Donald Trump is under mounting pressure to respond publicly to the vast cyber-hack of the US government likened to a “declaration of war” by one senator which is suspected to have been perpetrated by the Russians.
The US president is facing calls from both Democratic and Republican senators to denounce the attack, believed to have been on-going undetected for nine months, and announce actions to counter the threat.
The scale of the online assault is unprecedented, according to cyber experts, with the Pentagon, FBI, Treasury, State Department and even US nuclear security agencies said to have been compromised.
Hackers are thought to have gained access to government networks via corrupted software updates, potentially allowing them to steal information or gain positions to trigger mass disruptions.
Congressmen briefed on the attack have pointed the finger at Russia, as have unnamed US government officials in media reports, though investigations about the attack’s origin and impact are on-going.
With newspaper and cable news headlines prominently reporting the alarming details and Mr Trump continuing to leave the issue unaddressed, senators are incredibly calling for the US president to speak.
Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and 2012 Republican presidential nominee, blasted the “inexcusable silence and inaction from the White House” over the hack.
He said in an interview: “What I find most astonishing is that a cyber-hack of this nature is really the modern equivalent of almost Russian bombers reportedly flying undetected over the entire country.
“So our national security is extraordinarily vulnerable. And in this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”
Dick Durbin, the second most senior Democratic senator, called the attacks “virtually a declaration of war” and criticised Mr Trump for his closeness to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, saying Mr Trump “is calling him his best friend”.
Richard Bumenthal, another Democratic senator, said of the “massive” hack: “So far, not a word from any responsible official. Right now come clean with the American people.”
Joe Biden, the US president-elect, also appeared to reference Mr Trump’s failure to speak, saying in a statement on Thursday that he would not “stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation” once in power.
Mr Trump has persistently shown a reluctance to publicly admonish Mr Putin, most notably when he controversially sided with the Russian president over US intelligence chiefs by questioning whether Moscow really did meddle in the 2016 election.
On Friday by early afternoon in Washington DC Mr Trump had not commented about the hack. He had however tweeted about the “Russia hoax”, his term for the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.
It comes after US software giant Microsoft warned that at least 40 of its customers, including UK clients, had been exposed to the Russia-linked SolarWinds hack that targeted US states and government agencies.
The company would not name the victims, but said they include government agencies, think tanks, non-governmental organisations and IT firms. Microsoft said four in five were in the US, with nearly half of them tech companies.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s US president, said: “This is not ‘espionage as usual,’ even in the digital age. Instead, it represents an act of recklessness that created a serious technological vulnerability for the United States and the world.”
The attackers, believed to be working for the Russian government, got into computer networks by installing a vulnerability in Orion software from SolarWinds that is used to monitor IT networks.
Large parts of the NHS along with Government departments including the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ were SolarWinds customers.
SolarWinds confirmed on Monday that 18,000 customers downloaded affected software, attributing it to a nation-state hack.
Security services were on Friday looking into new leads which had emerged from US investigations this week, a security source said, leading to fresh concerns that Russian hackers had gained access to sensitive UK systems.
British investigators are likely to spend the Christmas period checking through server logs of Government IT systems in a search for evidence that computers controlled by the Russian hackers accessed information.
In a separate development, a row has broken out over whether the Pentagon stopped briefings with Mr Biden’s transition team.
The news website Axios reported the briefings had been abruptly brought to an end. A Pentagon official said there had been a “mutually-agreed upon holiday”.
However a senior Biden transition figure denied the claim and called for briefings to continue throughout the festive period.