Obama cyber chief: Iran may ramp up cyberattacks after Trump ditched nuclear deal

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, AP

WASHINGTON — The former top White House cyber chief under President Barack Obama is warning that Iran may soon start to ramp up cyberattacks on the United States in the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with that country.

“I think we should expect to see an increase in Iranian cyberactivity against us,” said Michael Daniel, the former White House cyber coordinator, in an interview on the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”

Iranian hackers associated with that country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard were indicted by U.S. officials in March 2016 for launching a wave of massive denial of service attacks on major U.S. banks and other financial institutions, shutting down computer networks and causing millions of dollars in lost business.

While those attacks against the United States had tapered off in recent years, the Iranian cyberthreat has in no way diminished, Daniel said. He noted that the Iranians have continued to improve their cyberskills, targeting Mideast allies of the United States even while the nuclear deal was in place.

“Saudi Aramco has continued to be under attack even subsequent to the nuclear deal,” Daniel said, referring to the Saudi national petroleum company. “If you look at what happened in Qatar, there was a disinformation campaign that was carried out there that many people ascribe to and attribute to Iranian actors.”

He said it is now a “very high possibility” that Iranians would revive their attacks on U.S. financial institutions, seeing such actions as an “appropriate” response to a resumption of U.S. sanctions against them. “When you look at their level of activity, they have continued to hone their skills and invest in these capabilities as a tool to use as part of their statecraft,” he said.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” by Yahoo News

Daniel spoke during a week that the Trump White House announced it was abolishing Daniel’s former job at the White House, folding responsibilities for coordinating U.S. cyber-response to other senior officials on the National Security Council. The abolition of the post of White House cyber coordinator was disclosed as part of a reorganization of the National Security Council under new national security adviser John Bolton. The move was denounced as “mind-boggling” by Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, in light of the cyberthreats still facing the country.

The former Obama cyber chief echoed those concerns. “From my perspective, it’s a strange signal to send, and the way it was communicated doesn’t seem to indicate they are putting a high priority on the topic,” Daniel said. “If anything, the threats we face are going to continue to get more intense and worse in cyberspace before they get better.” Among those threats, he said, was that the Russians — or other “hacktivist” groups with their own agendas — may seek to undertake “disruption activities” against the 2018 congressional elections in much the same way that Russian intelligence agencies did during the 2016 presidential election.

More “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News: