President Obama’s threat was direct and unequivocal: The United States will retaliate against Russia for its election-related cyberattacks. “And we will, at a time and place of our own choosing,” the president told NPR’s Steve Inskeep in an interview that aired Friday. “Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.” But what he didn’t say is what the response will look like.
His national-security team has likely laid out a menu of options for him: He could ask intelligence agencies to train a cyberattack on Russian networks or infrastructure, to demonstrate the strength of their offensive capabilities. He could release damaging information about Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, just like Russian hackers published data stolen from top Democrats’ email accounts. Or he could choose a more traditional response, like imposing economic sanctions.
It’s most likely that Obama will pick a combination of these options—both overt and covert—that punishes Russia and damages Putin’s reputation, while sending a signal to would-be hackers that interfering in American democracy comes with a heavy price.
One public option is a direct, tit-for-tat response to the release of Democrats’ emails and research. “If they’re doxing you, you can dox back,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, referring to the practice of releasing potentially damaging secret information. Releasing embarrassing information has gotten under Putin’s skin before, like when the Panama Papers revealed details about how members of his inner circle make, move, and hide their wealth. Exposing more about his money and his relationships with oligarchs would be a jab aimed straight at one of Putin’s pressure points, said James Lewis, the director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.