Last fall, the Russians reportedly conducted an offensive operation aimed at compromising the White House’s informational security and were spectacularly successful in that endeavor, according to reports. Russian cyber-intelligence operatives allegedly accessed sensitive White House computer systems that contained critical information pertaining to the President of the United States.
According to the White House, which became aware of the security breaches in October and has been periodically shutting it down for updating its security protocols ever since, any information the Russians compromised was of no great value.
“While the White House has said the breach only affected an unclassified system, that description belies the seriousness of the intrusion,” CNN reported. “The hackers had access to sensitive information such as real-time non-public details of the president’s schedule. While such information is not classified, it is still highly sensitive and prized by foreign intelligence agencies, U.S. officials say.”
“There’s always vulnerability,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters. “The fact is that’s why we have a classified system because there’s less risk in the classified system and that is secure. On the unclassified system, we take regular actions to prevent vulnerabilities and to enhance security.”
But that’s not what some security experts are saying. “What they’re not telling you is, these are the systems that they write the talking points,” said former Homeland Security advisor Fran Townsend in a Tuesday appearance on CNN. “They do their negotiating strategy. Was the Iranian negotiating strategy breached? We don’t know that.”
“The dialogue between the State Department and the White House about policy positions pre-decisional,” she continued, “that is, officials going back and forth, who is on what side of a policy argument – that is the kind of very valuable intelligence that the Russians could have gained access to.”
“It is a demonstration that the Russians are willing to up the ante in the cyber games against the United States and they’re willing to demonstrate their capabilities against the White House itself, the center of American power,” CBS National Security analyst Juan Zarate said on Tuesday. “The reality is that Russia, China and other competitive nation states have at their command, impressive and potentially detrimental cyber tools and they are willing to use them.”
As they do with every significant national security challenge, the White House is treating this breach like a political problem. They are underplaying the sensitivity of the information that might have been compromised and are suggesting that these kinds of breaches are standard operating procedure. Even that admission is politically inconvenient. It serves as an admission that the cyber-war between Russia and the United States has and remains as hot as ever. But to concede that Moscow had significantly compromised White House security would be to reduce the confidence in Russia to act as an honest broker and the source of verification that Iran is complying with the terms of a nuclear agreement with the West.
Nevertheless, the implication that Russia breached presidential cyber communications could lead American lawmakers to back the imposition of stronger sanctions on Moscow. Those sanctions have been increasing in scope since Russia invaded and annexed portions of neighboring Ukraine, and are set to expand following what is widely anticipated to be a renewed spring offensive in Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.