U.S. Conducted More Than Two Dozen Pre-Election Cyber Operations

The U.S. carried out more than two dozen operations to thwart adversaries from election meddling ahead of the 2020 presidential election, according to a top intelligence official.

General Paul Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, testified at a Senate hearing on Thursday that Cyber Command conducted the operations “to get ahead of foreign threats before they interfered or influenced our elections.”

Nakasone appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee a week after the U.S. intelligence community issued a report describing foreign efforts to influence voter opinions. It found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered operations to hurt President Joe Biden’s candidacy and favor former President Donald Trump. Iran sought to hurt Trump’s candidacy, but China didn’t deploy influence efforts, according to the report. While there were foreign efforts aimed at affecting voter opinion, there were no attempts on “any technical aspect of the voting process,” the agencies found.

Nakasone also said that two recently discovered cyber-attacks were “a clarion call” to take a fresh look at challenges facing the U.S.

The first was December’s revelation that suspected Russian hackers compromised popular software from SolarWinds Corp. and breached about nine government agencies as well as 100 companies. And in March, Microsoft Corp. revealed that suspected Chinese hackers used vulnerabilities in its Exchange software for email and carried out an attack that experts say has tens of thousands of victims.

“What we’ve seen from both the SolarWinds and the Microsoft intrusions is an increasing level of sophistication,” Nakasone said. “This is a scope, a scale, a level of sophistication that we hadn’t seen previously.”

The SolarWinds attack was conducted through U.S. networks, taking advantage of an area where Nakasone said he has limited visibility, referring to constraints on domestic surveillance by intelligence agencies.

“Our adversaries understand that they can come into the United States and rapidly utilize an internet service provider -- come up and do their activities and take that down, before a warrant can be issued, before we can actually have surveillance by a civilian authority here in the United States,” he said. “That’s the challenge that we have right now.”

Asked whether China has continued to steal intellectual property from the U.S. after a 2015 agreement that neither power would conduct economic espionage, Nakasone described wide-ranging Chinese cyber activities in recent years. “I have seen the Chinese continue to utilize cyber activities below the level of armed conflict to steal intellectual property, to steal our personal identification, and at times attempt to influence our populace,” he said.

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