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US Expels Russian Diplomats For Cyber Attacks

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

35 Russian diplomats handed their marching orders by the United States in revenge for cyber attacks

Russian cyber attacks against US institutions and interference in the US election process has blown up into a major diplomatic incident.

The outgoing US President Barack Obama has ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and their families in retaliation for Russia’s cyber activities, and has levelled a fresh tranche of sanctions against that country.

But Russia threatened to expel 35 American diplomats in return, as the simmering row between the two nations continues.

Russian special forces © Darren Baker, Shutterstock 2012American Retaliation

The expelled Russian diplomatics have been given 72 hours to leave the US after they were declared “persona non grata”. The diplomats are based in Russia’s Washington DC embassy and the consulate in San Francisco.

And the US has also closed down two compounds which the US alleges are used for Russian intelligence-gathering.

“Today, President Obama authorized a number of actions in response to the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of US officials and cyber operations aimed at the US election in 2016,” said the White House. “Russia’s cyber activities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government. These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” said President Obama. “In October, my Administration publicised our assessment that Russia took actions intended to interfere with the US election process. These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government. Such activities have consequences. Today, I have ordered a number of actions in response.”

US intelligence officials had in October officially blamed the state-backed hacking group called Strontium, (otherwise known as ‘Fancy Bear’ or ‘APT 28’), which it said was linked to “senior” Russian government figures. These hackers, according to the US, are responsible for recent politically motivated hacking incidents, including the release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In response Obama also issued sanctions to freeze any US assets of Russia’s GRU and FSB intelligence agencies in the US and block Americans from doing business with them. He also issued sanctions against six Russian individuals.

“I have sanctioned nine entities and individuals: the GRU and the FSB, two Russian intelligence services; four individual officers of the GRU; and three companies that provided material support to the GRU’s cyber operations,” said Obama. “In addition, the Secretary of the Treasury is designating two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information. The State Department is also shutting down two Russian compounds, in Maryland and New York, used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes, and is declaring “persona non grata” 35 Russian intelligence operatives.”

“Finally, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are releasing declassified technical information on Russian civilian and military intelligence service cyber activity, to help network defenders in the United States and abroad identify, detect, and disrupt Russia’s global campaign of malicious cyber activities,” said Obama.

And Obama also hinted that the US may still carry out cyber attacks against Russia as well.

“These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities,” said Obama. “We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized. In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behaviour, and interfere with democratic governance.”

Obama said that a report will be delivered to the US Congress in the coming days about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the US election, as well as malicious cyber activity related to its election cycle in previous elections.

Russia Response

Russia has hit back and pledged to carry out the same measures, closing US compounds and expelling diplomats.

“Russia’s foreign ministry… has requested that the Russian president approve declaring as personae non gratae 31 employees of the US embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the US consulate in Saint Petersburg,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in televised comments.

Into this mess steps President elect Donald Trump, who has already pledged to work to restore relations with Russia.

But Trump will not be helped by the influential Republican House speaker Paul Ryan, who issued a statement that made his support for Obama’s “overdue” actions.

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