U.S. ramping up offensive cyber measures to stop economic attacks, Bolton says

It's the first time a White House official has publicly acknowledged that defense authorizations approved last year go beyond election security measures.
John Bolton, White House, national security adviser
John Bolton appears at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The U.S. is beginning to use offensive cyber measures in response to commercial espionage, President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said Tuesday.

“We’re now looking at — beyond the electoral context — a whole range of other activities to prevent this other kind of cyber interference … in the economic space, as well,” Bolton said while speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s CFO Network annual meeting.

The U.S. faces many digital economic threats, including a particularly aggressive salvo from Beijing, which continues to steal intellectual property and conduct other cyber-espionage activities, according to the latest Pentagon assessment on Chinese military operations. The U.S. government traditionally has carried out offensive cyber-operations in the electoral context, such as a 2018 Cyber Command operation that interrupted the internet access of a Russian organization that spread political disinformation on social media.

Now, according to Bolton, American focus is expanding to deter the theft of IP.


“We’re now opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act in,” Bolton said Tuesday, also citing Russian activity and Chinese influence operations underway in the U.S.

Lawmakers last year empowered Cyber Command to defend outside its own networks as part of the national Defense Authorization Act of 2019. Cyber Command also gained new authorizations through a classified presidential memorandum, known as NSPM 13, and the Pentagon’s cyber strategy, both of which gave the Defense Department more flexibility to conduct offensive cyber measures.

As a direct result of those new authorities and as part of its operation to protect the U.S. midterm elections in 2018, Cyber Command deployed personnel to Ukraine, Macedonia and North Montengro. American were sent to those countries to gather intelligence about Russian activities, and help officials in each nation defend their networks.

While these kinds of “defending forward” operations continue, according to military cybercommanders, the administration is also moving to address economic concerns.

The urgency of addressing Chinese hacking is increasing because that activity has expanded to the point that it can “degrade core U.S. operational and technological advantages,” according to the Pentagon.


Bolton’s remarks Tuesday mark the first time a senior White House official has publicly acknowledged that the authorizations issued last year go beyond just election contexts. He warned adversaries that the U.S. reserves the right to retaliate to economically-motivated cyberattacks, even outside of the cyber realm.

“Our response doesn’t have to be only in cyberspace so we’re really looking at really the full range of things we can do,” Bolton said.

Even as the administration shifts to include offensive cyber-operations that address economic threats, Cyber Command has had ongoing operations overseas with regards to election security, the commander of Cyber Command’s cyber national mission force, Brig. Gen. Timothy Haugh, told reporters in May. The U.S. will continue to grow those relationships moving forward, he said.

Shannon Vavra

Written by Shannon Vavra

Shannon Vavra covers the NSA, Cyber Command, espionage, and cyber-operations for CyberScoop. She previously worked at Axios as a news reporter, covering breaking political news, foreign policy, and cybersecurity. She has appeared on live national television and radio to discuss her reporting, including on MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, CBS, Al Jazeera, NPR, WTOP, as well as on podcasts including Motherboard’s CYBER and The CyberWire’s Caveat. Shannon hails from Chicago and received her bachelor’s degree from Tufts University.

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