Cybersecurity Expert Explains Takeways From The Russia Indictments
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program today with the latest news out of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Twelve officers with the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU, were charged yesterday with hacking multiple Democratic targets - the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The grand jury indictment, which was announced by Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, describes in great detail how these Russian agents carried out this alleged cyberattack. Those details also suggest where that investigation could head next. In a minute, we'll talk with a former assistant attorney general who specialized in national security about how this new information could affect Mueller's investigation.
But first, we wanted to hear more about the indictment and what exactly we learn from these latest revelations. Joining us now is Matt Tait. He is a cybersecurity fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. He used to work for the British intelligence agency GCHQ. Matt Tait, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
MATT TAIT: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: What did we learn from this indictment about what the Russians were capable of that we didn't know before?
TAIT: So we knew a whole bunch of information before. What the indictment really tells us is what the U.S. government knows, which wasn't previously public - which is not only that there's technical reasons to think that GRU is behind this operation, but also that the U.S. government knows which specific military intelligence officers were behind it, the specific people - what they were doing, what search terms they were typing as they were conducting this operation.
MARTIN: Now, this is where opinion comes in. But I'm just wondering - in the field yourself, are you at all concerned about what the U.S. government has revealed about what it knows?
TAIT: So counterintelligence investigations are, by definition, extremely sensitive. U.S. citizens and the media are not the only people who are going to be poring through this indictment. There will be people in the Russian government who'll be looking at this indictment very closely, trying to understand how it was that this information was leaked, trying to identify what it is that the U.S. government knows and how - and how to make sure that this doesn't happen again. And those sources, those methods, are going to be very difficult for the U.S. government to repair.
One thing that is worth noting is the intelligence operations in the United States and around the world, they don't happen in a vacuum. Like, we don't just try and work out what's happening, we try and sort of identify what's going on in order to drive policy decisions. And in this particular case, clearly, the U.S. government has come to the conclusion that revealing the sources is sufficiently valuable to U.S. interests that it's worth damaging that kind of access.
MARTIN: And I was going to ask you that. That was going to be my final question, which is, is there a message being sent here about revealing what U.S. intelligence can see?
TAIT: So I think there's two really important messages that Mueller and the U.S. government is trying to send with this. The first is that this is not just bits and pieces of collected evidence that the U.S. government has now just - collected them into a pile and blaming Russia. Actually, they have extremely detailed inside knowledge as to what was happening as to this Russian government operation.
I think the second thing that's very important is to lay out to the U.S. public what it is that they know, how it is that this operation took place - that they actually know that these emails were stolen, that they were stolen by spear-phishing and that people at home can defend themselves from spear-phishing, for instance. And that's also important information for people to know in advance if, for instance, the midterms.
So I think that there's these two separate messages that the U.S. government is trying to send. First of all, that we really understand what is going on, and second of all, that the public can defend themselves, and the people at home can take actions to defend their own accounts.
MARTIN: That's Matt Tait. He's a cybersecurity fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and he formerly worked for the British intelligence agency GCHQ. Matt Tait, thanks so much for speaking with us.
TAIT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.