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What Russia stands to gain from a cyberattack against the U.S.

As the U.S government and major companies continue to unravel the extent of a dangerous cyberattack, many of the hallmarks of the operation point to Russia. William Brangham spoke with Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, to discuss what Russia would stand to gain from the attack, and what the U.S. can do differently to protect itself.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we continue our look at the extent of this hack.

    Earlier this evening, William Brangham spoke with Fiona Hill. She served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019. She is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

  • William Brangham:

    Fiona Hill, very good to have you on the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    Start off by helping us understand, is there any doubt in your mind that the Russians are behind this?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Not really, no.

    And I'm sure that more information will come out over the next few days and weeks that will confirm this.

  • William Brangham:

    And why is that? Why are you so certain?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, this has all the hallmarks of their tradecraft.

    It's a very sophisticated operation. Clearly, it has been obviously many months, if not longer, in the planning, just the nature of the execution. And the way that it is also being revealed, first of all, by FireEye and other entities that have been following the Russians for some time, is that it has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated operation, probably carried out by the SVR, the foreign intelligence units of the Russian intelligence services.

  • William Brangham:

    This is obviously self-evident to people like you in your field, but help us understand what the Russians gain from this attack.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, this is actually classic espionage.

    It's just, of course, that it's an attack on cybersecurity systems. It's the kind of thing that, back in the old days, they would have executed, obviously, in a different way, by having to have people infiltrate to extract information.

    Obviously, the world that we operate in now, with the Internet and so much data backed up on larger systems, gives all kinds of opportunities now to penetrate information on the scale that we never had before.

    So, I mean, again, this isn't something that we should be particularly surprised about. I mean, obviously, it's disturbing and very troubling that they managed to pull something off on this scale. But it's not out of the ordinary in any way whatsoever of the long patterns of espionage that Russia and before it the Soviet Union have engaged in.

  • William Brangham:

    Given that, that this is classic tradecraft, this is something that superpowers do to each other — I'm sure we are doing something similar to the Russians, or trying to — is it your sense that there's anything that we could have done leading up to this point that would have deterred this behavior?

    I mean, we saw the Obama administration struggle what to do about Russian meddling back in 2016. We have seen the Trump administration's response. Do you think we could have done differently to have deterred this?

  • Fiona Hill:


    So, what we could have done is had a coherent approach and not been at odds with each other, because part of the problem in this administration has been that we have failed to pull together as a cohesive unit, not just across the executive branch, but between the executive branch and all the departments and agencies and also with Congress.

    We have also been at odds with our allies. And part of the deterrent approach is working in unity. In fact, we have seen over the last several years where we have been able to pull off a unified response, be it sanctions against Russian activity in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea as one key example, and also where we expelled a whole set of intelligence operatives from embassies across Europe in the United States after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

    We did see the Russians pulling back to some extent. So, if we can pull something off where we're all working together, and not at odds, we don't have the president on one page and everybody else on another, and we're working together with our allies to push back on this, then that could have a serious deterrent effect.

    And it would also make us much more effective at rooting out the contours of this kind of attack.

  • William Brangham:

    So, from this point forward, the tail end of the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden administration, what do you think we ought to be doing to respond?

  • Fiona Hill:

    What we need is a coherent, consistent approach. And this is something that we have failed to have under the previous administration.

    And we have some of…

  • William Brangham:

    When you say previous administration, do you mean the Trump…

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, I mean the outgoing administration, the Trump administration, that I was part of for some of this period.

    We have set up entities like CISA, cybersecurity entities within the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, President Trump just sacked the head of CISA, Chris Krebs, for the role that he played in essentially calling out the president and others in the election campaign, calling out their disinformation about the election security.

    So, we need to beef up those entities. And what we really need to do is have a coherent team that are working together and clearly working very closely with the White House, because, under the outgoing administration, we had the president doing one thing. He didn't delegate authority down to even some of his key Cabinet officials.

    And he certainly undermined on many different fronts the efforts to work across all of the departments and agencies. So, we need to have a team of people who trust each other, who are working and pulling together, and also working together with Congress and all the other entities that have to be part of this. We can't just have one set of people going off and doing their own thing.

    We need to be calling this out for what it is. And we also need to be working with our transatlantic partners.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Fiona Hill, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Thank you, William.

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