AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've heard a lot about how Russia went online to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, but the U.S. and Russia are waging other cyberbattles that fall below the radar. The New York Times reported this weekend that the U.S. is putting malware inside Russia's electric grid.
NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre looks at why the U.S. is becoming more assertive in cyberspace.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Army General Paul Nakasone heads both the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, and he's very clear that the U.S. should be more aggressive when it comes to confronting rivals in the digital realm. Here's Nakasone speaking to a congressional committee earlier this year, describing what he did to protect U.S. midterm elections last November.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL NAKASONE: For the first time, we sent our cyber warriors abroad. We sent defensive teams forward in November to three different European countries. That's acting outside of our borders that impose costs against our adversaries.
MYRE: Though Nakasone didn't say so, those activities were widely believed to be directed at Russia's Internet Research Agency, the group blamed for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Nakasone and the super-secret agencies he leads have not commented on The New York Times report which said the U.S. is prepositioning malware that could take down parts of the Russian electrical grid in the event of a major conflict. But analysts like Alina Polyakova at the Brookings Institution say the U.S. is just catching up with Russia.
ALINA POLYAKOVA: We have known for some time that the Russian government has been probing and actually planting malware on U.S. electrical grids and other critical infrastructure systems.
MYRE: In fact, Russia has already been blamed for such an attack. That was in Ukraine in 2015, where the power at several plants went down for hours. She says the same malware has been detected in the U.S. electrical grid.
POLYAKOVA: So this very clearly signals that Russia tests its capabilities in countries where there aren't as many consequences for its operations, most notably Ukraine, and that it tries to deploy very similar capabilities against the United States.
MYRE: P.W. Singer, a cyber expert at the New America think tank, supports countermeasures by the U.S. and believes they're likely to restrain Russian President Vladimir Putin to some extent.
P W SINGER: The goal of this operation was not to take down the Russian power grid but to send a deterrence message. You hit us; we can hit you back.
MYRE: However, he criticized President Trump. After The Times story appeared, Trump tweeted that there is no such program. But Trump also said the report was a virtual act of treason.
SINGER: Cyber Command's activities sent one message, and the president's Twitter account sent the exact opposite one to Putin.
MYRE: Trump has said he believes President Barack Obama was too hesitant to respond to cyberthreats or even actual attacks. And last year, Trump reportedly signed a still-classified national security document that gives Nakasone greater freedom to take actions that would include planting cipher daemons in the computers of foreign adversaries.
Polyakova, the Brookings analyst, says this aggressive activity is on the rise because there are no international norms on cyber.
POLYAKOVA: We're absolutely in this moment in the wild Wild West of cyber operations, especially state-to-state cyber operations. And we don't have a clearly established rules of the road.
MYRE: Nakasone says the U.S. has far greater cyber capacity than any of its rivals. But cyberweapons have the potential to be a great equalizer. Even poor countries have them. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABFAHRT HINWIL'S "PLANQUADRAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.