Obama should seek to avoid politicizing American cybersecurity
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President Obama has thrust Jim Clapper back in the news. On Dec. 9 he directed America’s intelligence chief to review and report on Russian cyber attacks related to the 2016 U.S. elections.

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Clapper will have to work fast. The report, which is to revert as far back as allegations of Chinese cyber attacks in the 2008 elections, is due to land on President Obama’s desk before he leaves office.

Clapper—along with officials from the Department of Homeland Security—seized  headlines in October by attributing this year’s cyber attacks against the Democratic Party to Russia. FBI Director James Comey, did not opine publicly on the matter, but Obama proceeded to raise the stakes by claiming to have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that there would be consequences for those attacks.

The timing and urgency of this review suggests that President Obama wants the matter authoritatively resolved before he turns the Oval Office over to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE. The report will be issued “in the face” of a president-elect who has repeatedly cast doubts on Russia's hacking role and heaped praise on Putin during the presidential campaign.

Preparing a comprehensive, detailed report will be a huge and all-consuming challenge for America’s spies. They will have to make Clapper’s case beyond a shadow of a doubt, especially given the political pressure to make the report public.

America’s intelligence leadership faces three major challenges in producing the report.

First, they will need to be skillful in how they characterize evidence of Russian and Chinese government involvement in cyber attacks directed at the U.S. election process. The evidence may be more circumstantial than dispositive. In the current political environment, intelligence professionals will be pressured to issue categorical, airtight conclusions. Yet the evidence may not be nearly that categorical.

Second, intelligence professionals need to protect sources and methods – the means by which America’s spies gather their evidence. Revealing U.S. government cyber capabilities to our adversaries would be a mortal mistake, as cyber warfare is a long-term, high-stakes threat. The community’s finite tools and capabilities cannot be exposed for the sake of short-term political expediency.

Third, Clapper must strenuously guard America’s intelligence professionals from being drawn into a highly politically charged environment. While not determinant of the presidential election outcomes, the cyber attacks infused the elections with intrigue and even reports of false news narratives.

Intelligence – the facts and analysis – must inform policy options in response to serious cyber threats to our way of life. Typically, intelligence advice is provided behind closed doors. However, the intelligence community’s current leadership has advocated increased transparency with the American people.

The report mandated by President Obama will have to strike the balance between informing the public with salient and grounded facts, without sucking the intelligence community into (or allowing it to be influenced by) the political fray that the report is likely to foster. This is a tight wire act that DNI Clapper will have to perform on the eve of his departure.

Cyber warfare will help shape—perhaps even define— future engagements with U.S. adversaries. That makes it a critical national security issue. Great care must be taken not to reveal our secret capabilities as a result of cyber attacks against American institutions, organizations, infrastructure or individuals. It’s a long war.

Our options for determining responses should be informed by unbiased intelligence recommendations, and America’s responses to cyber attacks must never be politicized. Cyber defense and offense should always be determined by America’s ability to meet its strategic interests against any one of our adversaries who feels empowered to use cyber attacks against us.

David Shedd is a former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a visiting distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.


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