Why Trump is reluctant to escalate the cyber war with Russia

Democrats are furious. Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community have no doubt that Russian trolls, bots and hackers are planning to meddle in the midterm elections this fall, and to date President Donald Trump has not instructed his cyber generals to hit back.

This was the upshot of Senate testimony Tuesday from Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and chief of U.S. Cyber Command. He was repeating a warning voiced by intelligence community leaders earlier this month. Asked if he has been directed by the White House to counter the coming Russian offensive in cyberspace, Rogers responded that he has not.

In this hyper partisan moment, it’s understandable that the remarks of the NSA director will be used as a cudgel. In Trump, the Russians got what they paid for, the argument goes. But like most matters of Russia policy, it’s a bit more complicated.

Rogers was responding in part to a question about whether he had been told to try to stop Russian hackers at their “point of origin.” That means offensive cyber operations designed to shut down, overwhelm or monitor the servers and networks Russia uses to hype fake news, hack Americans and sow chaos in U.S. politics. These would be some of the most sensitive operations conducted by the U.S. government. In such cyber warfare, the rules of escalation and engagement are still not clear.