The U.S. military blocked Internet access to an infamous Russian entity seeking to sow discord among Americans during the 2018 midterms, several U.S. officials said, a warning that the group’s operations against the United States are not cost-free.
The strike on the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a company underwritten by an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, was part of the first offensive cyber campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election, the officials said, according to The Washington Post.
“They basically took the IRA offline,” according to one of the sources. “They shut ‘em down.”
The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command, with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities.
“Such an operation would be more of a pinprick that is more annoying than deterring in the long run,” said Thomas Rid, a strategic studies professor at Johns Hopkins University, who was not briefed on the details.
But some U.S. officials argued that “grand strategic deterrence” is not always the goal. “Part of our objective is to throw a little curve ball, inject a little friction, sow confusion,” said one defense official. “There’s value in that. We showed what’s in the realm of the possible. It’s not the old way of doing business anymore.”
The disruption to the Internet Research Agency’s networks took place as Americans went to the polls and a day or so afterward — as the votes were tallied, to prevent the Russians from mounting a disinformation campaign that casts doubt on the results, according to officials. The blockage was so frustrating to the trolls that they complained to their system administrators about the disruption, the officials said.