Sunday, December 11, 2016

Russian hacking - misplaced outrage

Much of the media is repeating Washington Post reporting that alleges Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the 2016 Presidential election.  As is the standard for our time this issue too has been politicized with Democrats screaming outrage and Republicans skepticism.   The average citizen doesn’t know what to think, but may better be advised to focus their outrage not at Russia, but at U.S. officials that move the country toward greater and greater digital dependence while failing to protect critical infrastructure, financial, economic, and government systems from hacking, cyber theft, and cyber attacks.

The Washington Post reported on December 9, 2016 that a “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House.”  As the principle drafter of a major National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for the Intelligence Community while temporarily assigned to the CIA I have detailed personal knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of Intelligence Assessments.  I am skeptical of the Washington Post report conclusions, but I am not surprised that the Russians may have hacked the DNC.

The real issue that should spark outrage throughout the citizenry is the fact that systematic hacking of critical U.S. systems has been rampant for decades. Our government and political leaders speak of it as if it is inevitable and we are powerless to do anything about it except complain about it when it suits a political purpose.

Have no doubt – the Russians, Chinese, and other state, criminal, and individual actors have and will continue to hack the White House, Pentagon, corporations, the DNC and RNC, Hillary’s personal email server, the power utilities, national labs, and any other entity that might provide them economic, political, or military advantage. Until the United States takes specific defensive and offensive action to stop them - beyond pleading, complaining, studying and holding hearings - it will continue and get worse.

The United States’ technology dependence for all aspects of life creates vulnerability so great that a cyber attack on electrical grids, communication systems, and financial systems poses an existential threat to the nation.  Terrorism, climate change, Russian aggression, and the outbreak of disease are important national security issues addressed in the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy, but they do not pose a threat to our way of life with the immediacy and high probability of cyber attack.

The incoming Trump Administration and the Republican Congress should elevate cyber security to the top of national security priorities with appropriate funding and focus.  An immediate priority for Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, USMC(Ret), should be to evaluate the creation of an independent Cyber Command as a coequal with other military combatant commands.  The breakaway of Cyber Command from NSA is contained in the recently passed Defense Authorization Act of 2017.

Senate confirmation hearings for General Mattis should include an emphasis on his knowledge and perspective on cyber security and the split of NSA and Cyber Command.   Though Mattis is considered an intellectual Marine his career experience is as a combat Marine.  The pecking order from that perspective does not put “geeks” on the same level as an infantryman.

Institutional Naval Aviation resisted unmanned combat air vehicle concepts that are commonplace today as drones.  Pentagon program managers are consumed in the decades-long process of ship and aircraft procurement and cannot see outside the blinders of those programmatic goals and processes.  Many innovative concepts that do not fit neatly into the box of the combat operator’s experience, or may diminish their status, are deemed unnecessary or unfeasible.

General Mattis cannot be of that mold and his confirmation hearings should focus as much on that as they do on returning the focus of our military back to war-fighting and supporting war-fighters.

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