- The Washington Times
Wednesday, December 16, 2020

White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien this week cut short a valedictory tour of European capitals, according to multiple reports, as he returned to Washington to grapple with the repercussions of a global cyberespionage campaign that hacked into the systems of multiple U.S. government agencies.

Government investigators and private security analysts have said Russia is behind the hack, a charge the Kremlin has denied.

Mr. O’Brien is heading an emergency interagency push to assess the extent of the breach. Officials told The Associated Press he was originally set to spend the entire week traveling, and was forced to scrub stops in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Britain.

The hacking is believed to have begun in March of this year when a malware code was secretly inserted into updates of popular computer software made by Texas-based SolarWinds, management software that is used by hundreds of businesses and government agencies. The code gave hackers remote access to sensitive information within each network that could later be stolen.

The hack was not discovered until FireEye, a prominent cybersecurity company, realized it had been affected. SolarWinds over the weekend began contacting more than 30,000 of its customers, the AP reported, warning that an “outside nation state” — widely suspected to be Russia — had hacked into its popular Orion software.

Orion was designed to assist organizations monitor the performance of their computer networks, making it a tempting target for those seeking to hack into restricted systems.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, received a briefing for security officials Tuesday evening and called the scope of the hacking operation “stunning.”

“Today’s classified briefing on Russia’s cyberattack left me deeply alarmed, in fact downright scared. Americans deserve to know what’s going on,” he tweeted.

SolarWinds officials have declined to comment publicly on the breach, citing the need to cooperate with the federal investigation into what happened. But the company’s now-scrubbed website listed a string of prominent customers, from the White House, Pentagon and the Secret Service to the McDonald’s fast-food chain, the AP reported.

The White House has assembled a coordinating team to respond to the attack, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The National Security Council on Tuesday announced that it had formed a Cyber Unified Coordination Group “to ensure continued unity of effort across the United States Government in response to a significant cyber incident.”

“The UCG process facilitates continuous and comprehensive coordination for whole-of-government efforts to identify, mitigate, remediate, and respond to this incident,” NSC spokesperson John Ullyot said in a statement.

Mr. O’Brien stopped in Paris to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron about the incident before flying back to Washington, Politico reported.

Russia has denied any involvement in the incident and said in a statement this week that it “does not conduct offensive operations in the cyber domain.”

It has been an unusually turbulent week for top members of Mr. Trump’s Cabinet, even with the official ratification of President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s victory Tuesday meaning many have just a few weeks left in office.

Attorney General William Barr, after numerous run-ins with Mr. Trump over his handling of election legal matters, announced he would step down early on Dec. 23. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed Wednesday he was quarantining after having had contact with an unnamed individual who tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Mr. Pompeo to miss President Trump’s final Cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

And six leading veterans groups, including the American Legion and the VFW, on Wednesday issued a joint appeal for Mr. Trump to fire Veterans Administration Secretary Robert Wilkie amid a fierce controversy over Mr. Wilkie’s handling of a congressional aide’s allegation of a sexual assault at a VA hospital.

Mr. Wilkie has denied wrongdoing in the case, and the VA press office said Wednesday that Mr. Wilkie “will continue to lead the department.”

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.