Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election amounted to a “cyber 9/11” attack, the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official told a Utah audience Friday. And the leader of U.S. House Republicans added that such efforts to make it tough to discern truth are a growing national security threat.
“One of the things that people talk about a lot is what a cyber 9/11 would look like. I think that election interference was a good example of a cyber 9/11 because I can’t think of anything worse than making us not believe in ourselves,” said Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence.
“We are clear-eyed in what we see as the ability of adversaries to use information to get into our social fabric to make us question whether what we are seeing is what is actually there. And this is true whether it is in social trends, in our electoral systems and our battlefield awareness,” she said. “We saw this in 2016 with Russian influence” in that election.
Gordon made the comments during Rep. Chris Stewart’s annual Security Summit in Salt Lake City. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also spoke and said such threats show the need for America to keep a lead in technology to expose and stop such efforts. He also said efforts need to be made to narrow bitter political divides that may make the country vulnerable to exploitation.
Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has acknowledged Russian election meddling but says it did not aim to tip scales to help President Donald Trump, said that perhaps the biggest threat to national security “is that no one knows what is true anymore.”
For example, “You can look at a video and you don’t know whether it truly is real or not,” and analysis to find out takes time, he said. “I think the final outcome of that is people just not believing anything, including some things that are true.”
“This is why we have to keep ahead of where technology is going,” McCarthy said. But he also warned that increasingly polarized politics provide enemies openings to make even greater splits among Americans.
“I watch people on both sides of the aisle go on television and they scream, they yell, they demean the other person to show that they are more liberal or more conservative. That’s not who we are,” he said.
McCarthy said this kind of divisive approach to policy led this year’s Defense Authorization Act to become partisan this year, while he says it had been bipartisan for the previous 15 years.
“When you’re in battle it doesn’t matter what party you belong to,” he said, adding enemies cheer such division because they want to see America fail. “This is a place we cannot let it get to” — and urged softer but full debate.
Gordon said technological advances are making analyzing intelligence trickier, while it also causes people outside government to have less confidence in what they see and hear.
“This notion of using information to cause us to question whether what we're seeing is actually there … is one of the more interesting trends that we have,” she said.
She worries ways may be sought to hack the increasing numbers of weapons system that use algorithms and machines to help speed decisions. “We need to think about what manipulation of the threat picture or the effectiveness or the command and control would be.”
Gordon spoke in Utah as news broke that President Donald Trump abruptly dropped plans to nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, as the new national director of intelligence. It heightens speculation about whether Gordon will take over as interim chief — after Trump earlier tweeted that he may try to avoid elevating her.
Gordon left the Utah summit before a news conference where she was scheduled to appear with Stewart and McCarthy.
McCarthy, in speaking to reporters, praised the Trump administration on two pieces of breaking news: the United States formally withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Friday, and the president’s vow to impose more tariffs on China.
With the INF treaty, McCarthy said it was not so much a case of America pulling out as with “Russia never abiding by it. The world is becoming less safe. It is not just America saying this, it is NATO countries as well. It was the right decision.”
National news media reported that after withdrawal from the treaty, the United States is now set to test a new nonnuclear mobile-launched cruise missile developed specifically to challenge Russia in Europe.
About Trump’s threatened 10% tariffs on China by Sept. 1 on items he has yet to tax, McCarthy said it may actually be the best way to reach solid trade agreements with China.
“He wants an agreement at the end of the day,” McCarthy said. “I’ve watched China negotiate with us and then backpedal” so the threat may be wise. “Tariffs are challenging, but at the end of the day we want and need an agreement that works for all of us.”