It could go down as one of the most ridiculed ideas in cybersecurity that wont go away: A joint Russian-American task force to protect future elections from hackers.
When President Donald Trump first surfaced the idea in a pair of tweets on July 9, 2017, he said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed forming “an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking & many other negative things, will be guarded … and safe.”
The notion prompted bipartisan disbelief, and Trump backed away from it within hours. But it surfaced again Monday after the two leaders met in Helsinki, Finland, when Putin suggested both countries work together to examine the evidence that Russia had meddled in the U.S. presidential election.
“We can analyze [evidence] through the joint working group on cybersecurity, the establishment of which we discussed during our previous contacts,” Putin suggested, confirming that he and Trump have talked about the idea before.
His remarks resurfaced much of the scorn that Trumps original tweets had received from lawmakers and cybersecurity experts. It also renewed some peoples worries that Trump might appease the Russian leader by finally taking action on his suggestion — perhaps giving Russia an inside look at the U.S. investigation of the attacks.
“The last time the president brought it up, everyone was against it,” said Jim Lewis, a cyber expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Now as before, he said, “the reaction from departments and agencies is going to be, Why do we want to talk to these people? What are we going to get out of it?'”
Others said sharing information with Russia will only make it easier for Moscow to detect and deflect U.S. intelligence agencies digital espionage and cyberattack techniques.
“Im sure there are some in Russia scratching their heads wondering how it is that last weeks indictment came together,” Megan Stifel, a former director for international cyber policy at the National Security Council, said in an email. One benefit for the Russians in forming a cyber working group, she said, was possibly learning about “our investigative playbook.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged caution in responding to Putins repeated overtures about a working group. “Im not really sure what it produces,” Rubio said Monday at a panel discussion on Russian election meddling at the Washington think tank the Atlantic Council. “This is really just a calculated play on his front.”
Still, Lewis said, Russia has several reasons for pushing the idea.
“They are, in some ways, a little desperate to be recognized as a peer,” he told POLITICO. “Were still a superpower. Look! We and the U.S. have this dialogue.'” Lewis said “it probably irritates the Russians a little bit” that the U.S. already has such an arrangement with China.
Offering to work together on cybersecurity also lets Putin argue that, far from pursuing rampant aggression online, Russia is behaving like a responsible international partner. “He can say, How can you say were irresponsible?'” Lewis said.
Robert Anderson, who led the FBIs cyber and criminal investigations branch from 2014 to 2016, said the U.S. should place a priority on “making sure that Russia is not utilizing the intelligence gains from this joint interaction to further acts of aggression against the United States.”
After cybersecurity experts savaged the working group plan last year, Trump walked back the proposal with uncharacteristic haste just 13 hours after he first raised it. “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesnt mean I think it can happen,” he tweeted at the time. “It cant.”
Yet a year later in Helsinki, Putin publicly raised it again.
The initial suggestion of a working group caught the governments cyber diplomats completely off-guard last year, according to Christopher Painter, who led the State Departments cyber office from 2011 until August 2017. Painter, now a commissioner at the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, described State Department staffers as incredulous when they learned that Trump had considered the idea.
During Mondays news conference, Painter tweeted, “Whatever benefit there may be from working level discussions, its hard to see how [a working group] can resolve these issues.”
Cyber cooperation between the U.S. and Russia has always been limited. The two countries established a hotline for resolving serious incidents in 2013, but the U.S. abandoned it after Putins invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea.
Russia has repeatedly refused to extradite its citizens to the U.S. when the Justice Department charges them with cybercrimes. When the U.S. tries to get another country to extradite a Russian hacker caught vacationing there, Russia employs clever techniques to try to block the transfer.
“Russia needs to show good faith in forming an official extradition treaty and prosecuting Russians for hacking against the U.S. in the short term,” said Anderson, the former top FBI cyber official.
Lewis said that when it came to controversial proposals like the cyber working group, Putin wins either way.
“Putin is looking to increase the disruption between the U.S. and NATO [and] in the U.S. itself,” he said. “So if he gets it, great, hes a peer with the U.S. If he doesnt get it, hes created a little more turmoil.”
Martin Matishak contributed reporting.