The United States retaliated Thursday to alleged interference by Russia in recent elections by evicting 35 of its diplomats posted here and announcing sanctions against its intelligence agencies and top officials and private sector entities.
American authorities also cut Russian embassy’s access to two recreational compounds it owned in Maryland and New York states, alleging they were being used for carrying out intelligence activities, but gave no details.
And they released a report containing declassified details of how Russian intelligence agencies carry out hacking using commandeered computers around the world without the knowledge of their owners, and the malware they use.
“I have ordered a number of actions in response to the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of US officials and cyber operations aimed at the US election,” President Barack Obama said in a a statement. He indicated more actions may follow.
“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” he added, in a thinly veiled reference to President-elect Donald Trump, who has insisted there was no evidence of Russian hand in the hacking, which could have been carried out by anyone.
The sanctions and measures announced Thursday was also seen as an attempt by the Obama administration to force Trump into a corner on improving ties with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, one of his key foreign policy objectives.
Lifting these sanctions could pit him against his own Republican party, whose many senior lawmakers have openly called for a congressional investigation into Russian meddling in elections and punishing Moscow for them.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said in a statement, but added, “I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
The entire US intelligence community, comprising 16 separate entities, issued a statement in October fingering Russia for the hacking of Democratic National Committee computer system networks, and later accused Putin of personal involvement.
Moscow, which has denied any role in the hacking or rejected allegations that it interfered in US elections, has said US actions announced Thursday were being studied and a reciprocal response can be expected.
The US has called the 35 expelled diplomats “intelligence operatives” but did not link them to the hacking. Their expulsion was blamed on “harassment of our diplomatic personnel in Russia by security personnel and police” over last two years.
For meddling in elections, the US has sanctioned two of Russia top intelligence agencies, the Main Intelligence Directorate (also known as GRU), and the Federal Security Service (also known as FSB, successor to USSR’s KGB).
Their respective bosses — four in all — have also been sanctioned, which would prevent them from traveling to the US and subject their assets in the US, which would probably be nothing, to forfeiture, as of their agencies.
The US also named three private sector entities for helping the intelligence agencies carry out the hacking. Two other Russian individuals were designated for “misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information”.
US authorities also released a joint analysis report by the department of homeland security and the FBI containing previously classified information known only to US intelligence and the cybersecurity community in the private sector.
The report contains information, for instance, on how Russian intelligence hackers use computers around the world without their owners’ knowledge to “conduct their malicious activity in a way that makes it difficult to trace back to Russia”.
The report also makes public details of the kind of tools — malware — Russians use, which could help network defenders and cybersecurity firms to block them, forcing Russians to come up with something new.
The report also contains general information about how Russian intelligence carry out attacks, which could “network defenders better identify new tactics or techniques that a malicious actor might deploy or detect and disrupt an ongoing intrusion”.
US intelligence has alleged that Russian state hackers attacked Democratic party’s network and passed on the stolen data to WikiLeaks that released them in small tranches in the concluding stages of the presidential campaign.
The intention, US intelligence has said, was to undermine Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who, as secretary of state, had earned Putin’s wrath for criticizing his election in 2011 and helped Trump win the presidency.
Clinton has blamed her defeat on the hacking — calling it an attack on the US — and the release of a letter from FBI director James Comey about investigations into her use of a private email server in the end stages of the campaign.