Bill Gertz, national security columnist for The Washington Times, describes a growing threat of information warfare in his new book, “iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age” (Threshold Editions). Below is an excerpt from the book, which is being released this week:
Russia under Vladimir Putin has emerged from the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union as a revanchist threatening power that is engaged in strategic information warfare against the United States and its allies. The attacks strike at the heart of the American democratic system and involve a covert action program aimed at influencing the outcome of the nation’s most important political contest: the election of the president of the United States.
Mr. Putin is a former KGB lieutenant colonel who directed its successor agency, the Federal Security Service. As Russia’s president, Mr. Putin has been a leading advocate for the use of secret intelligence operations for information warfare, and the most deadly form has been assassination of political opponents.
On November 1, 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service, arranged a meeting with two Russians who had offered him a lucrative business deal. They agreed to gather in the bar of London’s Millennium Hotel. As an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin and a defector very aware of the deadly capabilities of his former employer, Litvinenko was living an uneasy life in exile. Hours before the planned meeting in the Pine Bar of the hotel, the former FSB officer, who at one time specialized in clandestine assassinations, met with a friend, Mario Scaramella. The Italian lawyer brought distressing news: Litvinenko’s life was in danger. Russian intelligence had placed his name on a hit list along with several other high-profile critics of the Putin regime to be eliminated. Mr. Scaramella said radioactive poisons might be used. The information had come from Evgeni Limarev, a former member of the Russian SVR foreign intelligence service. Litvinenko doubted the threat. “If it’s from Evgeni, it means it’s not credible. It’s s—t if it’s from Evgeni,” he said.
The failure to heed the warning was a fatal mistake. Hours later in the bar of the hotel, two men, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun, were waiting at a table with a white ceramic teapot. Both were former KGB agents. British police concluded the two men poisoned Litvinenko after one of them had poured a small vial of an extremely poisonous radioactive substance, polonium 210, through the spout of the teapot.
During the 23 days he lay dying in a hospital bed, Litvinenko managed to give British investigators his account of what had happened. Several minutes into the meeting at the bar one of the Russian agents, Mr. Lugovoy, said: “OK, well, we’re going to leave now anyway, so there is still some tea left here; if you want you can have some.”
“I poured some tea out of the teapot, although there was only little left on the bottom and it made just half a cup,” Litvinenko recalled. “I swallowed several times but it was green tea with no sugar and it was already cold by the way. I didn’t like it for some reason well, almost cold tea with no sugar and I didn’t drink it anymore.”
Later that night, Litvinenko grew violently ill. When he was admitted to the hospital, doctors were unable to determine what made him sick until hours before his death. A doctor had suspected radiation poisoning and the diagnosis was confirmed by Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment. The poison was polonium 210.
Litvinenko’s death was the direct result of what a special British investigative commission concluded had been an assassination operation — likely carried out by the FSB with the direct blessing of Mr. Putin. “I have no doubt whatsoever that this was done by the Russian secret services,” Litvinenko told British police shortly before his death. “Having knowledge of the system I know that the order about such a killing of a citizen of another country on its territory, especially if it [is] something to do with Great Britain, could have been given by only one person.”
And who was the person? “That person is the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin,” the dying man said. Litvinenko signed a statement on November 21, two days before his death, defiantly announcing to the Russian leader: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”
Litvinenko was not the only victim of the Russian intelligence killing operations. Several political killings were also linked to them, including those of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition politicians Sergei Yushenkov and Vladimir Golovlev. All were shot.
The Litvinenko case highlights the growing danger of Russian intelligence and information warfare operations, which pose a direct threat to the United States. The case of Russian information warfare against the U.S. presidential election shows the threat is not limited to overseas assassination.
On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July 2016, Russia carried out one of the most daring information warfare attacks in history. It was a thinly veiled attempt to disrupt the U.S. presidential election process.
Using the left-wing anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks as a cutout, Moscow’s government hackers released some 20,000 internal documents hacked from the computer network of the Democratic National Committee. The emails revealed that the DNC had used covert smear tactics during the presidential primary campaign to support the eventual nominee Hillary Clinton against democratic socialist rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Clinton presidential campaign spokesman Robby Mook blamed Mr. Putin for interfering in the election by seeking to promote the candidacy of New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, who during the campaign had voiced admiration for the strength of the Russian leader, who in turn had responded with positive words for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump, the president-elect, has voiced skepticism about the Russian influence operation, but will be briefed on the intelligence community’s evidence in the coming days.
Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Mr. Trump’s choice to head the CIA, told me, “Evidence and experts have pointed to Russia as the culprit behind the hack of the DNC, which is not surprising. What is new, and what we must act on, is possible foreign interference in our democratic process.”
Weak U.S. response
Forensic analysis by computer security experts revealed that the Russians hacked the DNC and then orchestrated the document release to a hacker named “Guccifer 2.0,” and to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, when questioned if the Russians were behind the DNC email leak, at first refused to identify the source and has repeatedly denied the material was provided by Moscow. Guccifer 2.0 also denied he was linked to Moscow.
The National Security Agency, however, which has formidable cyber-intelligence capabilities, believes the Russians are behind the political information warfare operation, according to American officials close to the agency.
President Obama, as he did throughout his presidency, turned a blind eye to the Russian hacking and influence operations, just as he did in the case of China’s information attacks.
Mr. Obama has taken an extremely conciliatory approach to cyberattacks against America and instead voiced concerns repeatedly that he worries that a tough stance against foreign cyberattacks would lead to a cyber arms race similar to conventional arms races in the past. It was vintage Obama — he had no problem projecting weakness in dealing with America’s enemies.
“What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the wild, wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition — unhealthy competition or conflict through these means when, I think, wisely we’ve put in place some norms when it comes to using other weapons,” the president said.
Days before he was to leave office, Mr. Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian intelligence officers in the United States and the symbolic sanctioning of two Russian spy services. He also suggested cyber attacks in retaliation were planned, but no evidence of U.S. counter cyber attacks have surfaced.
Just over a month before tens of millions of Americans cast their votes in the presidential election of 2016, the U.S. intelligence community issued an extraordinary statement blaming Russia for conducting information-warfare attacks aimed at influencing the outcome of the election. “The U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced in a joint statement. “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked emails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The influence operation was not new for the Russians, who are conducting similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia in seeking to influence public opinion.
It was only the second time the U.S. government publicly linked a foreign government to a strategic cyberattack. The first was the North Korean hack against Sony in November 2014.
Mr. Putin was not named in the statement, but intelligence agencies concluded that “senior-most” Russian officials authorized the attacks.
The Russian operation to influence the election was no match for hardball Democratic presidential campaign politics. The day the official U.S. government joint statement was issued identifying the influence program, Democratic political operatives published details of a 2005 video showing Mr. Trump making vulgar comments about women. The news media feeding frenzy that ensued effectively drowned out the latest eye-opening and politically damaging hacking disclosures by the Russians.
Russian information warfare capabilities are among the most advanced of any nation and are built on a foundation of similar operations honed to perfection during the Soviet Union, a period that stretched from 1917 to 1991. American intelligence officials believe the current government unit in charge of Moscow’s information warfare programs is the Federal Security Service, which in the 2010s emerged as the most powerful spy agency in Moscow, eclipsing the civilian SVR foreign spy service and the once-powerful military spy agency known as GRU.
The Russian official behind the presidential campaign operation was identified as Col. Gen. Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, known as the Directorate of Operational Information and International Communications. Gen. Beseda was slapped with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in July 2014 following Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea — an operation that was among the most strategically significant Russian information warfare operations and one that set in motion all the conditions for the new Cold War with Moscow.
• Copyright 2017 by Bill Gertz. Reprinted by permission of Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved. For more information, go to iwarbook.com.