Trump aides enlist Israel in 'holding nations accountable' for cyberattacks

TEL AVIV, Israel — A new U.S.-Israeli working group — its formation announced this week at a major international cyber event in Israel — aims to devise and employ new methods of identifying cyber enemies and “holding nations accountable” for bad cyber behavior.

“We need to focus on finding cyber adversaries before they get into our networks,” Thomas Bossert, homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, told participants at Cyber Week, an annual international event held at Tel Aviv University.

The new working group, an extension of an existing cyber agreement and routinized cooperation between the two nations, was endorsed by Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the American leader’s trip here last month. It aims to develop “a different operational construct toward stopping adversaries in networks and identifying ways to hold bad actors responsible,” according to Bossert.

“We believe that the agility Israel has in developing solutions will result in cyber defense we can take back to the U.S.,” he added.

Rob Joyce, Trump’s cybersecurity adviser, told conference participants that Washington is seeking a new model to deter governments through the imposition of painful penalties. “We need to figure out a deterrence model of how to impose costs on other nations so that they cannot achieve their desired outcomes,” Joyce said.

Neither Joyce nor Bossert mentioned Russia or North Korea, two nations that the U.S. intelligence community has identified as repeat offenders in attacks against American networks, the most controversial of which was the alleged hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which is currently under investigation. Joyce did note, however, that Saudi Arabia was a target for an ongoing cyberattack, the likes of which should be deterred or punished.

Netanyahu, in his address to the plenum, underscored the importance of international cooperation and the added value he said Israel can provide for common cybersecurity defenses. “We are ready to cooperate with other countries; we are ready to cooperate with other governments because in general — with some reservations — we’re better together.”

Netanyahu said cyber cooperation would feature high on the agenda during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel next week. He also hinted that Arab countries with whom Israel has no diplomatic ties are turning to Israel for its cyber and high-tech expertise.

“Most of the governments, in fact, all of the governments in the world that I come into contact with want cooperation with Israel on high-tech, and just about every one of them wants cooperation with us on cyber technology and cybersecurity technology,” Netanyahu said. “This is an expression of the change in Israel’s status. There used to be a thing called the Arab boycott, remember that? Well, that’s dissipated for many, many reasons, strategic and others.” 

Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan, head of the Israel Defense Forces’ C4I and cyber defense directorate, also highlighted the need for cooperation, both internally across all branches of the Israeli military and with key strategic partners.

“We need to conduct persistent campaigns with the enemy to ensure freedom of action,” Padan told attendees. “This can’t happen without cooperation. … We need to join hands within the country and outside of it to meet the challenge.”

In one of the more unambiguous public acknowledgements of Israel’s offensive cyber capabilities, Padan spoke of the changes underway in the Israel Defense Forces to achieve technological superiority. “The basic change we are undergoing is the change from basic data protection to actual combat in the cyber world.”

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