Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst, served on the National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2013. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats on Tuesday was like the Super Bowl for national security wonks. The best players were on the field and it seemed like the whole world was watching.
National security experts from around the world – not to mention world leaders and foreign intelligence services – were tuned into the public hearing to get a taste of what key members of the US intelligence community say are the biggest worldwide threats facing our country. The director of National Intelligence, and the directors of the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency put great time and effort into preparing written testimony and answering senators’ questions.
The briefing followed the pattern of past hearings, highlighting strategic threats and some tactical ones, with an expected focus on the White House’s abuse of the security clearance system and the Trump administration’s attacks on the FBI. Undoubtedly, many observers walked away from the briefing thirsting for more answers, but the most pressing question was this: Was President Trump listening?
To really listen, he’d have to get the message that nothing on Russia has changed – and that’s the problem.
From cyberthreats to WMD and terrorism, there’s a lot of ground to cover in these briefings, and members of the committee rightfully used the majority of their time to question witnesses primarily about Russian interference in our 2016 election, ongoing information warfare campaigns and their intent and capability to interfere in elections going forward.
The level of danger posed by Russia – and Russia’s ability to strategically destroy the foundations of our democracy – monopolized the hearing because it should be monopolizing our policy focus and response.
But there’s no news in that: The intelligence community has agreed, at least since it published its public intelligence assessment in January 2017, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and intends to do so again. The committee has assessed, since at least June, that Russia is engaged in an ongoing psychological and cyberoperations campaign to influence, confuse and demoralize its intended audience.
It’s important that the American people heard these unanimous assessments again on Tuesday, but, again, was President Trump paying attention?
Director of National intelligence Dan Coats indicated that no single agency is currently in charge of coordinating a response to Russian election meddling. I served on the White House National Security Council for four years and this is typically what NSCs do – they coordinate interagency policy development and responses.
In December, the Washington Post reported that the President hadn’t held a single cabinet-level meeting on Russia and that he doesn’t like Russia analysis to come his way.
So as valuable as the intelligence community’s assessments are (and hopefully they keep sounding the alarm bells publicly and privately), they don’t fulfill their full purpose unless used to craft policy responses. In the case of Russia, that would mean doing what the NSC is supposed to do, developing a plan to protect our election infrastructure, to work with tech companies to have better defenses against cyberoperations and bots and trolls and more.
There’s not much reason, based on the President’s previous disregard for intelligence analysis of the Russia threat, to think this time will be different, but let’s all hope the President has finally started to listen.
There are also a lot of other strategic priorities to focus on, from domestic issues (Coats referenced our fractious political process) to global concerns like North Korea and China. Coats responded to some important questions on Kim Jong Un’s motivations, sharing the intelligence community’s assessment that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear weapons. In light of Vice President Mike Pence’s recent statements that the US is open to diplomatic talks with North Korea if they denuclearize, there seems to be a miscommunication here – at best.
If Pence knew or believed that his intelligence agencies don’t think Kim will denuclearize, why would he indicate an opening to talks if and when they do? Coats made US policy on North Korea look disorganized (again) and exposed the fact that we just don’t have good intelligence on Kim and his cohorts. This is one of the risks of these public briefings – the world, including malign actors, get insights into our vulnerabilities.
Another significant element of Tuesday’s briefing was its shift in tone on the government’s relationship with the tech sector. Google, Twitter and Facebook have been the focus of a lot of congressional scrutiny over the last year, as details of Russia’s manipulation of digital platforms came to light. Twitter has announced 1.4 million users may have been exposed to content in the run up to the 2016 election (a number that keeps getting revised upward), with Facebook reporting 126 million.
This is probably the tip of the spear. To date, the discussion between big tech companies and Capitol Hill has been strained at best with lawmakers putting the onus on tech companies to do better, to identify and flag Russian content, and more.
Today’s hearing had a different tone. FBI director Christopher Wray talked about the need to build partnerships with the tech community (DHS Secretary Nielson is actually in Silicon Valley this week) – and that may be an opening for a more productive conversation between the two sectors.
Tech companies have advanced machine learning tools they can apply to tracking Russian activity and the public sector has more intelligence and information about the full threat picture.
A final takeaway from the briefing is that the system operating between the White House and the intelligence community is broken when it comes to the security clearance and classification process. Historically, the intelligence community provides appropriately cleared individuals with access to sensitive information.
On Tuesday, Wray outlined how he had voiced concerns over ousted White House staffer Rob Porter’s clearance because of documented accusations of domestic abuse, completed an investigation as a result and briefed the White House. Wray’s comments – and the allegations that have come to light about Porter – suggest that the White House, again, disregarded intelligence community guidance.
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There’s been a lot of misinformation coming out of the White House since the Porter news broke. Deputy press secretary Raj Shah and press secretary Sarah Sanders have thrown a lot of red herrings out there to distract away from the fact that we had a systemic breakdown in the clearance system: interim clearances, like the one Porter used to work in the White House for over a year, are not supposed to be open-ended.
And Wray’s comments to the committee indicate that the interim clearance probably should have been revoked. The FBI’s investigation into Porter raised red flags, and yet the White House decided to keep Porter on. That’s unprecedented and dangerous. It’s like inviting foreign intelligence into the White House – Porter was a major blackmail risk because he allegedly held secrets of domestic abuse.
A he said-she said between the White House and the FBI will likely ensue and continue, in the briefing room and on the President’s Twitter feed. Let’s just be clear-eyed about one thing: These contradictions help Russia and hurt the US. The internal finger-pointing confuses the American public and undermines confidence in our clearance systems and our institutions. That’s exactly what Vladimir Putin wants.
Are you listening, Mr. President?