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The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Outdated XP Testimony on WannaCry to Congress

The Oversight Committee had a hearing on WannaCry last week. I won’t have time to watch the hearing for a few days, but I did read the testimony with some alarm. That’s because two of the four witnesses appear to have misstated one detail about the attack.

First, Symantec CTO Hugh Thompson suggested that the spread of the ransomware was due to Microsoft not releasing a patch for XP when it had released EternalBlue patches for other systems in March.

WannaCry spread to unpatched computers. Microsoft released a patch for the SMB vulnerability for Windows 7 and newer operating systems in March, but unpatched systems and systems running XP or older operating systems were unprotected. After the WannaCry outbreak began, Microsoft released a patch for XP and earlier platforms. Four days after the initial outbreak these patches were widely applied and new infections slowed to a trickle.

The implication here is that the ransomware primarily affected XP, and only because there hadn’t been a patch available.

Retired General Touhill suggested this outdated system was actually Windows 95 — and claimed that Microsoft had released that patch in March, along with the supported system patches.

Systems using unpatched versions of the Windows 95 operating system have been highlighted as exemplar victims of the Wannacry attack. Microsoft who, after a long and very public notification process, discontinued support to the Windows 95 operating system in 2014, about 19 years after its initial release. However, in light of the warnings and their own research, in March of this year Microsoft issued a rare emergency patch to Windows 95, nearly three years after they had discontinued support of the software. Despite these extraordinary actions, many organizations still did not heed the warnings and properly patch and configure their systems. As a result, they fell victim to Wannacry.

In fact, XP (to say nothing of Windows 95) was not the problem. Windows 7 was. Kaspersky Lab (which Congress has spent time of late demonizing as potential Russian spies) first pointed this out on May 19.

Chief among the revelations: more than 97 percent of infections hit computers running Windows 7, according to attacks seen by antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab. By contrast, infected Windows XP machines were practically non-existent, and those XP PCs that were compromised were likely manually infected by their owners for testing purposes. That’s according to Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team, who spoke to Ars.

While the estimates are based only on computers that run Kaspersky software, as opposed to all computers on the Internet, there’s little question Windows 7 was overwhelmingly affected by WCry, which is also known as “WannaCry” and “WannaCrypt.” Security ratings firm BitSight found that 67 percent of infections hit Windows 7, Reuters reported.

The figures challenge the widely repeated perception that the outbreak was largely the result of end users who continued to deploy Windows XP, a Windows version Microsoft decommissioned three years ago. In fact, researchers now say, XP was largely untouched by last week’s worm because PCs crashed before WCry could take hold. Instead, it now appears, the leading contributor to the virally spreading infection were Windows 7 machines that hadn’t installed a critical security patch Microsoft issued in March

Days later Sophos confirmed that analysis.

Though the lack of patching and exposure of port 445 were easily identified problems, the reasons why Windows 7 was an easier target than XP remain somewhat clouded.

During testing, SophosLabs found that XP wasn’t the effective conduit for infection via the EternalBlue SMB exploit that many thought it was, while Windows 7 was easily infected. The research showed that WannaCry ransomware can affect XP computers – but not via the SMB worm mechanism, which was the major propagation vector for WannaCry.

[snip]

Various security companies arrived at a similar conclusion, putting the infection rate among Windows 7 computers at between 65% and 95%. SophosLabs puts that number even higher: our analysis of endpoint data for the three days that followed the outbreak shows that Windows 7 accounted for nearly 98% of infected computers.

It’s still a question of whether a victim patched their computer or not, but Microsoft did make a patch available for Windows 7 along with other supported systems. Though, as Sophos notes, unless users were paying extra for support, they might not have noticed the patch was there.

Microsoft had addressed the issue in its MS17-010 bulletin in March, but companies using older, no-longer-supported versions of the operating system wouldn’t have seen it unless they were signed up for custom support, ie Microsoft’s special extended – and paid-for – support.

That suggests one problem with the patching wasn’t the timeliness, but the secrecy. But, Congress might not learn that detail given the testimony they got last week.

Three days after the attack started, Homeland Security Czar Tom Bossert was still claiming WannaCry was spread via phishing. Now Congress is getting other debunked reporting.

We might respond better to these threats if the government was getting information that was at least as accurate as that information available to lowly hippie bloggers.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why Did Tom Bossert Claim WannaCry Was Spread Via Phishing?

Writing this post made me look more closely at what Trump’s Homeland Security Czar Tom Bossert said in a briefing on WannaCry on Monday, May 15.

He claimed, having just gotten off the phone with his British counterpart and in spite of evidence to the contrary, that there had been minimal disruption to care in Britain’s DHS.

The UK National Health Care Service announced 48 of its organizations were affected, and that resulted in inaccessible computers and telephone service, but an extremely minimal effect on disruption to patient care.

[snip]

And from the British perspective, I thought it was important to pass along from them two points — one, that they thought it was an extremely small number of patients that might have been inconvenienced and not necessarily a disruption to their clinical care, as opposed to their administrative processes.  And two, that they felt that some of those reports might have been misstated or overblown given how they had gotten themselves into a position of patching.

 

Of course, this may be an issue in the upcoming election, so I can see why Theresa May’s government might want to downplay any impact on patient care, especially since the Tories have long been ignoring IT problems at DHS.

He dodged a follow-up question about whether there might be more tools in the Shadow Brokers haul that would lead to similar attacks in the future, by pointing to our Vulnerabilities Equities Process.

Q    I guess a shorter way to put it would be is there more out there that you’re worried about that would lead to more attacks in the future?

MR. BOSSERT:  I actually think that the United States, more than probably any other country, is extremely careful with their processes about how they handle any vulnerabilities that they’re aware of.  That’s something that we do when we know of the vulnerability, not when we know we lost a vulnerability.  I think that’s a key distinction between us and other countries — and other adversaries that don’t provide any such consideration to their people, customers, or industry.

Obviously, the VEP did not prevent this attack. More importantly, someone in government really needs to start answering what the NSA and CIA (and FBI, if it ever happens) do when their hacking tools get stolen, an issue which Bossert totally ignored.

But I’m most interested in something Bossert said during the original exchange on NSA’s role in all this.

Q    So this is one episode of malware or ransomware.  Do you know from the documents and the cyber hacking tools that were stolen from NSA if there are potentially more out there?

MR. BOSSERT:  So there’s a little bit of a double question there.  Part of that has to do with the underlying vulnerability exploit here used.  I think if I could, I’d rather, instead of directly answering that, and can’t speak to how we do or don’t do our business as a government in that regard, I’d like to instead point out that this was a vulnerability exploit as one part of a much larger tool that was put together by the culpable parties and not by the U.S. government.

So this was not a tool developed by the NSA to hold ransom data.  This was a tool developed by culpable parties, potentially criminals of foreign nation states, that was put together in such a way so to deliver it with phishing emails, put it into embedded documents, and cause an infection in encryption and locking. [my emphasis]

Three days into the WannaCry attack, having spent the weekend consulting with DHS and NSA, Bossert asserted that WannaCry was spread via phishing.

That is a claim that was reported in the press. But even by Monday, I was seeing security researchers persistently question the claim. Over and over they kept looking and failing to find any infections via phishing. And I had already seen several demonstrations showing it didn’t spread via phishing.

Now, Bossert is one of the grown-ups in the Trump Administration. His appointment — and the cybersecurity policy continuity with Obama’s policy — was regarded with relief when it was made, as laid out in this Wired profile.

“People that follow cybersecurity issues will be happy that Tom is involved in those discussions as one of the reasoned voices,” Healey says.

“Frankly, he’s an unusual figure in this White House. He’s not a Bannon. He’s not even a Priebus,” says one former senior Obama administration official who asked to remain unnamed, contrasting Bossert with Trump’s top advisers Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus. “He has a lot of credibility. He’s very straightforward and level-headed.”

And (as the rest of the profile makes clear) he does know cybersecurity.

So I’m wondering why Bossert was stating that this attack spread by phishing at a time when open source investigation had already largely undermined that hasty claim.

There are at least three possibilities. Perhaps Bossert simply mistated here, accidentally blaming the vector we’ve grown used to blaming. Possibly (though this would be shocking) the best SIGINT agency in the world still hadn’t figured out what a bunch of people on Twitter already had.

Or, perhaps there were some phished infections, which quickly got flooded as the infection spread via SMB. Though that’s unlikely, because the certainty that it didn’t spread via email has only grown since Monday.

So assuming Bossert was, in fact, incorrect when he made this claim, why did have this faulty information?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Legitimacy Problem with NSA’s Silence on WannaCry

Over at Matt Suiche’s website, he chronicles the discovery of a way to work around WannaCry’s ransomware. First a guy named Adrien Guinet figured out how the find the prime numbers that had computed the key locking a computer’s files. Then a guy named Benjamin Delpy recreated the effort and tested it against versions up to Windows 7. This is not a cure-all, but it may be a way to restore files encrypted by the attackers.

This of course comes after Suiche and before him Malware Tech set up sinkholes to divert the malware attack. Other security researchers have released tools to prevent the encryption of files after infection.

And all the while, NSA — which made the exploit that made this worm so damaging, EternalBlue — has remained utterly silent. At this point, Lauri Love, who faces 99 years of prison time for alleged hacking in the US, has done more in public to respond to this global ransomware attack than the NSA has.

The most public comment from NSA has come in the form of this WaPo article, which describes “current and former” officials defending the use of EternalBlue and sort of confirming that NSA told Microsoft of the vulnerability. It also revealed the White House called an emergency cabinet meeting to deal with the attack. Department of Homeland Security released a pretty useless statement last Friday. On Monday, Homeland Security Czar Tom Bossert answered questions at the press briefing (sometimes inaccurately, I think), emphasizing that the US is not responsible for the attack.

I’d like to instead point out that this was a vulnerability exploit as one part of a much larger tool that was put together by the culpable parties and not by the U.S. government.

So this was not a tool developed by the NSA to hold ransom data.

That’s it. That’s what we’ve seen of our government’s response to a malware attack that it had a role in creating.

(For what it’s worth, people in the UK have said their cybersecurity organization, the National Cyber Security Centre, has been very helpful.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure folks at NSA have been working frantically to understand and undercut this attack. Surely they’ve been coordinating with the private sector, including Microsoft and more visible victims like FedEx. NSA intervention may even explain why there have been fewer infections in the US than in Europe. There may even be some cooperation between the security people who’ve offered public solutions and the NSA. But if those things have happened, it remains totally secret.

And I understand why NSA would want to remain silent. After all, companies and countries are going to want some accountability for this, and while the hackers deserve the primary blame, NSA’s own practices have already come in for criticism in Europe.

Plus, I’m sure whatever NSA is doing to counter this attack is even more interesting — and therefore more important to keep secret from the attackers — than the really awesome sinkholes and prime number workarounds the security researchers have come up with. It’s worth noting that the attackers and aspiring copy-catters are undoubtedly watching the public discussions in the security community to figure out how to improve the attack (though the WannaCry attackers didn’t seem to want or be able to use the information on sinkholes to their advantage, as the release that fixed that problem is corrupted).

But, in my opinion, NSA’s silence creates a legitimacy problem. This is the premier SIGINT agency in the world, tasked to keep the US (and more directly, DOD networks) safe from such attacks. And it has remained silent while a bunch of researchers and consultants collaborating together have appeared to be the primary defense against the weaponization of an NSA tool.

If 22 year olds fueled by pizza are the best line of defense against global attacks, then it suggests (I’m not endorsing this view, mind you) that we don’t need the NSA.

Update: On Twitter, Jake Williams asked whether NSA would have had a better response if the defensive Information Assurance Directorate hadn’t been disbanded last year by Mike Rogers. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a good question.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Minority Report: A Look at Timing of WannaCry and Trump’s Spillage

CAVEAT: Note well these two points before continuing —

1) Check the byline; this is Rayne, NOT Marcy; we may have very different opinions on matters in this post.

2) This post is SPECULATIVE. If you want an open-and-shut case backed by unimpeachable evidence this is not it. Because it addresses issues which may be classified, there may never be publicly-available evidence.

Moving on…

Like this past week’s post on ‘The Curious Timing of Flynn Events and Travel Ban EO‘, I noticed some odd timing and circumstances. Event timing often triggers my suspicions and the unfolding of the WannaCry ransomware attack did just that. WannaCry didn’t unfold in a vacuum, either.

Timeline (Italics: Trump spillage)

13-AUG-2016 — Shadow Brokers dumped first Equation Group/NSA tools online

XX-XXX-201X — Date TBD — NSA warned Microsoft about ETERNALBLUE, the exploit which Microsoft identified as MS17-010. It is not clear from report if this warning occurred before/after Trump’s inauguration.

XX-FEB-2017 — Computer security firm Avast Software Inc. said the first variant of WannaCry was initially seen in February.

14-MAR-2017 — Microsoft released a patch for vulnerability MS17-010.

14-APR-2017 — Easter weekend — Shadow Brokers dumps Equation Group/NSA tools on the internet for the fifth time, including ETERNALBLUE.

(Oddly, no one noted the convenience to Christian countries celebrating a long holiday weekend; convenient, too, that both western and eastern Orthodox Christian sects observed Easter on the same date this year.)

10-MAY-2017White House meeting between Trump, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. No US media present; Russian media outlet TASS’ Washington bureau chief and a photographer were, however.

12-MAY-2017 — ~8:00 a.m. CET — Avast noticed increased activity in WannaCry detections.

[graphic: Countries with greatest WannaCry infection by 15-MAY-2017; image via Avast Software, Inc.]

12-MAY-2017 — 3:24 a.m. EDT/8:24 a.m. BST London/9:24 a.m. CET Madrid/10:24 a.m. MSK Moscow — early reports indicated telecommunications company Telefonica had been attacked by malware. Later reports by Spanish government said, “the attacks did not disrupt the provision of services or network operations…” Telefonica said the attack was “limited to some computers on an internal network and had not affected clients or services.”

12-MAY-2017 — 10:00 a.m. CET — WannaCry “escalated into a massive spreading,” according to Avast.

12-MAY-2017 — timing TBD — Portugal Telecom affected as was UK’s National Health Service (NHS). “(N)o services were impacted,” according to Portugal Telecom’s spokesperson. A Russian telecom firm was affected as well, along with the Russian interior ministry.

12-MAY-2017 — ~6:23 p.m. BST — Infosec technologist MalwareTechBlog ‘sinkholes’ a URL to which WannaCry points during execution. The infection stops spreading after the underlying domain is registered.

13-MAY-2017 — Infosec specialist MalwareTechBlog posts a tick-tock and explainer outlining his approach to shutting down WannaCry the previous evening

15-MAY-2017 — ~5:00 p.m. EDT — Washington Post reported Trump disclosed classified “code worded” intelligence to Lavrov and Kislyak during his meeting the previous Wednesday.

16-MAY-2017 — National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster said “I wanted to make clear to everybody that the president in no way compromised any sources or methods in the course of this conversation” with Lavrov and Kislyak. But McMaster did not say information apart from sources or methods had been passed on; he did share that “‘the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from’ and had not been briefed on the source.”

The information Trump passed on spontaneously with the Russian officials was related to laptop bomb threats originating from a specific city inside ISIS-held territory. The city was not named by media though it was mentioned by Trump.

16-MAY-2017 — Media outlets reported Israel was the ally whose classified intelligence was shared by Trump.

Attack attribution

You’ll recall I was a skeptic about North Korea as the source of the Sony hack. There could be classified information cinching the link, but I don’t have access to it. I remain skeptical since Sony Group’s entities leaked like sieves for years.

I’m now skeptical about the identity of the hacker(s) behind WannaCry ransomware this past week.

At first it looked like Russia given Cyrillic character content within the malware. But this map didn’t make any sense. Why would a Russian hacker damage their own country most heavily?

[graphic: WannaCry distribution; image via BBC]

The accusations have changed over time. North Korea has been blamed as well as the Lazarus Group. Convenient, given the missile test this past week which appeared focused on rattling Russia while President Putin was attending a conference in China. And some of the details could be attributed to North Korea.

But why did the ransomware first spread in Spain through telecom Telefonica? Why did it spread to the UK so quickly?

This didn’t add up if North Korea is the origin.

Later reports said the first infections happened in western Asia; the affected countries still don’t make sense if North Korea is the perpetrator, and/or China was their main target.

Malware capability

Given the timing of the ransomware’s launch and the other events also unfolding concurrently — events we only learned about last evening — here’s what I want to know:

Can vulnerability MS17-010, on which WannaCry was based, be used as a remote switch?

Think about the kind and size of laptops still running Windows XP and Windows 8, the operating systems Microsoft had not patched for the Server Message Block 1.0 (SMBv1) vulnerability. They’re not the slim devices on which Windows 10 runs; they’re heavier, more often have hard disk drives (HDDs) and bulkier batteries. I won’t go into details, but these older technologies could be replaced by trimmer technologies, leaving ample room inside the laptop case — room that would allow an older laptop to host other resources.

Let’s assume SMBv1 could be used to push software; this isn’t much of an assumption since this is what WannaCry does. Let’s assume the software looks for specific criteria and takes action or shuts down depending on what it finds. And again, it’s not much of an assumption based on WannaCry and the tool set Shadow Brokers have released to date.

Let’s assume that the software pushed via SMBv1 finds the right criteria in place and triggers a detonation.

Yes. A trigger. Not unlike Stuxnet in a way, though Stuxnet only injected randomness into a system. Nowhere near as complicated as WannaCry, either.

Imagine an old bulky laptop running Windows XP, kitted out internally as an IED, triggered by a malware worm. Imagine several in a cluster on the same local network.

Is this a realistic possibility? I suspect it is based on U.S. insistence that a thinly-justified laptop ban on airplanes is necessary.

Revisit timing

Now you may grasp why the timing of events this past week gave me pause, combined with the details of location and technology.

The intelligence Trump spilled to Lavrov and Kislyak had been linked to the nebulous laptop threat we’ve heard so much about for months — predating the inauguration. Some outlets have said the threat was “tablets and laptops” or “electronic devices” carried by passengers onto planes, but this may have been cover for a more specific threat. (It’s possible the MS17-010 has other counterparts not yet known to public so non-laptop threats can’t be ruled out entirely.)

The nature of the threat may also offer hints at why an ally’s assets were embedded in a particular location. I’ll leave it to you to figure this out on your own; this post has already spelled out enough possibilities.

Trump spilled, the operation must be rolled up, but the roll up also must include closing backdoors along the way to prevent damage if the threat has been set in motion by Trump’s ham-handed spillage.

Which for me raises these questions:

1) Was Shadow Brokers the force behind WannaCry — not just some hacker(s) — and not just the leaking of the underlying vulnerability?

2) Was WannaCry launched in order to force telecoms and enterprise networks, device owners, and Microsoft to patch this particular vulnerability immediately due to a classified ‘clear and present danger’?

3) Was WannaCry launched to prevent unpatched MS17-010 from being used to distribute either a malware-as-trigger, or to retaliate against Russia — or both? The map above shows a disproportionate level of impact suggesting Russia was a potential target if secondary to the operation’s aim. Or perhaps Russia screwed itself with the intelligence entities behind Shadow Brokers, resulting in a lack of advance notice before WannaCry was unleashed?

4) Was WannaCry launched a month after the Shadow Brokers’ dump because there were other increasing threats to the covert operation to stop the threat?

5) Are Shadow Brokers really SHADOW BROKERS – a program of discrete roll-up operations? Is Equation Group really EQUATION GROUP – a program of discrete cyber defense operations united by a pile of cyber tools? Are their interactions more like red and blue teams?

6) Is China’s response to WannaCry — implying it was North Korea but avoiding directly blaming them — really cover for the operation which serves their own (and Microsoft’s) interests?

The pittance WannaCry’s progenitor raised in ransom so far and the difficulty in liquidating the proceeds suggests the ransomware wasn’t done for the money. Who or what could produce a snappy looking ransomware project and not really give a rat’s butt about the ransom?

While Microsoft complains about the NSA’s vulnerability hording, they don’t have much to complain about. WannaCry will force many users off older unsupported operating systems like XP, Win 7 and 8, and Windows Server 2003 in a way nothing else has done to date.

[graphic: 5-year chart, MSFT performance via Google Finance]

Mother’s Day ‘gift’?

I confess I wrestled with writing this; I don’t want to set in motion even more ridiculous security measures that don’t work simply because a software company couldn’t see their software product had an inherent risk, and at least one government felt the value of that risk as a tool was worth hiding for years. It’s against what I believe in — less security apparatus and surveillance, more common sense. But if a middle-aged suburban mom in flyover country can line up all these ducks and figure out how it works, I could’t just let it go, either.

Especially when I figured out the technical methodology behind a credible threat on Mother’s Day. Don’t disrespect the moms.

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.