In light of reports of Russian interference in the US elections, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to address the cyber threats facing the United States. The hearing, which took place on January 5, included testimony from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel J. Lettre II, and Commander of the United States Cyber Command Admiral Michael S. Rogers, who also currently serves as a Director of National Security Agency and a Chief of Central Security Services.
In his opening statement, Undersecretary Lettre stated that the five most imminent threats for the US and Europe are Russian aggression in Europe, China’s destabilizing actions in Asia Pacific region, Iranian aggression, North Korean provocations, and terrorism. Of all the above mentioned challenges, however, the discussion that took place during the hearing emphasized the danger of Russia’s growing cyber capabilities and the implications of Russia’s interference in the American presidential elections.
“Every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation. There is no national security interest more vital to the United States of America than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference,” Senator McCain stated in his remarks.
While the intelligence community representatives agreed that sanctions, the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, and the closing of intelligence facilities conveyed a strong message, the leading US intelligence officials said that further actions are needed to achieve stronger cyber deterrence capabilities.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) criticized the Obama administration’s actions as insufficient stating, “…it is time now not to throw pebbles, but to throw rocks.” Graham emphasized that the US should be more aggressive in addressing the cyber threats and called for a more comprehensive and targeted retaliation. Additionally, Graham stated that president-elect Trump has the full right to challenge the intelligence but should be careful not to undermine those who serve in the US intelligence agencies. “And I think they need to be uplifted, not undermined,” Graham said referring to the US intelligence personnel.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) joined Senator Graham in criticizing Trump’s distrust in the U.S. intelligence agencies and stated that the “biggest benefactors” of such rhetoric are the US adversaries.
“There is a difference between skepticism and disparagement. The intelligence community is not perfect. We are an organization of human beings. I don’t think the intelligence community gets the credit it’s due for what it does…” said Director Clapper.
Throughout his testimony, Director Clapper emphasized the difference between espionage, which he classified as passive collection of information, and interference, which constitutes an active engagement that usually comes in form of an attack. During his response to Senator Sullivan’s question about the hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Clapper said: “As I say, people in glass houses need to think about throwing rocks. This was an act of espionage. And we and other nations conduct similar acts of espionage”.
In addition to the discussion about Russia’s interference in the US election, the Senators questioned the leading US intelligence officials regarding the dangers and expansion of Russian propaganda in Europe. Senator Angus King (I-ME) referred to his recent meetings with officials in Europe and in the Baltic states and said that all of them share deep concerns about hacking and propaganda that allow Russia to gain political influence.
All three intelligence officials stated that US offensive and defensive cyber capabilities should be improved and emphasized that enhanced collaboration between the US intelligence agencies and the private sector is key to improving such capabilities. Innovation is another crucial part that need enhancement, according to the US intelligence officials. Clapper, Rogers, and Lettre also mentioned that the current recruitment efforts exceed expectations, however, the retention of cyber warriors in the agencies remains a challenge that needs to be addressed.