Congressional Republican outrage over an interagency planning report that characterizes Russia as a modern-day threat to the United States is absurd.
On May 16, I spoke before the House Intelligence Committee about my work on cybersecurity. In my testimony, I, like many others, told the committee that there is virtually no technological solution to Russian attempts to breach American systems. The FBI has investigated dozens of cyberattacks that originated in Russia and directed at all five of our intelligence agencies.
The suggestion that we are somehow naive to think we have as good a chance of keeping Russian hackers out of our nation as any of us knows is insulting. And the suggestion that the FBI is “on the take” when it comes to protecting the American people is ludicrous.
The bad news is that our adversaries’ attempts to influence our election and our democracy appear to be succeeding. We can either bow down to Putin and Russian threats to our democracy or continue to defend ourselves against these intrusions.
Yes, it is true that American intelligence services were caught off guard and did not foresee the scale of Russian cyber-meddling, which they’ve called unprecedented in modern times. But that does not mean we don’t know how to prevent Russian cyberattacks today and in the future.
As the Senate prepares to grill James Comey on Thursday, the publication of the 2018 joint cyber-risk assessment prepared by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense is an important first step in taking our nation’s cybersecurity more seriously.
The idea of an interagency “threat assessment” of cybersecurity risk by more than a dozen different agencies is mind boggling. It’s a silly undertaking. Yet the document is the first official national statement of intent to shield the American people from Russian cyberattacks. If Russia is the largest global threat we face, if it wants to undermine democracy and our way of life, it can count on bipartisan support in Washington for its cyber ambitions, right?
The dark history of how the U.S. government avoided acting as a defense against terrorist attacks more than 20 years ago tells us that it’s entirely possible to protect ourselves from attack, and this document shows why.
Twenty years ago, agencies like the FBI built a bottom-up tactical readiness model that allowed them to aggressively engage terrorist groups but minimize the impact of any shooting when the terrorist presence was minimal. Then and now, it is to everyone’s best interests to advance situational awareness and situational response to cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure, so that we can avoid casualties and strike a better deterrent tone. Our focus should be on defense, not offense.
If the intelligence community has done its job this week, it has consistently distinguished its efforts from those of the Kremlin. The evidence of Putin’s cyber meddling is overwhelming. He has stolen the identities of thousands of Americans in an effort to discredit our democratic processes. If the only thing we can do to protect our democracy is to organize more debates, and to intervene when there are serious threats from outside, then we would be choosing the very worst of all possible solutions.
Instead, the answer to protecting American democracy is more rapid integration of technologies like facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence. It is about investing more in cybersecurity personnel, and devoting more resources to building a cybersecurity workforce with the skills to address cybersecurity risk. It is about making sure there is a talent pipeline that supports our critical infrastructure and growing 21st century businesses. It is about modernizing the investigative tools of law enforcement and criminal defense lawyers.
There is no silver bullet for cybersecurity, but if Russia is intent on undermining American democracy, I will not stop trying to build a stronger shield. The more the government understands how its adversaries plan to undermine our democracy, the better prepared we will be to protect Americans and our democracy against those threats.
Carl Higbie is the former director of public and international affairs for Donald Trump.