Show an ad over header. AMP

The CIA's new license to cyberattack

In 2018 President Trump granted the Central Intelligence Agency expansive legal authorities to carry out covert actions in cyberspace, providing the agency with powers it has sought since the George W. Bush administration, former U.S. officials directly familiar with the matter told Yahoo News.

Why it matters: The CIA has conducted disruptive covert cyber operations against Iran and Russia since the signing of this presidential finding, said former officials.


Driving the news: According to the Yahoo News story, of which I am the lead author, the 2018 covert action finding gives the CIA much more power to undertake such operations without needing prior approval from the National Security Council.

  • Under the Obama administration, U.S. officials would discuss proposals for specific potential covert actions for months, or even years, before signing off on them, former officials said.
  • Now they can go “from idea to approval in weeks,” a former U.S. official told Yahoo News. And many proposals can now circumvent the NSC entirely, said former U.S. officials. “Trump wanted to push decision-making to the lowest possible denominator,” said another former U.S. official — which means many of these decisions are now being made in-house within the CIA, said former officials.

Of note: These new powers are not related to the CIA’s ability to hack for the purpose of mere intelligence-gathering, said former officials.

  • Instead, they are about creating real-world effects like degrading or destroying adversaries’ infrastrastructure or exposing rival intelligence services’ secrets, said these officials.
  • The CIA’s new authorities have allowed it to more freely engage in “hack-and-dump” operations of the sort popularized by Russian intelligence via WikiLeaks, where pilfered data is leaked to journalists or released online via personas like Guccifer 2.0, the online front used by Russian operatives to publicize the 2016 hack of the DNC, said former U.S. officials.
  • The CIA has already dumped Russia- and Iran-related tranches of data online, said former officials.

Other impacts of the 2018 finding:

1. Financial institutions. It loosens prior restrictions on disruptive or destructive targeting of financial institutions, former U.S. officials said.

  • In prior administrations, wiping or dumping hacked banking data was considered an uncrossable line because of the potential effects of retaliation by foreign states on the U.S. banking system, said former officials.
  • Treasury Department officials were always particularly vociferously opposed to such measures in the past, said former officials.
  • “These were “things CIA always knew were an option, but were always a bridge too far," a former official told Yahoo News. “They had been bandied about at senior levels for a long time, but cooler heads had always prevailed."

2. "Cut-outs." The presidential authorization makes it much easier for the CIA to target “cut-outs” believed to be working surreptitiously for hostile foreign intelligence services at media organizations, charities, religious institutions, or other non-state entities for disruptive or destructive cyber actions, said former officials. In the past, the burden of proof for targeting such entities was high; now, standards have been made far more lax, said former officials.

3. The "big four." The finding explicitly enables the CIA to use these new powers against the “big four” U.S. adversaries — China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. But even though the CIA already had more legal maneuverability on covert operations against Iran than other U.S. foes, the Trump administration was particularly focused on escalating its activities against Tehran, said former officials.

  • These new CIA authorities, as well as a capacious interpretation of prior ones, have contributed to the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, say former officials, with the CIA conducting disruptive cyberattacks against Iranian infrastructure throughout Trump's term.
  • This maximum pressure campaign has been tantamount to a “regime destabilization” strategy for some senior Trump-era national security officials, aiming to weaken the Iranian government in order to force it to retreat to its own borders — and even hopefully collapse entirely, say former officials.
  • While President Trump “would genuinely want Iranians to come to the table and say, ‘Mercy, we give up, what is it going to take for sanctions to lift and to get maximum pressure off the table, we’ll agree to the whole process to dismantle our nuclear program,’ ” others within the administration have been far less sanguine, a second former senior official told me — and have pursued a sort of “soft” or implicit attempt at regime change in Tehran.

The big picture: Some officials emphasize that Trump-era shifts in U.S. offensive cyber operations are part of a natural evolution in U.S. policies in this arena, and that many changes would have been granted under a new Democratic administration as well.

  • “It’s not like some cabal of folks who had been sort of outside the national security establishment that were then brought in and hijacked” this process, a former senior official told me.

How Biden might tackle the Iran deal

Four more years of President Trump would almost certainly kill the Iran nuclear deal — but the election of Joe Biden wouldn’t necessarily save it.

The big picture: Rescuing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is near the top of Biden's foreign policy priority list. He says he'd re-enter the deal once Iran returns to compliance, and use it as the basis on which to negotiate a broader and longer-lasting deal with Iran.

Keep reading... Show less

Democrats look to Kamala Harris as bridge to next generation

Progressive leaders see Sen. Kamala Harris, if she's elected vice president, as their conduit to a post-Biden Democratic Party where the power will be in younger, more diverse and more liberal hands.

  • Why it matters: The party's rising left sees Harris as the best hope for penetrating Joe Biden's older, largely white inner circle.

If Biden wins, Harris will become the first woman, first Black American and first Indian American to serve as a U.S. vice president — and would instantly be seen as the first in line for the presidency should Biden decide against seeking a second term.

Keep reading... Show less

Technical glitch in Facebook's ad tools creates political firestorm

Facebook said late Thursday that a mix of "technical problems" and confusion among advertisers around its new political ad ban rules, caused issues affecting ad campaigns of both parties.

Why it matters: A report out Thursday morning suggested the ad tools were causing campaign ads, even those that adhered to Facebook's new rules, to be paused. Very quickly, political campaigners began asserting the tech giant was enforcing policies in a way that was biased against their campaigns.

Keep reading... Show less

States beg for Warp Speed billions to distribute COVID-19 vaccines

Operation Warp Speed has an Achilles' heel: States need billions to distribute vaccines — and many say they don't have the cash.

Why it matters: The first emergency use authorization could come as soon as next month, but vaccines require funding for workers, shipping and handling, and for reserving spaces for vaccination sites.

Keep reading... Show less

Court rules Minnesota absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Election Day

An appeals court on Thursday ruled that Minnesota absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

Why it matters: The ruling, which comes just five days before the election, blocks the state's plan to count absentee ballots arriving late so long as they're postmarked by Nov. 3 and delivered within a week of the election. Now those ballots must be set aside and marked late.

Keep reading... Show less

Twitter labels tweet from RT implying voter fraud in U.S. elections

Twitter on Thursday labeled a tweet from Russian state media outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) that included a video implying widespread voter fraud is plaguing, and potentially delegitimizing, the U.S. election.

Why it matters: It's the first time Twitter has labeled RT's account with a civic integrity label, or a designation used to highlight efforts to manipulate or interfere in elections or other civic processes.

Keep reading... Show less

U.S. tops 88,000 COVID-19 cases, setting new single-day record

Data: COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

The United States reported 88,452 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, setting a single-day record, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

The big picture: The country confirmed 1,049 additional deaths due to the virus, and there are over 46,000 people currently hospitalized, suggesting the U.S. is experiencing a third wave heading into the winter months.

Keep reading... Show less

The norms around science and politics are cracking

Crafting successful public health measures depends on the ability of top scientists to gather data and report their findings unrestricted to policymakers.

State of play: But concern has spiked among health experts and physicians over what they see as an assault on key science protections, particularly during a raging pandemic. And a move last week by President Trump, via an executive order, is triggering even more worries.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories