Breaking events on the international scene are always confusing and complicated. Who are the perpetrators and who should be held accountable? These questions jump to the forefront of public discussion and debate. For professionals in the intelligence field the question that comes to mind is, “What’s the rest of the story?” There always seems to be more than what we first see.
These are exactly the questions that need to be asked and answered regarding the cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline. It seems that there is an almost unanimous agreement that Russian hackers were the perpetrators, but there is a difference of opinion as to who should be held accountable.
A compelling case has been made by former U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, current Chairman of the Institute for the Study of War and Fox News contributor Gen. Jack Keane that this group operating from Russia could not have carried out this attack without Russian government awareness. The Biden administration is not ready to go there.
That brings us to the third question, what is the rest of the story? When you peel back the layers what do you uncover? There has not been much said or written about this, but it is the most important question that is out there.
The United States has been under sustained cyberattack for years. The attacks have affected many aspects of our economy and government.
A few years ago, the files of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management were compromised. My personal records were accessed and taken by some foreign player. While very alarming, the real-world effect on those who had their information compromised has been harder to quantify.
This attack is very different. American motorists in many states were not able to fill their tanks because their local gas station had run out of gas. Several states declared states of emergency and long, winding gas lines formed at stations that did have gas available.
In the world of cyberwarfare this is a major shift in tactics. This is a highly visible attack that affected the lives of average Americans going about their daily routines.
Getting to the rest of the story will be very difficult, but getting it is absolutely vital so that the United States can respond appropriately against those responsible.
As the former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I know this “rest of the story” analysis is happening right now. As Americans, there are a series of questions we should want our elected officials to answer right now.
Was this an isolated event or are there other ransomware or cyberattacks that the perpetrators have prepared to escalate the crisis? Could this be more than a just one off? Why did the Russian hackers move to such a visible and disruptive strategy?
If, and I agree with General Keane, the Russian government was aware of this attack, what are they trying to accomplish? What do they believe the consequences will be? It seems they have made the calculation that however the United States will respond, the benefits will be much greater to them.
Is this President Putin testing the resolve of the Biden administration? Every new administration is tested early on by Russia, China, Iran, and others to get a measure of what they can do. Or is this more a message that says you are extremely vulnerable, we know it, so be careful in the steps you take in any major foreign policy area that affects us?
Cyberspace is a great equalizer. Less powerful actors can punch above their weight in cyberspace. It is a scary place to be when someone crosses the line and inflicts the kind of damage this attack did to the United States, both in actual damage and damage to U.S. credibility and prestige.
We are only seeing the tip of this current crisis, and it will have a profound impact. How the Biden administration responds, including implementation of his just announced Executive Order on cyber, will set the stage for U.S. cyber policy in this growing area of conflict.
Will our response earn the respect of our allies? Will it instill fear in those who carried out this attack? Let us hope that our adversaries continue to see the U.S. as a country that you do not mess with.