Will we look back 10 years from now and think November 2018 was when everything changed? Probably not," said Ben Buchanan, an assistant teaching professor at Georgetown whose book, "The Cybersecurity Dilemma," concerns how nations interpret cyber actions. "But it could be part of a larger effort that could have a bigger effect, for better or for worse."
  • Buchanan doesn't think there's much chance that Russia would misinterpret this kind of signaling. But signaling campaigns can be tricky, he said. "There's no shared understanding of what cyber actions mean. They're more ambiguous than troop deployments."

What's next: With cyber activities, it's hard to gauge what will provoke a response and what kind of response that would be.

  • But Michael Daniel, former White House cybersecurity coordinator and current CEO of the Cyber Threat Alliance, said via email we should anticipate some kind of response: "That’s why we need to be careful and judicious in the use of these capabilities, because the potential for escalation is high."

Go deeper

Prosecutor: Fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. was "justified"

Khalil Ferebee (C), the son of Andrew Brown Jr., and attorneys Bakari Sellers (L) and Harry Daniel (R) at a May 11 news conference in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A North Carolina prosecutor said Tuesday that the death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man fatally shot by sheriff's deputies last month, was "tragic" but "justified," due to the immediate threat officers believed Brown posed.

Why it matters: The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into Brown's death. Police in Elizabeth City shot him five times, including in the back of his head, according to an independent autopsy report released by family attorneys last month.

McCarthy comes out against bipartisan deal on Jan. 6 commission

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will oppose a bipartisan deal announced last week that would form a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, his office announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: McCarthy's opposition to the deal, which was negotiated by the top Republican and Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, underscores the internal divisions that continue to plague the GOP in the wake of Jan. 6.

2 hours ago - World

Beijing's antitrust push poses a problem for Western regulators

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Chinese government's anti-monopoly machinery presents a major challenge to U.S. and European regulators, a new book argues.

Why it matters: China's huge markets are attracting investment from multinational corporations and shaping the behavior of its own globe-trotting companies — giving international heft to the country's idiosyncratic antitrust enforcement and putting it on a collision course with Western-style regulation.