'Russian hack's scale hard to overstate': ex-homeland security adviser

Russian hackers got into nuclear weapons stockpile’s computer network, breached Los Alamos laboratory’s defenses and may have secrets of how to disrupt nation’s electricity grid, officials reveal – as FBI abandons compromised computers

  • Russian hackers who have penetrated government networks got into nuclear stockpile’s networks, officials are warning Congress
  • Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration-controlled networks were breached 
  • Among them are Los Alamos National Laboratory, which conducts the government’s most sensitive and advanced nuclear research
  • Evidence of the attack was also found in the networks of the Office of Secure Transportation which is responsible for moving nuclear materials
  • Another breach might have been attempt to find out how to disrupt the national power grid  
  • Thomas Bossert, who was White House homeland security adviser in 2017 and 2018, warned ‘Russian’ hack is on unprecedented scale
  • Kremlin denies its hackers are behind SolarWinds hack but experts say denial is worthless and all signs point directly to Putin’s spies
  • But the scale is jaw-dropping with hundreds of federal networks affected, Bossert said –  and most Fortune 500 firms’ networks are too
  • Joe Biden promised he would punish the hackers and make them pay a ‘substantial cost’ as soon as he enters office 

The two agencies responsible for maintaining America’s nuclear weapons stockpile have evidence they were hacked by suspected Kremlin cyberspies, it emerged Thursday.

Politico reported that the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration have begun to warn Congress that networks they control were breached – including at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which conducts the government’s most sensitive and advanced nuclear research.

They join a list of hacked networks which already included those of the Pentagon, the FBI, Treasury and State Departments. The FBI is to deliver a classified briefing to Congress on Friday and the House Homeland Security Committee has launched an investigation.

The Department of Justice, FBI and Defense Department, among others, have moved routine communication onto classified networks that are believed not to have been breached, according to two people briefed on the measures.

They are assuming that the non-classified networks have been accessed.

Deterrent: Land-based Minuteman missiles are one of the three prongs of the nuclear triad

Hacked: The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is the home of some of 

And the government also warned that the hackers, originally thought to have only breached network company SolarWinds, had a second breach at another company – meaning agencies and companies which thought they were unaffected because they do not use SolarWinds are now at risk too.

In a statement, President-elect Joe Biden said he would ‘elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government’ and ‘disrupt and deter our adversaries’ from undertaking such major hacks. 

‘Our adversaries should know that, as President, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation,’ he said.

The White House has not commented on the breach. 

At the Pentagon the acting defense secretary Chris Miller – standing in after Mark Esper was fired by Donald Trump – acknowledged he was ‘very concerned’ and told CBS News: ‘We have standard operating procedures in place that are very refined when an intrusion is noted, or a potential intrusion, so that we can monitor our networks.’

The most damaging revelation so far is that evidence of the attack was found in the networks of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known as FERC, and the Office of Secure Transportation which is responsible for moving nuclear materials.

The U.S. has an estimated 5,800 nuclear warheads, some of which are on missiles and bombs ready for launch from submarines, airplanes and land-based missiles, while others are held in storage. Most however are in storage, retired, or being decommissioned. 

Their status is one of the government’s most closely-guarded secrets, as are efforts to create new weapons, which are part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s work. 

Another attack was found in a field office of the Energy Department in Richland, Washington state, which Politico reported could have been an effort to gather information on how to disrupt the national electricity grid. 

Members of the House and Senate were set to be briefed by the Energy Department on the breach, Politico reported.  

Denial: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s government has said it is not behind the massive hack – but U.S. government officials have said its precision, cunning and level of expertise points directly to the Kremlin

Closely-guarded secrets: The federal government does not provide information about the deployment or location of nuclear warheads so the possibility of Russia having access to that knowledge would be a major crisis

The dramatic escalation of the danger of the hack came as the federal government’s computer safety agency warned it poses a ‘grave’ risk to government and private networks. 

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in its most detailed comments yet that the intrusion has compromised government agencies as well as ‘critical infrastructure’ in a sophisticated attack that was hard to detect and will be difficult to undo.





Department of State 

Department of Homeland Security 

Commerce Department

National Institutes of Health

Department of Energy

Los Alamos National Laboratory 

 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Office of Secure Transportation 

CISA did not say which agencies or infrastructure were breached or what information taken in an attack that it previously said appeared to have begun in March.    

‘This threat actor has demonstrated sophistication and complex tradecraft in these intrusions,’ the agency said in an unusual alert

‘CISA expects that removing the threat actor from compromised environments will be highly complex and challenging.’

The agency previously said that the perpetrators had used network management software from Texas-based SolarWinds to infiltrate computer networks. Its new alert said the attackers may have used other methods as well.

The alert was issued after the former homeland security adviser to Donald Trump warned Thursday that a massive hack of federal computers may have put Russian spies in control of hundreds of government networks – and that nothing is being done to remove them.

The cybercriminals are almost certainly in the vast majority of the fortune 500’s computer networks and can steal secrets at will, he warned. 

Thomas Bossert, writing in the New York Times, said the attack, which experts say is almost certainly by Russian state hackers, was one of the worst imaginable threats to security and world stability and needed action by Trump and Joe Biden to prevent it causing catastrophe.

The one-time aide warned ‘the magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate’ and said it appeared that Russians could be ‘in control’ of hundreds of computer networks. 

Vladimir Putin’s government has denied they are behind the hack but that has been discounted by other experts, who say that the scale and precision of the hack points directly to the Kremlin.

‘It will take years to know for certain which networks the Russians control and which ones they just occupy,’ he said.

‘The logical conclusion is that we must act as if the Russian government has control of all the networks it has penetrated. But it is unclear what the Russians intend to do next. The access the Russians now enjoy could be used for far more than simply spying.’

Bossert warned that Russia could use the secrets it knows to sow division, spread disinformation, destroy or alter data and even impersonate real people.

Additionally, he warned, they probably have access to the networks of as many as 425 of the Fortune 500, America’s largest companies.

 The warning was echoed by Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins cyberconflict expert, who said the campaign’s likely efficacy can be compared to Russia’s three-year 1990s ‘Moonlight Maze’ hacking of U.S. government targets, including NASA and the Pentagon.

A U.S. investigation determined the height of the documents stolen – if printed out and piled up – would triple the height of the Washington Monument.

Russian attack: Thomas Bossert, who was Trump’s national security adviser in 2017 and 2018, says that Vladimir Putin’s cyber spies are lodged in hundreds of federal computer networks and those of many of the largest companies

In this case ‘several Washington Monument piles of documents that they took from different government agencies is probably a realistic estimate,’ Rid said.

‘How would they use that? They themselves most likely don’t know yet.’

The Trump administration has not said which agencies were hacked. And so far no private-sector victims have come forward. 

Traditionally, defense contractors and telecommunications companies have been popular targets with state-backed cyber spies, Rid said.   

The suspected Russian cyber-attack on the US government remains ‘ongoing’ and may have hit as many as 12 federal agencies after a software breach allowed the hackers to read government emails for months. 

Security officials said that the attack was ‘significant and ongoing’ and said the FBI was working to ‘pursue and disrupt’ the hackers. 

The breach of SolarWinds software – used by federal agencies and major companies – was uncovered by a cyber security firm and government contractor called FireEye, which noticed a suspicious log-in on its network. 

According to Politico, FireEye representatives told lawmakers that an employee had apparently been duped into revealing his two-factor authentication details – although company officials denied the account given by congressional staffers. 

FireEye says a ‘nation with top-tier offensive capabilities’ was behind the attack, which inserted malicious code into a SolarWinds software update. 

As many as 18,000 customers are thought to have downloaded the corrupted update, affecting officials at the Treasury, State and Defense departments among others, it is believed. 

The hackers are feared to have had access to government emails as far back as June, although the full extent of the damage is not yet clear. 

FireEye says the hackers had ‘primarily sought information related to certain government customers’ who use the cyber security firm. 

The California-based firm says the attackers stole some of its ‘red team’ software which mimics cyber-attacks to test the security of its clients’ computers. 

However, the foreign hackers eventually got caught after trying to register a new device on FireEye’s systems, tipping the company off to the wider cyber-attack. 

According to the two aides reporting on the congressional hearing, a FireEye employee is said to have been tricked into away their login details. 

But the company denied this, saying that the SolarWinds attack, rather than a separate security breach, was the source of the intrusion into FireEye. 

The SolarWinds attack is thought to have begun in March and continued for months until federal officials were told to ‘disconnect or power down’ the software. 

The Pentagon (left) and the FBI (right) were targets. Both have moved routine communication onto classified networks that are believed not to have been breached, according to two people briefed on the measures.

On Wednesday the FBI, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) said in a joint statement that the ‘full extent’ of the attack was still becoming clear. 

‘This is a developing situation, and while we continue to work to understand the full extent of this campaign, we know this compromise has affected networks within the federal government,’ they said. 

‘As the lead for threat response, the FBI is investigating and gathering intelligence in order to attribute, pursue, and disrupt the responsible threat actors. 

‘The FBI is engaging with known and suspected victims, and information gained through FBI’s efforts will provide indicators to network defenders and intelligence to our government partners to enable further action. 

‘As the lead for intelligence support and related activities, ODNI is helping to marshal all of the intelligence community’s relevant resources to support this effort and share information across the United States Government.’   

The agencies have created a coordination unit and emergency talks are being held at the White House on a daily basis to discuss the government’s response.

US national security adviser Robert O’Brien cut short a trip to the Middle East and Europe this week to deal with the fallout from the hack.

The agencies did not confirm the targets of the cyber attack, but the departments of Homeland Security, the Treasury, Commerce, State and Defense as well as the National Institutes of Health are all thought to have been hit. 

SolarWinds and FireEye have both pointed the finger at hackers linked to the Russian government. 

Mike Pompeo also pointed to Moscow on Monday, saying the Russian government had made repeated attempts to breach US government networks.


The massive hacking campaign disclosed by U.S. officials this week and tentatively attributed to the Russian government extended beyond users of pervasive network software that had been compromised.

Another major technology supplier was also compromised by the same attack team and used to get into high-value final targets, according to two people briefed on the matter.

The FBI and other agencies have scheduled a classified briefing for members of Congress Friday.

The Department of Homeland Security said in a bulletin on Thursday the spies had used other techniques besides corrupting updates of network management software by SolarWinds, which is used by hundreds of thousands of companies and government agencies.

‘The SolarWinds Orion supply chain compromise is not the only initial infection vector this APT actor leveraged,’ said DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, referring to ‘advanced persistent threat’ adversaries.

The hack is so serious it led to a National Security Council meeting at the White House on Saturday, said one of the people familiar with the matter (stock image)

CISA urged investigators not to assume their organizations were safe if they did not use recent versions of the SolarWinds software, while also pointing out that the hackers did not exploit every network they did gain access too.

CISA said it was continuing to analyze the other avenues used by the attackers. 

As many as 18,000 Orion customers downloaded the updates that contained a back door. Since the campaign was discovered, software companies have cut off communication from those back doors to the computers maintained by the hackers.

But the attackers might have installed additional ways of maintaining access in what some have called the biggest hack in a decade.

For that reason, officials said that security teams should communicate through special channels to ensure that their own detection and remediation efforts are not being monitored.

CISA and private companies including FireEye, which was the first to discover and reveal it had been hacked, have released a series of clues for organizations to look for to see if they have been hit.

But the attackers are very careful and have deleted logs, or electronic footprints or which files they have accessed. That makes it hard to know what has been taken.

Some major companies have issued carefully worded statements saying that they have ‘no evidence’ that they were penetrated, but in some cases that may only be because the evidence was removed.

In most networks, the attackers would also have been able to create false data, but so far it appears they were interested only in obtaining real data, people tracking the probes said.

Meanwhile, members of Congress are demanding more information about what may have been taken and how, along with who was behind it. The House Homeland Security Committee and Oversight Committee announced an investigation Thursday, while senators pressed to learn whether individual tax information was obtained.

In a statement, President-elect Joe Biden said he would ‘elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government’ and ‘disrupt and deter our adversaries’ from undertaking such major hacks. 

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