Reports: USCYBERCOM took the Russian Firm Offline during the 2018 Midterms
IndraStra Global

Reports: USCYBERCOM took the Russian Firm Offline during the 2018 Midterms

By IndraStra Global News Team

Image Attribute: One of the offices of Internet Research Agency (IRA) at 55 Savushkina Street in Saint Petersburg, Russia. At the time of the photograph taken (April 17, 2018), the building was put on for rent. / Source: Wikipedia

Image Attribute: One of the offices of Internet Research Agency (IRA) at 55 Savushkina Street in Saint Petersburg, Russia. At the time of the photograph taken (April 17, 2018), the building was empty and put on for rent. / Source: Charles Maynes (Voice of America), Wikipedia 

On February 27, 2019, Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post reported that the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) blocked the internet access of Internet Research Agency (IRA), a St. Petersburg-based firm that intelligence agencies believed it to be at the heart of alleged Russian disinformation operations and was trying to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. 

Last year in October, USCYBERCOM's effort was identified in Justice Department filings as "Project Lakhta" — under which entities based out of Russia led by Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova (Chief Financial Officer of USA Really, a conspiratorial website) and funded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin (Kremlin-connected oligarch) were seeking to influence or disrupt American elections.

But the latest The Washington Post report cited an unnamed US security official; which indicates that USCYBERCOM's efforts went even further — "basically took the IRA offline" i.e., cutting off internet access to IRA on Election Day in November 2018 and for a few days afterward.

According to the same report, the operation was led by General Paul Miki Nakasone, current Commander of USCYBERCOM who in July 2018 formed the Russia Small Group, made up of 75 to 80 personnel from USCYBERCOM and NSA. The incoming news (in public domain) is considered as one of the first information on USCYBERCOM's muscle-flexing with respect to Russia. However, there was no independent confirmation of The Washington Post's report. No Russian media reported on the alleged outage, and there was no public statement from Russian government officials either. 

Another element of the USCYBERCOM campaign, first reported by the New York Times, involved "direct messaging (DM)" that targeted the trolls and as well as hackers who work for the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU. Using emails, pop-ups, text or direct messages, U.S. operatives beginning last October let the Russians know that their real names and online handles were known and they should not interfere in other nations' affairs, defense officials said. Some IRA officials were so perturbed by the DMs that they launched an internal investigation to root out what they thought were insiders leaking "personnel" information, according to two individuals.

Also, in late 2018, USCYBERCOM reportedly sent teams to Montenegro, Macedonia, and Ukraine to provide cybersecurity assistance and collect samples of malware believed to have been generated by the GRU.

According to the reports, the operation was authorized under new guidelines to bolster offensive capabilities set by President Donald Trump in September 2018 in a classified version of his executive order on cybersecurity. That policy move was crafted under the guidance of  John Bolton, National Security Advisor — who took over direct responsibility for White House cyber policy after the departure of former Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce and the elimination of that position from the National Security Council (NSC).

About the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM)

USCYBERCOM, founded in 2009, is one of ten unified commands of the United States' Department of Defense (DoD). It unifies the direction of cyberspace operations, strengthens DoD cyberspace capabilities, and integrates and bolsters DoD's cyber expertise. it shares a headquarters and leadership with the National Security Agency (NSA), the main U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency.

About the Internet Research Agency (IRA)

The Internet Research Agency (IRA) also known as Glavset is a Russian company, based in Saint Petersburg, engaged in online influence operations on behalf of Russian business and political interests. According to US media reports, it is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin and came to be known as the "Russian troll factory" for its alleged efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller bought an indictment against the agency, along with Prigozhin and two other firms controlled by Prigozhin.

With reporting by Ars Technica, RFE/RL, The Washington Post and The New York Times