Clinton's emails drown out cyber debate

Clinton's emails drown out cyber debate

The intense scrutiny of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE’s private email server is crowding cybersecurity of the 2016 election discussion.

Securing the nation’s networks had been expected to be a focal point in the White House race, given the growing threat to U.S. companies and the mammoth hack last summer of the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that was likely carried out by China.


Yet only a small number of presidential candidates in either party have put out proposals for combating cyber threats. And when asked about the issue on the campaign trail or at the debate podium, many of the candidates have given cursory responses or pivoted to other topics.

“I simply don't understand why the OPM hack hasn't gotten more attention,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “But it's not going to now. That moment has passed.”

Instead, the national security focus has been on the federal investigation into Clinton’s emails, which could conclude later this year, and the question of how to take on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“There has been so much other news on the national security front unrelated to [cybersecurity, that it hasn’t risen to the forefront of the candidate’s talking points,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant. 

The candidates have their own reasons for shying away from the cyber debate.

On the Democratic side, observers see little upside to bringing up the issue.

Clinton, the front-runner, is looking to distance herself from allegations her email server was insecure, potentially exposing national security secrets to foreign hackers.

Insurgent Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, is not an expert on Internet security and is unlikely to win new supporters by emphasizing it.

On the Republican side, strategists say the topic simply doesn’t resonate with the GOP primary base.

“Generally, there's a disconnect between the importance that voters place on [cyber] as an issue, and how important it actually is,” said Mackowiak, who heads the Potomac Strategy Group.

Sen. Rand Paul, who launched his campaign on a surge of tech world support during last summer’s fight over government surveillance, has surprised many by not emphasizing Internet security. The Kentucky Republican recently chose to not take a protracted stand during the heated debate over a major cybersecurity bill that digital privacy advocates hated.

“There’s a natural constituency there for him,” Mackowiak said. “That seems like a no-brainer for him.”

Some advocates argue cybersecurity is an untapped opportunity for the candidates. 

Emphasizing the issue, and encryption in particular, could galvanize the libertarian subset of the Republican Party and draw plaudits — and campaign cash — from the influential tech community.

“There is a potential there [to go after] a group of the techno-libertarian right,” said Nathan White, senior legislative manager at Access, a digital rights group. “You can court them, and I bet a lot of them have money.”

Several candidates have recently tried to position themselves as cyber-oriented.

This week, GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson put out a policy paper on cybersecurity, proposing to consolidate federal cyber efforts under one new agency, the National Cyber Security Administration (NCSA). 

In issuing his plan, Carson joined GOP rivals such as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina in making cyber a plank of their campaign platforms.

All three are struggling in the polls, and observers see the cyber attention as an attempt to position themselves in opposition to poll leaders Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who have driven headlines with their blustery exchanges.

“The race for a lot of them is, ‘I want to be the serious candidate,’ ” White said.

Clinton has not remained silent on cyber despite her desire to move past the email server issue. She highlighted cybersecurity in a policy paper on power grid updates that called for the creation of a new presidential team to coordinate threat assessment and response efforts with industry representatives.

With these plans, Mackowiak said, “you can go to the tech community and say, ‘Look, this is going to be a major problem we're going to have to work on together.’ ”

“That’s something that probably has some resonance in the tech world, in Silicon Valley,” he added.

Yet these cyber discussions often circle back to Clinton’s email use. The policy plans from Carson and Bush both mention the controversy.

“Secretary Hillary Clinton’s growing email scandal highlights reckless behavior by officials entrusted with some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets,” reads Bush’s proposal. 

When Bush received a debate question in December on the bevy of Chinese cyber attacks peppering U.S. government and businesses, he began his response with Clinton before pivoting to the OPM hack.

“This administration has been so lax,” he said. “Think about it. Hillary Clinton is using a private server … where classified information [goes] by. This is a — this is a serious administration?”

Vying for the tech base is also a double-edged sword for both parties.

“If you wade into that debate there are a group of supporters that are waiting to cheer you on, but also a group of people waiting to attack you,” White said. 

By issuing a more detailed proposal, candidates risk exposing a lack of knowledge on the complex subject. Carson’s cybersecurity plan, for example, was widely panned in the tech world, White said. 

And siding with tech and privacy advocates on issues such as encryption means alienating law enforcement and national security hawks, a tough trade-off for many Republicans.

While technologists and civil libertarians insist encryption must be left untouched by government, law enforcement believes investigators should have guaranteed access to criminals’ and terrorists’ encrypted communications.

Bonjean, the Republican consultant, said it would take another a major news event to change the cybersecurity conversation.

“If there is a breach of enormous proportions or strategic significance, then it surely would quickly land on the forefront of the campaign trail,” he said.