President Trump gave the Central Intelligence Agency authorization to expand the scope of cyber attacks against foreign nations in a secret ruling in 2018, Yahoo! News reported on Wednesday.
The ruling, known as a presidential finding, allowed the CIA to authorize more of its own cyber operations without obtaining direct approval from the White House.
Drafted by the CIA and promoted by the National Security Council, the ruling “gave the agency very specific authorities to really take the fight offensively to a handful of adversarial countries,” a former U.S. government official told Yahoo!. The ruling mentions China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as examples of “adversarial” nations, and lowers the burden of proof required to conduct cyber operations against foreign charities, religious institutions, or businesses that are suspected of working for foreign governments.
“Before, you would need years of signals and dozens of pages of intelligence to show that this thing is a de facto arm of the government,” a former official said. But now, “as long as you can show that it vaguely looks like the charity is working on behalf of that government, then you’re good.”
Trump did sign off on a cyber attack on Iran in June 2019, after Iran shot down an U.S. surveillance drone. The cyber attack targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps computers used to plan raids on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, the Washington Post reported at the time.
While many in the CIA were reportedly elated with the new order, there was some pushback within the U.S. government against certain operations such as “document dumping.” In December of 2019, hackers exposed 15 million bank accounts of Iranian citizens in a cyber attack believed to be carried out by a state or state-sponsored organization. All of the affected banks were sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for allegedly transferring money to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Our government is basically turning into f****ing WikiLeaks [by using] secure communications on the dark web with dissidents, hacking and dumping,” another former official lamented.
The CIA did not comment on the report and the National Security Council did not respond to Yahoo’s request for comment.
The news comes in the midst of multiple reports of fires and explosions at Iranian industrial facilities, including the Natanz nuclear plant, over the past several weeks. The damage at the Natanz facility set back Iran’s nuclear program by at least several months.
Meanwhile, cyber operations by China have appeared to increase during the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration believes both China and Iran are attempting to steal U.S. coronavirus vaccine research while disrupting the country’s ability to produce a vaccine.