As the government scrambles to understand the widening compromise, legislation to shore up the nation’s cyber defenses sits unsigned on the President’s desk.
As the U.S. government grapples with what some are calling the worst cyber breach in years, lawmakers are pressing President Trump to sign sweeping new cybersecurity provisions contained in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Two lawmakers who worked on the provisions said that the recently disclosed hack shows how vulnerable the U.S. continues to be to adversaries like Russia.
The bad news out of the SolarWinds hack has become like a dripping faucet. Daily, the world learns of another agency or government body that may have been affected in what many call the worst cyber intelligence breach in years by Russia.
“I can’t share with you anything that’s classified but what we know is that this was a really serious breach,” Sen. Angus King, I-ME, said on Thursday during a Defense One Outlook 2021 event. “This is a warning shot of all warning shots to tell us how vulnerable we are and how serious the consequences should be. We have to double down on cyber defense, if there was ever any doubt it’s been resolved over the last two or three days.”
As described by King, the U.S. government’s cyber defense posture suffers some of the same shortcomings that the nation’s counter-terrorism apparatus faced before 9/11, including a lack of coordination on intelligence. “One of the problems we tried to address [in this year’s NDAA] in a big way is the silo problem. I want to say, we have really good silos — but they’re still silos,” he said.
King and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-WI, chaired the Cyber Solarium Commission, a body that earlier this year produced a set of recommendations for the U.S. government to adopt to improve critical cyber defenses. Some 25 of the Commission’s recommendations made it into the NDAA, which Trump has on his desk for signature but which he has threatened to veto because it lacks an unrelated provision repealing protections for social-media companies.
Among the most important of these commission recommendations is the establishment of a new position in the White House, a senate-confirmed cybersecurity director. The White House did have a cybersecurity coordinator, a role filled by former NSA hacker Rob Joyce, but former National Security Advisor John Bolton got rid of the position. “The status quo prior to Bolton’s change was not sufficient itself,’ said Gallagher on Thursday. “That position, while important, was not empowered the way a national cyber director truly would be. A lot of it depends on the president’s view of these issues… the reason we made the national cyber director senate confirmed is to give it a level of prominence and power regardless. That would transcend [National Security Council] organizations.”
Another key provision, a pilot program to measure how quickly different aspects of the government can detect and respond to threats, an important one since some adversaries, like Russia, can move laterally within networks in under 20 minutes, making detection much harder. It’s something that Crowdstrike co-founder and former CTO Dmitri Alperovitch has given public testimony on: “The only way you beat an adversary is by being faster than them. The very best private sector companies we work with strive to detect an intrusion on average within 1 minute, investigate it within 10 minutes, and isolate and remediate the problem within 1 hour,” Alperovitch told lawmakers November, 2018.
Many of the NDAA provisions enhance the strength of CISA, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency. The new bill would give CISA the ability to proactively threat hunt on government networks. “You need someone capable of looking across the interagency,” said Gallagher. “I hate to say it but I just don’t think the CIOs in all of these different agencies are capable of doing that right now.” The bill also mandates a feasibility study on government threat hunting on networks belonging to the defense industrial base. “That’s something that I do think would directly improve our ability to detect and potentially prevent this in future,” said Gallagher.
A recent GAO report on supply-chain risk identified key gaps in how the government was addressing supply chain vulnerability. “None of the 23 agencies fully implemented all of the [advised supply-chain risk management] practices and 14 of the 23 agencies had not implemented any of the practices.”
The bill would even give CISA the authority to issue subpoenas to internet service providers under some circumstances. Said King: “If we detect a threat to...a utility, we don’t know who the utility is because it's masked as it comes through the [internet service provider].…CISA can go to the ISP and say ‘we’ve seen this threat. Who’s your customer so we can go to them and warn them?’”
CISA has been in the news lately. In November, its founding director, Chris Krebs, was fired by tweet by President Trump for saying that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was among the most secure, a fact Trump attempted to dispute after losing the election.
Gallagher does not share that antipathy toward Krebs. “I think they did a phenomenal job,” on election security, the lawmaker said. “We evaluated a variety of different proposals including the creation of an entirely new cyber agency. Ultimately we came to believe the nation would be better served if we elevate and empower CISA and build upon the great work of dir Krebs and others.”
So far, the U.S. government hasn’t formally attributed the attack to Russia. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, tweeted yesterday: “Today’s classified briefing on Russia’s cyberattack left me deeply alarmed, in fact downright scared. Americans deserve to know what's going on. Declassify what’s known & unknown.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, has said the breach is "virtually a declaration of war.”
King wouldn’t say exactly what type of response was appropriate but did say, “No response is not appropriate and that’s been our national response by and large for the last ten or 15 years… Below the threshold of force, below a catastrophic attack, we don’t have a deterrent. Our adversaries, and this is a perfect example, don’t feel that they have much at risk for coming after us, whether it’s in the election of 2016 or this hack or name it.” He called it a key problem that he and others have tried to address. “I want somebody in the Kremlin sitting around the table to say ‘wait a minute, boss, if we do this, we’re liable to get whacked’... Right now, they’re not making that calculus.”
Said Gallagher: “There needs to be some response and until those responsible feel pain for this intrusion.”
Whatever response may be warranted, Trump does not seem to want to provide it. Not only has he not commented on the hack but he’s threatened to veto the NDAA as it doesn’t include his asked-for provisions attacking social media companies. Even with a veto-proof majority, that could push passage back.
Meanwhile, the government is still trying to determine how widespread the data breach is. Yesterday the Defense Department sent out a notice saying “To date, we have no evidence of compromise of the [Department of Defense Information Network]” from Vice Admiral Nancy Norton, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of Joint Force Headquarters, Department of Defense Information Network. “We continue to assess,” it added.
Tom Bossert, a former advisor to President Trump, wrote in an op-ed published Thursday in the New York Times that president-elect Biden “must begin his planning to take charge of this crisis. He has to assume that communications about this matter are being read by Russia,+ assume that any government data or email could be falsified.”
The Biden transition team on Thursday released a statement saying, “I have instructed my team to learn as much as we can about this breach, and Vice President-elect Harris and I are grateful to the career public servants who have briefed our team on their findings, and who are working around-the-clock to respond to this attack.”
There will be much to learn. On Thursday, CISA released a new and foreboding alert: “The SolarWinds Orion supply chain compromise is not the only initial infection vector this APT actor leveraged.” In other words, stay tuned.