It has been an open secret throughout the Obama presidency that world powers have escalated their use of cyberpower. But the recent revelations of hacking into Democratic campaign computer systems in an apparent attempt to manipulate the 2016 election is forcing the White House to confront a new question: whether, and if so how, to retaliate. So far, the administration has stopped short of publicly accusing the Russian government of President Vladimir V. Putin of engineering the theft of research and emails from the Democratic National Committee and hacking into other campaign computer systems. However, private investigators have identified the suspects, and American intelligence agencies have told the White House that they have “high confidence” that the Russian government was responsible. Less certain is who is behind the selective leaks of the material, and whether they have a clear political objective. Suspecting such meddling is different from proving it with a certainty sufficient for any American president to order a response. Even if officials gather the proof, they may not be able to make their evidence public without tipping off Russia, or its proxies in cyberspace, about how deeply the National Security Agency has penetrated that country’s networks. And designing a response that will send a clear message, without prompting escalation or undermining efforts to work with Russia in places like Syria, where Russia is simultaneously an adversary and a partner, is even harder.
The Russians tried to make it tougher still on Saturday when they declared that they had found evidence of American activity in their government systems. It was hardly a shocking revelation; anyone who leafed through Edward J. Snowden’s revelations saw evidence of daily efforts to break into Russian spy agencies, nuclear installations and leadership compounds.
But in a talk on Friday evening at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering that draws many of the nation’s top intelligence and military officials, John O. Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, made clear that while spying on each other’s political institutions is fair game, making data public — in true or altered form — to influence an election is a new level of malicious activity, far different from ordinary spy vs. spy maneuvers.
… Obama’s homeland security adviser, sidestepped specific discussion of the D.N.C. hacking but acknowledged that the administration might soon have to consider whether the United States’ electoral system constitutes “critical infrastructure,” like the power grid or the cellphone network. “I think it’s a serious question,” she said, especially if there is “coercion, destruction, manipulation of data.” Ms. Monaco noted that whenever the United States thinks about retaliation, “the danger of escalation and misinterpretation is such that we have to be responsible about it.” But she also said that if an event were serious enough, “we have to be very clear we will respond.”