A panel of top cybersecurity officials was briefly left speechless at a congressional hearing Tuesday when Sen. Ted Cruz asked why China had not been sanctioned over a brazen cyber attack on Microsoft Exchange email server software and other attacks.
The officials, from Justice Department, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the FBI, were testifying at a Judiciary Committee hearing titled ‘America Under Siege: Preventing and Responding to Ransomware Attacks.’
Much of the conversation centered on Russia, which the U.S. says at a minimum harbors those who have conducted spectacular ransomware attacks. But Cruz, a Texas Republican, pressed officials on China – which a Biden administration official has blasted for a ‘pattern of irresponsible behavior in cyberspace,’ and blames for the Microsoft hack.
‘Let me ask anyone on the panel,’ Cruz asked, putting the question to any of three witnesses. ‘Do you have an answer as to why the administration has not sanctioned China for repeated cyberattacks over and over and over again against the United States?’
What followed was a period of silence. Cruz then made his own comment. ‘Well, I think that’s a question that the administration should answer,’ he said. ‘And showing weakness to China and weakness to Russia only invites more aggression and more cyberattacks attacking our nation.’
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Biden Administration officials at a hearing Tuesday why China hadn’t been sanctioned for cyber hacks
He asked one of the witnesses, Richard Downing of the DOJ, whether it made sense for President Biden to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with a list of critical infrastructure that must be off-limits to ransomware attacks. He asked whether telling Putin ‘only certain parts of our infrastructure are off limits’ had the potential to encourage future attacks.
Downing, the deputy assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division, said the issue was out of his purview, but said DOJ was pursuing cases.
The two other officials who failed to respond to Cruz’s walk-off question at the end of his allotted speaking time were Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the cyber division of the FBI, and Eric Goldstein, a top official at CISA.
Cruz said hackers ‘affiliated’ with the Chinese government attacked tens of thousands of computers this year, across tens of thousands of organizations. ‘China has repeatedly used ransomware and cyber attacks to harm America,’ he said.
‘The Biden administration has not imposed any sanctions on China,’ he fumed.
A hearing Tuesday focused on hacking originating from China and Russia. Pictured is Chinese President Xi Jinping
Last week, the Justice Department announced charges against four Chinese nationals it accused of working with China’s Ministry of State Security to target computer systems, schools, and arms of government. But the administration has not announced any sanctions – a tool that government has used seeking to deter hacking from Russia.
Cruz, a 2016 presidential candidate who became Donald Trump ally in the Senate, and who could run again in 2024, accused the Biden administration of responding to threats with ‘extreme weakness.’
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said in a speech to U.S. intelligence community Tuesday cast Russian President Vladimir Putin as a cornered adversary – which makes him potentially ‘more dangerous.’
Speaking at the office of the Director of National Intelligence for his first time as president, Biden remarked on the state of Russia’s oil-dependent economy – and issued a grave warning about the risks of cyber adventurism.
‘He knows he’s in trouble and that makes him more dangerous,’ Biden said, speaking a few weeks after meeting with Putin in Geneva for a summit.
‘He knows he’s in trouble,’ President Joe Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin
‘When I was with Mr. Putin, who has a real problem,’ he said, speaking in calm and quiet tones. ‘He is sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wealth and nothing else. Nothing else. Their economy is like the eight smallest in the world now – largest in the world. He knows he’s in real trouble – which makes him even more dangerous, in my opinion,’ he said.
Biden spoke after a series of ransomware attacks – many of which are believed to originate in Russia, although the administration did not pin the most recent mass attack on the Kremlin itself.
‘I can’t guarantee this. and you’re as informed as I am,’ he told intelligence community members. ‘But I think it’s more likely we’re going to end up – if we end up in a war – a real shooting war with major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence,’ he said.
Biden referenced his recent summit with Putin in his first address to the Intelligence Community as president
‘He is sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wealth and nothing else,’ said Biden
Biden also talked up U.S. intelligence capabilities. The nation has been unable to prevent ransom hacks, although the Justice Department did say it was able to claw back more than $2 million of ransom paid in crypto currency after the Colonial Pipeline hack.
‘He knows that you’re better than his team, and it bothers the hell out of him,’ Biden said of Putin.
Biden’s comments on Putin come as Russian chess grandmaster and activist Gary Kasparov called for the U.S. to target more sanctions directly at Putin and Russian oligarchs, telling Politico: ‘It’s not an extreme measure. It’s the only effective one.’
He added: ‘Putin doesn’t care about Russia or Russians. There are no national interests, just his.’
Biden also accused Russia of spreading ‘disinformation’ in the 2022 elections, after U.S. intelligence has assessed Russia interfered in 2016 and 2020.
‘Look what Russia is doing already about the 2022 elections and misinformation,’ he said. ‘It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty.’
He called on U.S. intelligence to ‘take on the rampant disinformation that is making it harder and harder for people to assess the facts, be able to make decisions.’