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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

After years of bitter complaints about cyberattacks from foreign adversaries, a new report describes aggressive U.S. cyber plans and intrusions of its own against Russia, a show of long-understood American prowess on the leading edge of warfare.

What’s happening: Experts tell Axios that the leak, published Sunday in the New York Times, may intend to signal the damage that the two countries could suffer in its confrontation with the U.S. But the disclosure also risks exacerbating already-fraught relations.

The big picture: For the last three or so years, the U.S. has been on the receiving end of some of the most damaging cyberattacks in history, climaxing with Russia's hacking of the 2016 presidential election. All in all, it has been an exceedingly embarrassing period for U.S. intelligence agencies, including the massively damaging 2013 theft of surveillance secrets by ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden, and the leak of top National Security Agency hacking tools to the so-called Shadow Brokers.

But now, in a high-profile story, the U.S., under tremendous military, economic and diplomatic pressure globally amid the multi-front brinkmanship of the Trump administration, has been depicted as a formidable cyber actor:

  • In a piece Sunday, the NYT reported that the U.S. has placed “potentially crippling malware inside the Russian [electric] system at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before.”
  • In another report, in 2016, the NYT described a plan called Nitro Zeus, in which American personnel would use vast U.S. cyber capabilities to “disable Iran’s air defense, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid,” in addition to the Fordo nuclear enrichment site. The lead byline on both stories is David Sanger, a national security correspondent.

Both reports resembled a lower-level 21st century version of the “mutually assured destruction” policy between the U.S. and the Soviets that prevailed during the Cold War. “With the 2020 election heating up, and Russia's cyber offensive continuing, I can well imagine policymakers wishing Americans to know what their government is doing in response," Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, tells Axios. "That message is, shall we say, not always clearly communicated by the commander in chief.”

Fontaine called the twin actions “prudent preparation of a battlefield that may never be engaged. In order to respond via cyber means to an adversary's actions, it is too late to start when the crisis begins. That is why states place beacons in foreign systems.”

  • Previously, U.S. officials have described Russia inserting malware to sabotage U.S. infrastructure like power plants, water supplies and energy pipelines.
  • While neither nation is known to have actually flipped off the power switch in the other country, Russia did shut off the electricity in Ukraine in December 2015.
  • And in August, the U.S. attacked the Internet Research Agency, the group responsible for much of Russia’s hacking of the 2016 U.S. election.

There was much in the way of blowback. In a tweet, Trump called the Russia report a “virtual act of treason” by the Times. The paper itself said it checked the story with the National Security Council, which said it had no concerns. That was “perhaps an indication that some of the intrusions were intended to be noticed by the Russians,” the NYT said.

Speaking by email, James Lewis, director of CSIS’s Technology Policy Program, said that the leak may reflect unhappiness by some American officials with Trump’s Russia policy, and “a desire to lock in a more confrontational policy.”

Chris Meserole, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees:

  • "The White House and intelligence community don’t see eye to eye on the threat Putin poses, particularly in cyberspace, so the leaks are designed to tie Trump’s hands while also communicating to the Kremlin that Russia is even more vulnerable to cyber attacks than we are."

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.

Off the Rails

Episode 2: Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 2: Trump stops buying what his professional staff are telling him, and increasingly turns to radical voices telling him what he wants to hear. Read episode 1.

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

Fringe right plots new attacks out of sight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Domestic extremists are using obscure and private corners of the internet to plot new attacks ahead of Inauguration Day. Their plans are also hidden in plain sight, buried in podcasts and online video platforms.

Why it matters: Because law enforcement was caught flat-footed during last week's Capitol siege, researchers and intelligence agencies are paying more attention to online threats that could turn into real-world violence.

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