U.S. intelligence probing whether Putin testing Biden with Russian cyber hacks

White House dismisses idea but spy agencies not convinced.

Updated: June 2, 2021 - 11:00pm

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Russia-based cyber attacks on Western targets are under intense scrutiny from U.S. spy agencies working to decode whether Vladimir Putin knew about the hacks, and to what extent, intelligence sources told Just the News.

"This is key to unraveling what happened with these hacks," said one U.S. government intelligence official, who is not authorized to speak to the press. "The big get is, did Putin know, and if so, when did he know it? But also why were these launched, and why now?"

The latest revealed hack is against a major meat producer, the Brazilian based JBS company. The hack emerged Sunday in Australia, and targeted the company's outlets there and in North America. The attack comes in the wake of a May hack into the U.S.-based Colonial Pipeline. In both cases, investigators traced the hackers to Russia, but not definitively to the Russian government.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Wednesday the cyber incursions "absolutely" are the Russian leader's way of testing President Biden. 

"You cannot somehow dissect Vladimir Putin from the criminal organizations of Russia that carry out these ransomware attacks," McCaul said while appearing on Fox News. "It is all interrelated with Russia. Perhaps [they] didn't get direct approval but certainly approval."

Biden said on Wednesday he does not believe Putin is testing him via the hacks. But, the White House said, the American president wants answers from his Russian counterpart. 

"The White House is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and delivering the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday while traveling with reporters.

Additionally, Biden "has launched a rapid strategic review" of the attack on JBS, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

The hacks against Colonial and JBS came in the lead-up to a much anticipated June 16 summit between Biden and Putin. The two leaders will discuss the breaches - but, the intelligence officer said, the issue likely will remain unresolved.

"Don't look for Putin to confess that he ordered this or knew about it," the official said. "He's all about the 'nyet' on this one."

Regardless of who launched the hacks, more will occur, according to one cybersecurity expert.

"Welcome to the new normal," said Eric Cole, author of Cyber Crisis, a book that advises companies how to protect themselves against virtual intrusions. The attacks will continue in part because they work, he said. "Columbia set the standard and sent a message to the world of cyber criminals stating that companies are vulnerable and willing to pay." Columbia Pipeline has acknowledged paying a nearly $5 million ransom to regain access to its own systems.

Companies should strive to protect themselves against attacks that are guaranteed to occur, Cole said.

"We are reliant on computers and networks to run any business, but cyber security is often an afterthought or not a concern," he said.

International state-based hackers are not looking for money, but for chaos, the intelligence officer said.

"When you disable a system, even if it's not tied to national security, you get a lot of bang for your efforts," the officer said.

The Biden administration in April imposed sanctions on Moscow in part because of the massive SolarWinds hack against U.S. government and other systems. The United States and Great Britain blamed the Russian foreign intelligence service for the hack. 

Moscow's foreign intelligence chief, Sergey Naryshkin, last month denied the charges, and insinuated the U.S. might have staged the attack against its own systems.

"What a nonsensical claim," the U.S. intelligence officer told Just the News. "But it shows what we are up against."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday signaled Putin will retaliate verbally against direct challenges from Biden while at the summit. 

"We will be ready to answer the questions that the American side will raise," Lavrov said, noting that the salvos may include comments about "the persecution of those persons who are accused of the riots on January 6 this year."