Donald Trump declares report of US cyber actions against Russian grid an 'act of treason'

Julie Allen
The president denied the reports while saying they were 'bad for our country' - AP

Donald Trump has erupted in fury after it was reported that America has laid the groundwork for a potentially devastating cyber attack on Russia's electric grid, describing the article as a “virtual act of treason”.

According to a three month investigation by the New York Times, increasingly sophisticated malware has been embedded in the Russian electricity system which could be activated to plunge the country into darkness in the event of a major confrontation.

The president yesterday/SUN denied the story while calling the newspaper "cowards" and the "enemy of the people.”

However, Mr Trump’s outburst came as it emerged he may not have been informed of an escalation of digital incursions into Russia's infrastructure in what is seen as a warning to Vladimir Putin to refrain from further meddling in US life.

Pentagon and intelligence sources revealed to the newspaper a general hesitation to give detailed briefings to the US leader for fear of his reaction - and that he may inadvertently disclose their strategy to adversaries.

On Saturday night Mr Trump tweeted: "Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia. This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country.”

“ALSO, NOT TRUE!” added the president.

Last summer new authorities were granted to US Cyber Command, the branch of the Department of Defense responsible for cyberspace operations, giving it greater autonomy to conduct online operations without presidential knowledge.

While the US has placed surveillance probes into Russia’s electric grid for years, the deployment of more aggressive malware marked a serious escalation, officials said.

In February in an interview with Joint Forces Quarterly, Gen Paul Nakasone, the commander of US Cyber Command, spoke of the need to "defend forward" with "persistent engagement" suggesting a shift in tactic was on the horizon.

“It has gotten far, far more aggressive over the past year,” one senior intelligence official told the New York Times.  “We are doing things at a scale that we never contemplated a few years ago.”

America is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2016 presidential elections which were widely infiltrated by a Kremlin-backed campaign of cyber meddling aimed at influencing voters.

In April Robert Mueller's investigations confirmed US intelligence agencies findings that the Kremlin led an operation to sow division in the US and upend the election by using cyber attacks and social media as weapons.

"The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion," he wrote in his report.

The operation was so successful, experts warned, they’ll almost certainly try again.

Speaking at an event in Washington last week John Bolton, Mr Trump's National Security Advisor, said Russian digital targets were being considered.

It comes after years of warnings that Russia has embedded malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies.

"The purpose of which is to say to Russia or anybody else that's engaged in cyber operations against us, 'You will pay a price if we find that you are doing this," he said. "And we will impose costs on you until you get the point that it's not worth your while to use cyber against us."