FBI chief on Russian hacking: We 'should have seen this coming'

Story highlights

  • Officials reiterated that the US is still working to get its arms around the problem
  • Public trust is key, and what Russia is seeking to undermine, they said

Boston (CNN)The US government should have anticipated Russia's efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections -- but the FBI is nevertheless working to make sure Russia "pays" for its actions, bureau officials said Wednesday.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said Moscow's efforts were surprising "in some ways," but that the intelligence community had enough information to have foreseen extensive efforts by Russian-government linked hackers and operatives to influence the 2016 election.
"The fact is, the Russians have been targeting us with everything they have over the last 50 years," McCabe said. "We sort of should have seen this coming."
    McCabe was speaking at the Cambridge Cyber Summit, held by CNBC and the Aspen Institute, on a wide-ranging panel about the cybersecurity threat. The admission follows repeated statements from the intelligence community reaffirming the assessment a year ago that the Russian government was involved in various attempts to influence the election, including by releasing damaging emails about Democrats and Hillary Clinton's campaign. Russian meddling is the subject of a special counsel investigation by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, which McCabe said the FBI is assisting where it can, and investigations in the House and Senate.
    Without getting into specifics about what activities the FBI sees currently, McCabe implied that the meddling hasn't stopped.
    "The experience in the 2016 elections allowed us to diagnose the problem," McCabe said. "Have we cured it yet? Absolutely not."
    Appearing with McCabe, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Susan Gordon echoed his remarks and praised recent efforts by social media companies to examine their own use as tools for the Russian effort, citing specifically public comments by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about what his company could do better.
    "I think this is a catalyzing comment," Gordon said. "I think this is exciting."
    But beyond the importance of working with the private sector on the problem, the government is also working on how to fight back.
    FBI Counterintelligence Division Assistant Director E.W. "Bill" Priestap said that Russia must feel consequences of its actions.
    "The FBI is doing everything it can to make sure Russia pays a price for its nefarious activities," Priestap said, adding that could include offensive cyber responses, or hacking back.
    "I think the bad actors, in this case, Russia, should be held accountable. So to me all options should be on the table. Should (hacking in return) be one of them? In my opinion, absolutely it should be considered," Priestap said. "The game is changing so as a result we can't just rely on traditional responses, we ought to rely on all possible options."
    Those options may be limited, though, White House Cyber Coordinator Rob Joyce said in a separate panel. He, too, said a variety of options should be available to the government, but said the hacking back options may not be sufficient yet.
    "We know how to poke using cyber," Joyce said. "What we don't know what to do is knock them down and stand on their chest, hold them down and continue to impress our will in that space. So people who envision cyber as a solution, a complete solution, is a little overblown."
    He also said that the government has yet to use a sanctions authority put in place by the Obama administration that allows the government to respond to cyberattacks -- but said that wasn't necessarily because it doesn't intend to.
    Sanctions may be more a matter of when, not if, Joyce said.
    "It's more getting the campaign lined up. It's important to use tools for maximum effectiveness, so the timing of things is very, very critical," Joyce said. "You want to roll out sanctions at the same time you have a diplomatic plan ... if you can do it in conjunction with law enforcement activities, you do that as well."
    Joyce sought to downplay seeming dissension from President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly tweeted about a Russia "hoax." He said the President in fact believes the intelligence community's findings.
    "It's really important to understand the President has been briefed on the intelligence and the election intrusions, he accepted that," Joyce said. "He stood behind the intelligence community."
    But Joyce also acknowledged that the public's trust in government is critical.
    "I think it's terribly important," Joyce said, pointing to a similar assessment that North Korea was behind the 2014 hack of Sony. "It's that kind of definitive statement that's really important that we have that trust."
    McCabe also spoke of the dangers of public distrust -- saying that's exactly what Russia and others are hoping to erode.
    "When we are tearing ourselves apart and torn from one side to the next and in a state of unrest, physically and emotionally, our adversaries are in a better place and that is where they seek to push us," McCabe said. "The difference is now they've got the platform. ... So forget security professionals, how do we process this as Americans?"