Five US spy bosses, and the acting FBI chief, today told the Senate intelligence committee they do not trust software from Russian antivirus maker Kaspersky.
And as a result, they are reviewing Uncle Sam's use of the software. It is feared the toolkit could be commandeered by the Kremlin to attack and sabotage computers used by the American government.
Daniel Coats, the Director of National Intelligence; Michael Pompeo, Director of the CIA; Michael Rogers, Director of the NSA; Andrew McCabe, Acting Director of the FBI; Vincent Stewart, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Robert Cardillo, Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency didn't agree on much, but they did agree on two things – they believe Putin meddled with the US elections, and they don't recommend using Kaspersky's software.
All the spymasters were asked if they still agreed that Russia interfered in the presidential election by hacking computers used by Republicans and Democrats and leaking internal documents. The answer was a unanimous yes.
"Only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized the 2016 US election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets," said [PDF] Coats.
"Russia has also leveraged cyberspace to seek to influence public opinion across Europe and Eurasia. We assess that Russian cyber operations will continue to target the United States and its allies."
The question of Kaspersky came courtesy of Senator Marco Rubio (R‑FL), who asked them all if they trusted the Russian-built security software. The answer was a unanimous no.
"We are tracking Kaspersky and their software,” said DIA boss Stewart. NSA chief Rogers added he was "personally involved" in probing Kaspersky Lab's code at his agency. The security biz previously insisted its work with the Russian government is above board.
In a cunning PR move, the eponymous CEO of Kaspersky Lab, Eugene Kaspersky, just happened to be doing a question-and-answers session on Reddit as the senate hearing unfolded this morning – and was quick to respond to the shade thrown at him by the surveillance bosses. He also challenged the Senate to hold a full hearing.
"I would be very happy to testify in front of the Senate, to participate in the hearings and to answer any questions they would decide to ask me," he told Redditors. "I think that due to political reasons, these gentlemen don't have an option, and are deprived from the opportunity to use the best endpoint security on the market without any real reason or evidence of wrongdoing from our side."
Kaspersky said that, on one level, the snub from the NSA and its pals was good advertising, and said he was used to his firm not getting a fair shout in the US. Kaspersky works with Interpol and Europol on cybercrime investigations, he pointed out, and last year took down the Shade ransomware family.
One Redditor asked why Kaspersky had paid Michael Flynn – Trump's pick for National Security Advisor until he was fired for his Russian ties – $11,250. Kaspersky said it was a standard fee for an speech Flynn gave in Washington, DC. We'll know more since the Intelligence Committee has now subpoenaed Flynn to appear.
Russia-bashing aside, there was the elephant in the room
While the purpose of the congressional meeting was national security, the shadow of Tuesday's sacking of FBI Director James Comey loomed large over the proceedings.
The committee chairman, Senator Richard Burr (R‑VA), began the session by warning everyone that today's meeting was not about Comey, despite the fact that he had been scheduled to attend. But, as you'd expect, that didn't last long.
The next speaker, deputy chairman Senator Mark Warner (D‑VA), said that it was "impossible to ignore" the fact that Comey should have been there, and that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the director had been fired because of the probe his agency is conducting into the activities of Russia in the election. "We will not be deterred from getting to the truth," he said.
Warner asked acting FBI director McCabe if he would promise to inform the committee if the FBI Russia probe is impeded in any way by the White House. "I absolutely do," McCabe responded. He told Rubio that the investigation "continues despite any changes in circumstance."
"The timing of this firing is wrong to anyone with a semblance of ethics," blasted a typically fiery Ron Wyden (D‑OR). "Director Comey should be here this morning."
Wyden asked McCabe if it would have been wrong under regulations for Comey to tell the president that he was not under investigation, as Trump claims. McCabe declined to comment, but said he would not be responding if the president asked him.
President Trump threw his own hat into the ring while the proceedings were going on. He told NBC News that he didn't fire Comey because of the recommendation of his Attorney General, as he told Comey in his dismissal letter. He said that he had always planned to do so.
"He's a showboat, he's grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil," he said. "You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that." ®