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Sen. Angus King Weighs In On Russia's Latest Political Cyberattack Attempt


We learned this morning that a group with ties to the Russian government tried to launch cyberattacks directed at U.S. political institutions. Microsoft said it took control of six web domains hackers had created to mimic the websites of the U.S. Senate and to conservative think tanks. They think this same group was involved in trying to influence the 2016 election. The Russian foreign ministry says that Microsoft's report reflects, quote, "a witch hunt in the U.S."

As part of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Maine Senator Angus King was briefed on this issue today. I asked him to share some of what he learned in that briefing.

ANGUS KING: Microsoft, which is where we're getting the information at this point, has no doubt - I think that was the exact phrase - no doubt whatsoever that the Russians were behind this attack. The Russians of course are acting innocent, but I have to rely on the technology folks at Microsoft. And it happens to be the same group that we saw involved in the 2016 elections of so-called APT28, better known as Fancy Bear, also known as Strontium, also known as a part of the GRU, which is Russian military intelligence. That was the group that did a lot of the malicious hacking back in 2016.

CORNISH: Based on what you've learned, what we're hearing from your colleagues, do you expect that this will be the first of many announcements from the private sector going forward?

KING: Well, I think we're going to see more announcements like this from the technology companies, whether it's Microsoft, perhaps - Facebook has already taken down fake accounts they've found. Twitter I think is going to continue to be involved. And of course the government is going to be involved. And as you say, it's really got to be all of society to defend ourselves against this. And I think there will be further announcements.

These folks are good at this. They're determined. It's cheap. They're not paying much of a price for this. And they figure, why not? We're going to continue to try to divide Americans. And interestingly in this case, I think one of the very important points here is these were attacks on conservative, Republican-leaning organizations. As my friend Marco Rubio has pointed out, Putin is not a Republican. He's an opportunist. And...

CORNISH: Although these were organizations that in some ways had broke with Trump doctrine.

KING: Well, but they were - I think they were targeted because they were critical of the Putin regime in Russia. I think that was really the issue. And so this is a nonpartisan attack on our country, and we've got to understand that, you know, they tried to help Mr. Trump in 2016. They could easily turn the tables in 2018 or 2020 and that they have to start to realize that there's a price to be paid.

One of the problems, Audie, with our response is that so far, the sanctions have been late. I don't think they've been strong enough. And so the Russians see us as an easy mark. I asked one of the intelligence officials at a hearing, are we doing anything that would make them desist? And his response was, we are not doing anything that would change their calculus. I found those to be very chilling words, and that's got to be part of our national policy.

CORNISH: So essentially you're saying there's no deterrence coming from the U.S. at this point. So what are the implications of not responding to these smaller hacks, right? I mean, do you think Russia is working up to something bigger?

KING: I don't know if they're working up to some mega attack, but I think what they're going to continue to do is this kind of thing, whether it will be against think tanks, against political organizations. Part of this attack this week we learned about was against the U.S. Senate. So they're going after our institutions, and they're going to go after individual candidates. This is what they've done in Europe for years, and it's time for us to recognize this as the serious threat that it is, develop an adequate response both within the government and the private sector and also develop a strategy of deterrence so that whether it's Russia, Iran, China, North Korea or ISIS, that there's a price to be paid for this kind of attack on the United States of America.

CORNISH: Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, thank you for speaking with us.

KING: Delighted to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.