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White House Weighs Response To Cyberattacks Against U.S. Institutions

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, here's a question you can bet is being hotly debated in the White House. What to do about cyberattacks?

This summer saw the leak of some 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. This week brought news that both the Clinton Foundation and the National Security Agency itself may have been hacked. The prime suspect in each of these incidents is Russia. And that is prompting calls for the Obama administration to retaliate, as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Ask people at the White House or at the CIA who's behind the string of attacks, and they are very, very careful not to publicly blame Russia. Former officials are not so circumspect. And as to whether the U.S. should fight back...

STEWART BAKER: Oh, I think we have to unless we want them to continue.

KELLY: Stewart Baker, he's former general counsel for the National Security Agency.

BAKER: If we let them get away with this, they will try something else and see if they can get away with that. This is a test of our capabilities and our will to retaliate.

KELLY: What about the risks of escalation, of Russia hits the U.S., the U.S. hits back just as hard or harder? And then where does it go?

BAKER: Yeah, that is a very serious concern. On the other hand, it's very dangerous to get into a cycle - which I fear the administration is in - where we're the only ones who worry about that.

KELLY: Baker, who now runs an international cybersecurity practice at the law firm Steptoe and Johnson, advocates a cyber-counterattack.

California Democrat Adam Schiff argues for at least starting with a milder approach.

ADAM SCHIFF: It all begins with naming and shaming the responsible parties.

KELLY: Schiff is the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Asked what options should be on the table, he lists sanctions, indicting individuals...

SCHIFF: You're never going to deter countries from spying when they believe it's in their national security interest to do so. But I think you can deter them from economic espionage. And I think you can deter them from meddling in elections by exposing them when they get caught.

KELLY: Now, hang on, says a senior administration official who agreed to speak to NPR on condition of not being identified by name. This official says the investigation into, say, the DNC hack, is still very much ongoing and that it's, quote, "pretty early to take any response off the table or put any response on the table." This is a point the president himself made earlier this month when asked about the DNC hack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we see evidence of a malicious attack by a state actor, we can impose, potentially, certain proportional penalties.

KELLY: The president did not elaborate on what those proportional penalties might be. He did suggest all countries, including the U.S., share an interest in abiding by international norms and rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: There's certain things that states should not be doing to each other when it comes to cyberattacks. There's certain things that are out of bounds.

KELLY: But even the measured Obama has his limits. Last year, when it was hacks linked to China making headlines, a massive breach of federal employee records, the president fired a warning shot. The Chinese and Russians are close. We're still the best at this, he said. If we wanted to go on offense, a whole bunch of countries would have some significant problems. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.