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National Security

Trump's 'Impenetrable' Cyber Unit That Never Was

After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, President Trump said Sunday they had discussed creating a joint cybersecurity unit. After much criticism, he quickly walked back the idea. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, President Trump said Sunday they had discussed creating a joint cybersecurity unit. After much criticism, he quickly walked back the idea.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Spare a thought for the poor U.S.-Russia Joint Impenetrable Cybersecurity Unit, which didn't even survive an entire news cycle this weekend.

President Trump pitched the joint cyber-team with Russia in a tweet on Sunday.

He went on to rule out the idea in a second tweet on Sunday evening.

Then again, the notion had about as much chance of acceptance in the U.S. national security world as ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago.

"It's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard, but it's pretty close," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, appearing on Meet the Press.

"Partnering with Putin on a 'Cyber Security Unit' is akin to partnering with Assad on a 'Chemical Weapons Unit,' " wrote Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Twitter.

"A cyber security working group with the very perpetrators of the attack on our election? Might as well just mail our ballots to Moscow," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. He also sounded off on Twitter.

Administration leaders, however, said something must be done: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Sunday that Washington and Moscow needed a "framework" with which to negotiate some agreements on cybersecurity and to keep future elections secure.

"What we agreed on the cyber front is to explore a framework under which we might begin to have agreement on how to deal with these very complex issues of cyber threats, cybersecurity [and] cyber intrusions," he said. "This is a challenge, obviously, for us globally."

It's unclear what incentive Russia might have to reciprocate: Its leaders likely have just as much to fear from American cyber-capabilities as Washington does from Russian ones. And there are diplomatic and political games at work, too.

Trump's sometimes-yes, sometimes-it's-a-witch hunt position means it would be difficult for him to push the issue.

And according to Tillerson and Trump — there were no independent accounts of their meeting with their Russian counterparts — Russia's Vladimir Putin denied any Russian government role in the election interference, as he has in the past. How could Putin discuss something of which he has no knowledge?

(Putin has been less categorical on the question of whether some Russians, outside the view of officialdom, might have attacked the U.S. The Russian leader loves to play the Cheshire Cat.)

Current and former U.S. intelligence leaders are categorical: The evidence is compelling and the conclusion is solid. What's more, former FBI Director James Comey, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and others warn they expect Russia will be back with more interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

According to the president's latest comments, he accepts that Russia launched some of the cyberattacks the U.S. intelligence community has documented, but also believes "others" may have meddled, too — though former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says there's no evidence any other foreign power was involved.

That means Trump is in a box, politically. He and Tillerson have cited Putin's denials as a way to explain there was nowhere else for them to go on the election meddling; that this was an impasse they could not bridge. So the more Trump discusses the issue, the more attention he draws to his newest position acknowledging that Russia did play some role — and to the fact that he and Tillerson got nothing out of Putin about it in their meeting.

That lack of enthusiasm at the leadership level is just one reason why the impenetrable cyber group probably wouldn't have gone anywhere. Another is that, at the working level, American national security officials already know quite a bit about Russian cyber-operations — in ways they might wish they didn't.

Russia's intelligence agencies are their leading cyber-antagonists — they've compromised White House and Pentagon emails, stolen secrets and may have helped exploit powerful hacking tools lost by the National Security Agency and CIA.

Plus Russian spies and hackers are blamed for waves of snooping on the American technology and financial sectors and may be linked with recent cyberattacks on U.S nuclear power plants.

The U.S. government knows so much about Russian cyber-exploits, in fact, that last January, the Justice Department had sufficient evidence to indict four Russians over attacks against the U.S. Two of them were intelligence officers with the FSB, the modern-day successor agency to Russia's infamous KGB.

The people in that case are accused of a major cyberattack against Yahoo, but the unit for which they work, the FSB's Center 18, is partly blamed for last year's election interference.

The unit is also the FBI's formal point of contact for cyber-operations with its Russian counterpart.