Former cyber chief pushes for renewed focus on combating disinformation

Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cyber chief Suzanne Spaulding, a key official involved in the response to Russian interference efforts in 2016, is pushing hard for more to be done to combat disinformation and promote civics education as the nation reels from the fallout of the recent election.

“When I came out of DHS at noon on Jan. 20, 2017, I came off of a year in which I had spent a ton of time looking at election security,” Spaulding, the former director of the predecessor group to DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told The Hill during a virtual interview last week. “While we had realized that we’ve done pretty well with respect to the security of our election infrastructure, at the end of the day, what we really were worried about was information operations.”

Spaulding was the under secretary of the cyber-focused National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, which saw Russian agents launch a sweeping and sophisticated hacking and disinformation campaign designed to sway the election toward former President Trump.

Following another heated election that also saw efforts by Russia and Iran to interfere, along with domestic disinformation and misinformation that caused many to lose faith in the outcome of the vote, Spaulding is calling for a renewed focus on democratic education.

“Americans need to be reminded of the value of democracy, that it must be fought for because it is under attack, and that it’s worth fighting for not because it’s perfect, but because it is capable of change, but only if all of us take the responsibility for holding institutions accountable and learn how to be more effective agents of change using constitutional means,” she said.

Spaulding has more than three decades in public service as a leader in the federal cybersecurity space, working in multiple roles on Capitol Hill, the CIA, DHS, on several advisory boards for key cyber and technology groups and now as senior adviser for homeland security and director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The seeds for her work in government began early, when she would accompany her mother, who worked on Capitol Hill, to the office.

“Growing up in Washington, D.C., I developed an interest in public policy very early on,” Spaulding said. “My dad was in the Marine Corps, killed in Vietnam in 1966, and my mother went back to work on Capitol Hill, and on days off of school I’d ride into work with her and just wander around on the Hill and go into hearing rooms.”

“I had no chance, I had Potomac fever early on, and I developed an interest in national security issues,” she added.

After earning both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia, Spaulding first started at a law firm but was on the lookout for a spot on Capitol Hill, eventually being hired on as senior counsel to former Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).

There she was able to work on issues including counterterrorism and eventually served on both sides of the aisle for the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence panels. During this time, Spaulding helped write the legislation that established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Cybersecurity came on her radar as it began to be seen as a serious threat to critical infrastructure under the Clinton administration, and it became her key focus when she moved over to the CIA, where she served as assistant general counsel and legal adviser to the Nonproliferation Center.

“I was lucky enough to be involved in some of the discussions at the agency around those cyber issues, so that’s kind of where that all started,” Spaulding said.

But her cyber efforts really kicked into high gear when she began work at the NPPD, where she initially served as deputy under secretary and eventually took over as the agency’s head during the Obama administration, with responsibilities for a huge range of issues including cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and the Federal Protective Service.

A years-long effort to rename and restructure the NPPD culminated in 2018 when former President Trump signed into law legislation creating CISA, with Christopher Krebs later confirmed by the Senate as the agency’s first director.

Krebs was fired by Trump in November after he asserted the security of that month’s election, which Trump was trying to undermine. Several other top leaders were pressured by the White House to resign as well, leaving CISA without Senate-confirmed leadership during the final months of the Trump administration.

Spaulding praised Krebs’s work at CISA, noting that he “really understood our mission space,” giving credit to the agency’s employees for “keeping their nose to the grindstone and getting the mission done” even in the midst of “turmoil.”

With President Biden now in office, and several key cyber leaders already in place, Spaulding is optimistic for her former agency but called for the Senate to quickly confirm leaders for both CISA and DHS.

“The men and women at DHS are going to continue to do what they can do, but there are limits to what they can do without Senate-confirmed leadership,” she said.

Spaulding has spent the last four years outside of government but continues to work to address key national security issues, including through spearheading an effort to promote civics education through her work at CSIS.

“I think we need a year of civic renewal,” Spaulding said. “I think as we come out of the isolation of the pandemic, hopefully by 2022 emerging from our homes to rediscover that sense of community, that sense of civic identity, but also a big push for renewal, reinvigorated civics education across this country.”

She lives in the D.C. metro area with her husband, an avid chef, and has developed a passion for bird-watching. She also enjoys time spent with her two children and new grandson, whom she describes as “a wonderful distraction from the ills of the world.”

Spaulding is one of seven children and credits her large family for her drive to secure the nation against myriad threats.

“All of us have that sense of having a commitment to leaving the world, in some small way, better for our having been in it,” Spaulding said of her siblings. “My sister’s career was in fighting food insecurity, and I was always a little bit envious that she was instrumental in getting breakfast served at schools, concrete things that really make a difference in people’s lives.”

“It’s a little harder in the national security arena to have that sense of ‘I really did make a difference,’ but it is watching people throughout my career who have really put country first and it gets in your bloodstream,” she added. “I find it really fulfilling and a lot of hard work.”

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