GOP senator: Kerry 'downplaying' foreign cyber threat

Francis Rivera

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) is accusing Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryThe Atlantic Council's questionable relationship with Gabon’s leader State Dept. months late on explaining Clinton aide's missing emails The evidence backs Trump: We have a duty to doubt election results MORE of downplaying the seriousness of overseas cyberattacks, a day after Kerry acknowledged Chinese and Russian spies are “very likely” reading his emails.

“Instead of tackling the challenge with a serious review of our cyber doctrine, it seems like the administration is focused on downplaying emerging threats and convincing the American people that weakness is the new normal,” Sasse said in a statement.

Kerry’s remarks came on the heels of revelations that Chinese hackers had been pilfering the private emails of top officials for at least five years. It was also reported last week that Russian spies had infiltrated the Pentagon’s Joint Staff unclassified email system.

“It is very likely,” Kerry said about foreign countries reading his communications. “It is not ... outside the realm of possibility, and we know they have attacked a number of American interests over the course of the last few days."

"I certainly write things with that awareness," Kerry added.

Sasse found the comments tone deaf.

“At best, that’s apathetic and at worst, it's negligent,” he said.

Sasse has been hammering the Obama administration in the wake of two massive hacks at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It’s believed China orchestrated the attacks, which compromised more than 22 million people’s personal information and highlighted the government’s sluggish approach to cybersecurity.

He has written the OPM requesting more information about the data breaches and blasted the White House for its refusal to blame Beijing for the cyberattacks.

The administration has since indicated it will publicly retaliate against China. Kerry also emphasized that the threat of cyber spying is "of enormous concern" to the administration and that the topic will be a significant component of an upcoming Washington visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But Sasse believes the administration is still undervaluing the national security threats posed by such digital assaults.

“I have lots of fears about the state of cybersecurity and Washington’s lack of seriousness about it right now,” he told The Hill in a July interview.

“I think we don’t know how to play defense very well yet, and I think Washington is behind the tech community in understanding the urgency of the problem," he added. "Washington continues to treat each of these as a discrete event and a PR crisis."

The message from top officials such as Kerry and White House press secretary Josh Earnest has not given Sasse much confidence.

“The White House [and] press secretary repeatedly talk about this as analogous to Home Depot,” he added, referring to last year’s digital theft of 56 million payment card data from the retail giant. “It’s nothing like that.”

“I’m worried that foreign actors who have nefarious goals in this space know that we’re asleep at the switch,” Sasse added.

— Upated 12:52 p.m.