March 15, 2018
USA officials say malware was found in operating systems of several US energy companies and announces sanctions for election interference
US accuses Russia of cyber-attack on energy sector and imposes new sanctions
The US has accused Russia of a wide-ranging cyber-assault on its energy grid and other key parts of its infrastructure, as it stepped up sanctions on Russian intelligence for its interference in the 2016 elections.
US officials said that malware had been found in the operating systems of several organisations and companies in the US energy, nuclear, water and “critical manufacturing” sector, and the malware as well as other form of cyber-attacks had been traced back to Moscow.
“Russia’s behaviour continues to trouble us and we are continuing to push back in meaningful ways,” a senior national security official said.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an alert, urging other firms in the industry to review their cybersecurity. The alert said the concerted cyber-attack on US infrastructure began in March 2016.
“It is the judgment of the DHS than Russian government cyberhackers were behind the hacking of organisations in the energy sector,” a senior official said, adding that it was clear that the cyber-attack was coordinated and “deliberately targeted”.
Officials added that the motive of the attack was initially surveillance, to gather information on computer management systems in the US energy grid.
The cybersecurity alert said: “DHS and FBI characterize this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing and gained remote access into energy sector networks.”
“After obtaining access, the Russian government cyber actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally, and collected information pertaining to industrial control systems,” it added.
At the same time, the US treasury announced new sanctions against Russian individuals and entities, including the FSB and GRU intelligence agencies, as well as the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg, for interference in the 2016 elections.
As a result of Russia’s election interference, officials said that thousands of Russian-planted stories reached “millions of people online” during the US presidential campaign.
The new sanctions represent the broadest set of US punitive measures against Russia since the start of the Trump administration, and many of their targets are the same as those identified by an indictment by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s investigation has been denounced as a politically motivated witch-hunt by the president and his supporters, and the new measures represent the latest example of dissonance in attitudes towards Russia between Trump and other parts of the administration.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the sanctions did not go nearly far enough in view of the scale of the Russian attack on the 2016 election.
“The sanctions today are a grievous disappointment, and fall far short of what is needed to respond to that attack on our democracy, let alone deter Russia’s escalating aggression, which now includes a chemical weapons attack on the soil of our closest ally,” Schiff said in a statement.
He pointed out that many of the sanctions targeted had already been designated by the Obama administration, and claimed that the new designated targets did not reflect “new work within the administration” but were selected on the basis of the Mueller’s indictment.
“It appears that Mr Mueller is doing more to place consequences on Russia’s behavior than the rest of the administration,” Schiff said.
The sanctions were also imposed for the role of Russian intelligence in distributing the NotPetya malware and ransomware which US officials attributed to Moscow in February.
Officials said it was initially targeted at Ukraine but was allowed to “propagate recklessly without bounds” and caused an estimated $10bn in damage around the world, making it the most damaging cyber-attack in history.
The treasury announced it had sanctioned five entities and 19 individuals for cyber-attacks, including during the election.
“The administration is confronting and countering malign Russian cyber-activity, including their attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and intrusions targeting critical infrastructure,” Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, said in a statement.
“These targeted sanctions are a part of a broader effort to address the nefarious attacks emanating from Russia. Treasury intends to impose additional … sanctions, informed by our intelligence community, to hold Russian government officials and oligarchs accountable for their destabilising activities by severing their access to the US financial system.”
Among those directly targeted are six senior officers of the military intelligence service, the GRU, including its chief, Igor Korobov, and three of his deputies.
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