Sanders is wrong – Clinton’s cybersecurity blunder is a real issue

As the saying goes, “the best defense is a good offense.”  In the first Democratic presidential debate, Secretary Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Dem strategist says Donna Brazile is joining Fox News 'for the money' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina MORE made the adage her mantra when it came to dealing with inquiries about her private email server.  She deflected questions by attacking Republicans, accusing them of petty partisanship for investigating her actions.  Clinton promised to talk instead about the “issues that matter to the American people,” implying the propriety of her email server is a trivial, inconsequential issue. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina MORE (I-Vt.) earned the biggest applauses of the night by agreeing with Clinton, proclaiming Americans are “sick and tired of hearing about [her] damn emails.”  He implored, “Enough of the emails.  Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”  While Clinton and Sanders may have a point in that Americans are fatigued by virulent “gotcha” politics, they completely missed that Clinton’s email server has everything to do with one of the most important issues of our time—defending the nation from cyber attacks. 


As the Associated Press reported, Clinton’s email server could be accessed over an open Internet connection and controlled remotely, making the server—and the sensitive national security information it stored—vulnerable to “attacks from even low-skilled intruders.”  Indeed, a hacker using a computer in Serbia scanned Clinton’s server no less than two times.  Clinton was either unaware of the risks or chose to accept them, but regardless it demonstrated an astounding lack of seriousness and competence when it comes to cybersecurity.  As one expert aptly stated, it was “total amateur hour.”

We learned the hard way this spring that the federal government’s information systems are woefully vulnerable.  The cyber attack on the Office of Personnel Management put sensitive information—including biometric data—regarding tens of millions of Americans in the hands of foreign adversaries and potentially placed our brave covert operatives in danger.  Following the attack, the Government Accountability Office issued a report finding persistent information security weaknesses at 24 federal agencies.  It is obvious that the federal government must be able to secure sensitive information in order to keep our country safe, and candidates for the presidency should have both a sense of urgency and a plan to do so.

The cyber threats we face extend beyond the federal agencies.  The private sector’s information systems and the computers that control our critical infrastructure are also under attack. However, not a single question was asked about cybersecurity at the first debate. Jim Webb gave the evening’s only utterances of the word “cyber,” when he twice referenced cyber warfare in response to questions about national security.  Candidates were not even asked to state their views on the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, a bill being taken up by the Senate this month that would encourage the private sector to share information about cyber threats with the federal government.  In sum, Clinton sought to avoid tough questions about her cyber credentials, and CNN came to her aid by neglecting cybersecurity entirely.

Sorry Senator Sanders, but our vulnerability to cyber threats is a “real issue facing America.”  Secretary Clinton thinks we should talk “about what the American people want from the next president of the United States.”  One thing we all want is a president who will keep us safe, and to get one we must question the candidates’ knowledge of and commitment to cybersecurity and demand real answers.  Clinton’s email server should not be relegated as some sort of political sideshow; it should instead be used to bring cybersecurity to the forefront of the presidential campaign.

Norton is a homeland-security and public-safety policy expert. He has served as a senior defense-industry executive and as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Office of Legislative Affairs. He is an industry consultant, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a senior adviser at The Chertoff Group.  All views are Norton’s; Follow him on twitter @jamesnorton99