On Monday the Trump administration publicly attributed the WannaCry cyberattacks—which locked down computers in businesses, health-care institutions and governments around the world—to North Korea. Thomas P. Bossert, President Trump’s Homeland Security adviser, made the announcement in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and held a White House press conference Tuesday, complete with maps showing which countries were infected by the malware epidemic.
This fanfare could not be much further from how the Trump White House has addressed the issue of Russian hacking throughout the 2016 election and beyond, even though the same intelligence agencies likely contributed to both conclusions.
“It’s striking that a campaign that for so long denied the possibility of attribution has turned into an administration that now treats it as routine enough to do it in the newspaper—when the adversary is not Russia,” Ben Buchanan, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center Cyber Security Project, told The Daily Beast.
WannaCry ripped through networks in May, infecting computers in Telefónica, a large Spanish telecommunications company; a slew of hospitals within the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS); and, overall, more than 200,000 computers in some 150 countries. The U.S. got away lightly, with only around 10 victims, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nevertheless, WannaCry’s impact was significant: NHS hospitals had to cancel routine procedures, as well as divert ambulances elsewhere.
Bossert, in his op-ed, had strong words for the North Koreans behind this attack.
“As for North Korea, it continues to threaten America, Europe and the rest of the world—and not just with its nuclear aspirations. It is increasingly using cyberattacks to fund its reckless behavior and cause disruption across the world. Mr. Trump has already pulled many levers of pressure to address North Korea’s unacceptable nuclear and missile developments, and we will continue to use our maximum pressure strategy to curb Pyongyang’s ability to mount attacks, cyber or otherwise,” he wrote.
Calling out a foreign nation for a specific cyberattack is no trivial feat: It’s a decision that could generate all sorts of geopolitical fallout, or antagonize an irritated adversary. But here, the U.S. went ahead.
“The question is, if this wasn’t North Korea but Russia, and the leader said ‘I didn’t do it—trust me,’ would the president believe him?” Michael Sulmeyer, the Belfer Center’s director, told The Daily Beast, referring to Putin’s repeated denials of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Trump’s assertions that he believes Putin.
When asked about the clear difference between the WannaCry reaction and the response to the 2016 election interference, Bossert emphasized during Tuesday’s press conference that Trump has continued sanctions against Russia related to the country’s hacking efforts, and that the administration acted to remove Kaspersky anti-virus software from all federal networks.
Of course, using Bossert’s words, it’s also possible to say that Russian hackers breaking into foreign political parties and dumping caches of emails was “reckless behavior.” Or, Russian hackers’ own global ransomware campaign caused disruption around the world. In June, suspected Russian hackers launched NotPetya, which also encrypted machines. It affected American multinational food company Mondelez International, as well as American pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. The attack cost shipping firm Maersk some $300 million, and even supermarkets had to ground to a halt.
Yet, the White House did not hold a press conference, or pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed in response to these attacks, some of which likely had more effect on the U.S. than WannaCry. Even if the NotPetya and WannaCry cases are not a perfect comparison—it’s unclear how much information the U.S. has on the identities of the NotPetya hackers—the difference more generally around its approach is startling.
“President Trump is handling the intelligence assessments regarding North Korea and Russia completely differently, staging an elaborate media rollout to press on sanctions against North Korea while at the same time discrediting the assessment by these very same intelligence agencies that the Kremlin interfered with our election,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said in a statement Monday. “Why isn’t President Trump taking these same steps in response to Russia? Where are the op-eds pressing for action? Where is the White House press conference with the president demanding sanctions against Russia?”