The U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon have quietly agreed on the outlines of an offensive cyberattack that the United States would unleash if Russia electronically interferes with the 2018 midterm elections on Nov. 6, according to current and former senior U.S. officials who are familiar with the plan.
In preparation for its potential use, U.S. military hackers have been given the go-ahead to gain access to Russian cyber systems that they feel is needed to let the plan unfold quickly, the officials said.
The effort constitutes one of the first major cyber battle plans organized under a new government policy enabling potential offensive operations to proceed more quickly once the parameters have been worked out in advance and agreed among key agencies.
While U.S. national security officials have so far reported only intermittent efforts by Russian sources to compromise political organizations and campaigns, they have been worried — in the aftermath of Russia’s digital contact with U.S. election systems in 2016 — that Moscow might unleash more aggressive interference in the hours before voting begins, while the polls are open, or when the votes are being tabulated.
The existence of such a plan means that America is more fully integrating offensive cyberattacks into its overall military planning systems, a move likely to make cyber combat more likely and eventually more commonplace, sometimes without first gaining specific presidential approval. Cyberattacks are now on a more obvious path, in short, to becoming a regular currency of warfare.
The plan for retaliation against Russia is one of the first to be organized since President Trump signed an executive order in August that simplifies and shortens the review for such operations. It has the effect — according to those familiar with the process — of giving the Pentagon additional prerogatives to prepare for strikes. It also preemptively addresses traditional intelligence community concerns that cyberattacks will compromise ongoing or future intelligence-gathering by exposing U.S. data-collection operations.