Contradicting his secretary of state and other top officials, President Donald Trump suggested Saturday without evidence that China â€” not Russia â€” may be behind the cyberattack against the United States and tried to minimized its impact.
In his first comments on the breach, Mr. Trump scoffed at the focus on the Kremlin and downplayed the intrusions, which the nationâ€™s cybersecurity agency has warned posed a â€œgraveâ€ risk to government and private networks.
â€œThe Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control,â€ Trump tweeted. He also claimed the media are â€œpetrifiedâ€ of â€œdiscussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!).â€
There is no evidence to suggest that is the case. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Friday that Russia was â€œpretty clearlyâ€ behind the cyberattack against the United States.
â€œThis was a very significant effort and I think itâ€™s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity,â€ he said in the interview with radio talk show host Mark Levin.
Officials at the White House had been prepared to put out a statement Friday afternoon that accused Russia of being â€œthe main actorâ€ in the hack, but were told at the last minute to stand down, according to one U.S. official familiar with the conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
How to explain dispute?
It is not clear whether Mr. Pompeo got that message before his interview, but officials are now scrambling to figure out how to square the disparate accounts. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the statement or the basis of the presidentâ€™s claims.
Throughout his presidency, Mr. Trump has refused to blame Russia for well-documented hostilities, including its interference in the 2016 election to help him get elected. He blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for Russiaâ€™s annexation of Crimea, has endorsed allowing Russia to return to the G-7 group of nations, and has never taken the country to task for allegedly putting bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
In the interview, Secretary Pompeo said the government was still â€œunpackingâ€ the cyberattack and some of it would likely remain classified.
â€œBut suffice it to say there was a significant effort to use a piece of third-party software to essentially embed code inside of U.S. government systems, and it now appears systems of private companies and companies and governments across the world as well,â€ he said.
Though Mr. Pompeo was the first Trump administration official to publicly blame Russia for the attacks, cybersecurity experts and other U.S. officials have been clear over the past week that the operation appears to be the work of Russia. There has been no credible suggestion that any other country â€” including China â€” is responsible.
Democrats in Congress who have received classified briefings have also affirmed publicly that Russia, which in 2014 hacked the State Department and interfered through hacking in the 2016 presidential election, was behind it.
Hackersâ€™ target unclear
Itâ€™s not clear exactly what the hackers were seeking, but experts say it could include nuclear secrets, blueprints for advanced weaponry, COVID-19 vaccine-related research, and information for dossiers on government and industry leaders.
Russia has said it had â€œnothing to doâ€ with the hacking.
While Mr. Trump downplayed the impact of the hacks, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has said it compromised federal agencies as well as â€œcritical infrastructure.â€ Homeland Security, the agencyâ€™s parent department, defines such infrastructure as any â€œvitalâ€ assets to the U.S. or its economy, a broad category that could include power plants and financial institutions.
One U.S. official, speaking Thursday on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that is under investigation, described the hack as severe and extremely damaging.
â€œThis is looking like itâ€™s the worst hacking case in the history of America,â€ the official said. â€œThey got into everything.â€
Trump had been silent on the attacks before Saturday.
Deputy White House press secretary Brian Morgenstern declined Friday to discuss the matter, but told reporters that national security adviser Robert Oâ€™Brien had sometimes been leading multiple daily meetings with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies, looking for ways to mitigate the hack.
â€œRest assured we have the best and brightest working hard on it each and every single day,â€ he said.
The Democratic leaders of four House committees given classified briefings by the administration on the hack have complained that they â€œwere left with more questions than answers.â€
â€œAdministration officials were unwilling to share the full scope of the breach and identities of the victims,â€ they said.
The secretary of state, in the interview with Mr. Levin, said Russia was on the list of â€œfolks that want to undermine our way of life, our republic, our basic democratic principles…. You see the news of the day with respect to their efforts in the cyberspace. Weâ€™ve seen this for an awfully long time, using asymmetric capabilities to try and put themselves in a place where they can impose costs on the United States.â€
Months to kick out hackers
What makes this hacking campaign so extraordinary is its scale: 18,000 organizations were infected from March to June by malicious code that piggybacked on popular network-management software from an Austin, Texas, company called SolarWinds.
Itâ€™s going to take months to kick elite hackers out of the U.S. government networks they have been quietly rifling through since as far back as March.
Experts say there simply are not enough skilled threat-hunting teams to duly identify all the government and private-sector systems that may have been hacked. FireEye, the cybersecurity company that discovered the intrusion into U.S. agencies and was among the victims, has already tallied dozens of casualties. Itâ€™s racing to identify more.
Many federal workers â€” and others in the private sector â€” must presume that unclassified networks are teeming with spies. Agencies will be more inclined to conduct sensitive government business on Signal, WhatsApp, and other encrypted smartphone apps.
If the hackers are indeed from Russiaâ€™s SVR foreign intelligence agency, as experts believe, their resistance may be tenacious.
The only way to be sure a network is clean is â€œto burn it down to the ground and rebuild it,â€ said Bruce Schneier, a prominent security expert and Harvard fellow.
Florida became the first state to acknowledge falling victim to a SolarWinds hack. Officials told The Associated Press that hackers apparently infiltrated the stateâ€™s health care administration agency and others.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Boston, Eric Tucker in Washington, and Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.