Enlarge / Will Barack Obama order a major cyber-reprisal against Russia for election hacks before he leaves office? A CNN report suggests the response will be a softball.Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images
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According to a CNN report, officials within the Obama administration have said that retaliatory measures against Russia for interference in the US election will happen very soon—perhaps as early as today.

But the response is expected to be “proportional” and include diplomatic measures and sanctions.
It’s not clear whether there will be any sort of response in kind against the Russian leadership’s computer systems and data.
A proportional response, however, likely won’t do anything to deter future efforts to use hacking and information campaigns to affect US politics or other aspects of government.

That’s according to Dave Aitel, the founder of the security firm Immunity and a former NSA research scientist.
In a recent interview with Ars, Aitel said he believed that the US would take some sort of retaliatory action in the final weeks of Obama’s presidency. “We’re in a unique position where [President Barack] Obama can lay a haymaker down,” he said, “and then Trump has to stand up.

And Obama has nothing to restrain him.”
Aitel predicted that the US response “will be big enough that it intimidates a nation-state.
It’s like we are the only nuclear power.” And he said the US response needs to be substantial, because the methods used to hack the DNC and John Podesta and the related information operations used to disrupt the campaign of Hillary Clinton are within the skill set of a team of penetration testers or anyone else with a moderate amount of technical skill.
“Anybody could have done this,” Aitel said. “That’s the more concerning factor—it’s less about what Russia did and more about, have we built a fragile democracy?” The US’ judicial system, he noted, is particularly vulnerable as well. “Someone could start messing with court cases very easily.
It could be a billion-dollar problem.”
Go big or go… nowhere?
Launching the sort of “big” response Aitel advocates for, however, would require acting in a way that doesn’t escalate beyond the digital.

As Aitel himself pointed out, “Our [the US’] specialty is the hard stuff”—things like Stuxnet.

But much of what the US could do—or the National Security Agency, in particular—is in the realm of the cyber-physical, as in disabling infrastructure—actions that could be seen as too drastic or as an act of war.
Early leaks from the Obama administration claim the CIA was planning some sort of “covert” operation against Russia (though not terribly covert, as information on the planned operation was given to NBC News).
It now seems like those operations have either been sidelined or have failed outright.
So President Obama’s options at this point may be extremely limited.
The measures that CNN reports are in the works are expected to include naming individuals involved in information operations, including the hacking and leaking of the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton presidential campaign chairman John Podesta—the same sort of “name and shame” approach the US took with China over hacking by members of the People’s Liberation Army.

The US response will not likely include indictments, but direct financial sanctions may be involved.
The reports of the White House plan drew a response yesterday from Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The outgoing US administration has not given up on its hope of dealing one last blow to relations with Russia, which it has already destroyed. Using obviously inspired leaks in the US media, it is trying to threaten us again with expansion of anti-Russian sanctions, ‘diplomatic’ measures, and even subversion of our computer systems.”
Zakharova claimed that the Department of Homeland Security’s alleged port scan of the systems of the Georgia secretary of state were evidence of a “White House-orchestrated provocation” trying to shift blame to Russia.
She added, “We can only add that if Washington takes new hostile steps, it will receive an answer.

This applies to any actions against Russian diplomatic missions in the United States, which will immediately backfire at US diplomats in Russia.”

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