As Russian trolls target midterms, U.S. Cyber Command hits back

U.S. goes on cyber offensive as Russians target midterms

(CNN) – U.S. Cyber Command is now targeting Russian operatives apparently trying to influence the mid-term elections.

An administration official told CNN that Cyber Command has begun targeting Russian hackers, apparently overwhelming them with electronic messages and fake e-mails to try to make their meddling more difficult.

"It's very interesting now, seeing this being part of U.S. cyber strategy, to go to these Russian operators, and saying, 'Don't influence these elections. We know who you are, we are tracking you, there will be consequences,’” said Jason Healey, a former White House cyber official.

Word of the operation comes as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor is in Moscow delivering the same message to the Russians, in person.

Just what are Russian trolls doing to try to disrupt the midterm vote?

Experts said they often create false personas, pretending to be Americans.

Then they either try to recruit real Americans to stage protests or other actions, sometimes even paying for the equipment, or they send divisive messages online.

"So whether that’s around a mass shooting, or whether that’s around questions of NFL protests, we see them seizing on these moments, and just amplifying existing material, but to make Americans think that we are more divided than we actually may be, by again artificially manipulating the information space,” said Laura Rosenberger of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

On Friday, a U.S. criminal indictment said a Russian conspiracy of online trolls tried to stoke discord with posts like these: "Obama is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood," and "Illegal immigration is a taxpayer burden."

The indictment outlined how “Project Lakhta” has operated since at least 2014.

U.S. officials said a crony of Vladimir Putin’s, Yevgeny Prigozhin, contributed $35 million to the operation.

The woman charged with coordinating the campaign went on Russian TV to ridicule the charges.

"I was shocked to hear that me, just a simple Russian accountant, elected a U.S. president instead of Americans,” quipped Elena Alekseevna, who has been charged with interfering in the U.S. political system.

This new campaign against Russian trolls isn't the first time the U.S. has gone on the digital offensive against enemies.

"The U.S. has certainly been involved with some pretty severe disruptive attacks on adversaries,” said Healey, the former White House cyber official. “The stuxnet attack on Iranian uranium enrichment is certainly a great example of that."

Some analysts believe that's what the U.S. should be doing to the Russian trolls, to directly target their capabilities, rather than just sending them warning messages.

"Offensive cyber-operations are an option: essentially you know, frying the servers,” said Rosenberger of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Analysts said pushing back on Russian operatives is tricky, because hackers could possibly retaliate by trying to disrupt the U.S. power grid or other infrastructure.

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