The Obama administration is believed to be exploring the option of launching a possible covert cyber strike against Russia. The CIA has been charged with providing the White House with various options for "clandestine" cyber operations specifically designed to target Russia, according to reports.
Former and current US officials with knowledge on the matter said that the CIA was also requested to deliver options for cyber operations, designed specifically to "embarrass" the Kremlin, indicating that any such operation would likely be in retaliation against Russia's perceived interference with the ongoing US presidential elections.
According to unspecified sources, the CIA has already started isolating targets and making preparations for an operation. However, it is still uncertain as to the specific measures that the spy agency may be currently considering. Former intelligence officials told NBC News that the CIA has already amassed scads of documents, which could potentially expose compromising information on Russia and its president Vladimir Putin.
Vice President Joe Biden told Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, "we're sending a message" to Putin and that "it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact."
Sean Kanuck, former US intelligence official, who until recently was responsible for analysing Russia's cyber capabilities said that not mounting a response could prove to be damaging. "If you publicly accuse someone," he said, "and don't follow it up with a responsive action, that may weaken the credible threat of your response capability."
According to the NBC News report, documents indicate that a team within the CIA's Center for Cyber Intelligence is believed to be preparing for the possible cyber strike. The operation has been designed to ensure that Russian hackers don't interfere with the upcoming voting process in November. The cyber strike is also intended to send a message to Russia, officials said.
Has the CIA done this before?
According to two former CIA officials, who have previously worked on Russia, the White House has a long history of requesting the CIA to come up with covert operations against Russia, including cyber action. However, the ideas are not followed through.
"We've always hesitated to use a lot of stuff we've had, but that's a political decision," one former officer said. "If someone has decided, 'We've had enough of the Russians,' there is a lot we can do. Step one is to remind them that two can play at this game and we have a lot of stuff. Step two, if you are looking to mess with their networks, we can do that, but then the issue becomes, they can do worse things to us in other places."
Yet another former official, who helped run intelligence operations against Russia, said that he was asked more than once in recent years to work on covert action plans, but "none of the options were particularly good, nor did we think that any of them would be particularly effective".
Is there a cyberwar in the offing?
According to unnamed sources, the Obama administration is believed to be currently considering options on whether to retaliate against Russia via cyber action or take a more traditional approach and impose sanctions.
There, however, appears to be some uncertainty about whether the US would take the step to actually attack Russian networks. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said, "Physical attacks on networks is not something the US wants to do because we don't want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us. My own view is that our response shouldn't be covert — it should be overt, for everybody to see."
Not be left behind, WikiLeaks also chimed in about the possibility of US launching a covert cyberwar against Russia. The whistleblowing platform tweeted out a post that speculated that if the US was "serious" about mounting an impending cyberwar, then it would be the NSA and not the CIA that would be tasked with covert cyber operations.