President Donald Trump’s pledge for cybersecurity cooperation with Russia would likely fail quickly and could even make the U.S. less secure, numerous cyber analysts said Sunday after the president’s announcement met dismay and mockery from lawmakers of both parties.
Trump cryptically declared on Twitter early Sunday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.” That prospect had even Republicans in Congress expressing disbelief at Trump’s expecting to work hand-in-glove with a nation whose hackers are suspected of launching cyberattacks against the 2016 presidential election, American power plants and email systems at the White House, Pentagon and State Department.
Cyber policy specialists also noted that similar attempts at cooperation between the two former Cold War adversaries have swiftly run aground in recent years.
Several former George W. Bush and Obama-era cyber officials insisted the latest deal would be unlikely to help digitally secure upcoming U.S. elections, and instead would widen the rift between America and its European allies combating Moscow’s online aggression — a broader Putin goal. And when the deal inevitably falls apart, former Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend said on Twitter, “#Russia will blame #US” — handing Putin a significant narrative-setting victory.
“It’s strategic idiocy,” said Chris Finan, a former director for cybersecurity legislation and policy in Barack Obama’s White House.
Even worse, the attempt at cooperation itself could result in the U.S. exposing even more secrets to a country that has already stolen so many, cautioned former Obama administration official R.D. Edelman, who negotiated with Moscow on cyber issues at both the State Department and White House.
“On the heels of their election hacking, giving a country with that record access to sensitive information about our cybersecurity capabilities — and perhaps inadvertently, our citizens — is a mistake,” said Edelman, who now leads a project on cybersecurity issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Internet Policy Research Initiative, in an email to POLITICO.
Trump’s comments appeared to refer to a White House announcement Friday that said the two nations had agreed to form a joint cyber working group tasked with establishing a framework to resolve digital disputes, such as Moscow’s alleged election interference.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson portrayed the dialogue on Sunday as a way to “assure the American people that interference in our elections will not occur by Russia or anyone else.”
“We’re going to have a dialogue around how do we gain such assurances,” Tillerson said at a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose country has felt perhaps the greatest harm from suspected destabilizing Russian cyberattacks.
But Trump’s tweets added the confusing prospect of an unhackable joint cyber team focused on protecting America’s elections, sparking consternation across the political spectrum.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including former GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, derisively compared the notion to partnering with Syria on chemical weapons or joining forces with North Korea on nuclear technology. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois accused the president of “letting the fox guard the henhouse,” while Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) blasted the decision as “dumb as a rock.”
“Would we form a unit with the Russians to study how we prevent a Russian nuclear attack on the U.S.? We wouldn’t,” Lieu, who holds a degree in computer science, told POLITICO.
Another Democrat, Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, even vowed to introduce legislation on Tuesday and pursue amendments that would “make sure, in absolutely no shape or form, we spend taxpayer money on this crazy and dangerous idea.”
“This is an opportunity for Republicans to show that they truly do care about this issue and that this is an issue that rises above party politics,” Boyle, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said an interview.
Lieu threw his support behind Boyle’s push, and also encouraged Republican leadership to insert similar language into a Russia sanctions bill pending in the House that recently passed the Senate by a 98-2 vote. That measure would codify harsher sanctions on Russia for its apparent election-year interference.
While Trump’s tweet has shed light on the prospect of the U.S. and Russian cooperation on cybersecurity, the two sides have actually been tentatively exchanging digital information, in fits and starts, for years — though those efforts have been regularly thwarted by tensions involving Moscow’s broader activities.
In 2013, the Obama administration signed a major agreement with Russia to communicate more closely on cybercrime, while also establishing a Cold War-style cyber “hotline” between Washington and Moscow to reduce the risks of a digital misunderstanding leading to a dangerous escalation.
Much of that deal was scuttled within months, though, derailed by escalating tensions over Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine and Moscow’s unwillingness to budge on numerous issues, recalled several former Obama-era cyber officials.
Ongoing law enforcement swaps of cybercrime information were even turned “into recruitment tools for Russian intelligence and criminal groups,” said Megan Stifel, the NSC’s director for international cyber policy from 2013 to 2014.
U.S. cyber policy specialists don’t dismiss the entire concept of maintaining a dialogue with the country’s main digital adversaries — but they say Russia is a uniquely difficult case.
“I think it is right to try and reset relations,” said Rob Knake, a former White House cyber policy director and current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But there is a depth of ill will from the Russians towards the U.S., as well as an ongoing criminal investigation into the Russians hacking our election.”
The Obama administration did negotiate a deal in 2015 with China to prohibit the digital pilfering of intellectual property, which government officials said was draining hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. economy. Intelligence leaders and cybersecurity researchers say the pact has helped reduce Beijing-backed cyber thefts of America’s corporate secrets, even if the two countries remain at odds over China’s other apparent digital espionage campaigns — most notably the thefts of 20 million highly sensitive background investigation files from the Office of Personnel Management.
But many experts are deeply skeptical of getting similar success from a deal with Russia.
On cybersecurity, “the Russians work with the U.S. when it is in their interest, and do not work with the U.S. when it is not in their interest,” said Ari Schwartz, one of Barack Obama’s senior cybersecurity directors at the NSC. “It has rarely been in their interest to cooperate in the past, and I can’t imagine that on … election issues it will ever be in their interest to cooperate.”
Added another former White House official: “As long as cyber-enabled operations are an effective and cheap tool for them, Russia won’t have much incentive to come to the table and make meaningful progress."
Trump’s Cabinet heads still tried to sell the working group concept on Sunday. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin called it “a very important step forward” during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that the engagement “is about having capabilities to make sure that we both fight cyber together.” And Tillerson, whose department will jointly lead the talks with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, insisted the agreement was necessary. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think the election interference really shows how complicated the use of these types of tools are becoming,” Tillerson said during his news conference. “We have to find a way to begin to address that, and it’s not going to be only about Russia. It’s going to be about an international engagement as well.”
The administration’s assurances have yet to win over cyber watchers.
“The road ahead looks not just as troubled as the past, but worse,” Stifel said.
Eric Geller and Martin Matishak contributed to this report.