To counter Russian ‘information war,’ DNI advocates rebuilding U.S. Information Agency

A declassified report the intelligence community is set to release to Congress and the public next week on alleged Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election will assert that cyber attacks were only one part of a complex and adeptly executed information campaign — one that the nation’s top intelligence officer says the U.S. is inadequately equipped to counter.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the report will describe a multi-faceted effort to affect the election that went well beyond computer hacks. He said the U.S. intelligence community is not in a position to determine whether the strategy actually succeeded in swaying voters, but that was certainly the intent.

“For example, you had [the television network] RT,  funded by the Russian government playing a very active role in disparaging our system of government, our alleged hypocrisy about human rights. Whatever fissure they could find, they would exploit it,” Clapper said Thursday. “All of these modes, use of social media, fake news, they exercised all of those capabilities in addition to the hacking. We can’t gauge the impact, but based on just the totality of the effort, I think it’s a grave concern not only as the DNI, but as a citizen.”

Clapper, who is set to retire on Jan. 20 after 53 years of intelligence service, said the U.S. is not well positioned at the moment to engage in a comprehensive “information fight,” particularly since the dissolution of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999.

“This is strictly personal opinion — not company policy — but I think that we could do with having a USIA on steroids to fight this information war a lot more aggressively than we’re doing right now,” he said.

From 1953 until USIA was dissolved, its main function was to counter Soviet propaganda around the world by distributing American messages through a multi-billion dollar portfolio of government-funded periodicals, radio and TV stations, movies and books.

Neither Clapper nor Adm. Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, were willing to offer a view on why the U.S. government hasn’t yet moved to reestablish a modern-day version of the agency that also encompassed digital communications and social media.

But Rogers suggested the latest campaign by Russia may have served as something of a wake-up call.

“I don’t think we’ve come yet to a full recognition of the idea that we’re going to have try to do something fundamentally different,” he said. “I think we still continue to try to do some of the same traditional things we’ve done, to do the same thing over and over again, yet achieve a different result.”

Clapper said as a general matter, the U.S. needs to be able to respond to foreign cyber attacks at a time and in a manner of its own choosing — not necessarily with reciprocal attacks via cyberspace.

He said the Obama administration was right to retaliate against Russia’s election-related hacks by imposing sanctions and shuttering Russian facilities on U.S. soil, but that it’s also important to distinguish between attacks and what he called “passive” espionage.

For example, as serious as China’s intrusions into the Office of Personnel Management’s databases  were, Clapper said they did not warrant a U.S. response beyond the ongoing work to shore up the federal government’s cyber defenses.

“[The OPM incident] was espionage, it was not an attack per se, and I’m a bit reticent about people throwing rocks when they live in glass houses,” he said. “We and other nations conduct similar acts of espionage. If we’re going to punish each other for acts of espionage, that’s a different policy issue.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) agreed, but said the Russian information campaign and the growing cyber capabilities of other potentially hostile countries such as Iran and North Korea show that the U.S. needs to be prepared to mount an aggressive response when America’s interests — or its elections — are threatened via cyberspace.

“Yes, when it comes to espionage, we’d better be careful about throwing rocks,” Graham said. “But when it comes to interfering in our election, we’d better be ready to throw rocks. I think what Obama did was throw a pebble. To those of you who want to throw rocks, you’re going to get a chance here soon. And if we don’t, we’re going to make a huge mistake. We’ve got a chance as a nation to lay down a marker for all of or would-be adversaries.”

Senators of both parties also used the hearing to express serious concerns about statements by President-elect Donald Trump that seemed to express doubt about the integrity of the intelligence community, particularly with regard to its collective assessment that Russia was behind the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign in the first place.

“I want to let the President-elect know that it’s OK to challenge the intel. You are absolutely right to want to do so,” Graham said. “But what I don’t want you to do is undermine those who are serving our nation in this arena until you are absolutely sure that they need to be undermined. And I think they need to be uplifted, not undermined.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the IC’s non-political, non-partisan nature is foundational to the country’s defense, noting that Clapper himself has worked under every president since John F. Kennedy.

“Members of the intelligence community engage in life-threatening and very dangerous missions every day, particularly as it relates to the war on terror,” she said. “Who benefits from the American people losing confidence in the intelligence community and the work of the intelligence community?”

Clapper said intelligence agencies are not perfect and are prone to errors.

“But I think it’s hugely important that we conduct itself and be seen as independent, providing unvarnished, untainted, objective, accurate and timely relevant intelligence support to all policy makers, commanders, diplomats, etcetera,” he said. “I think there is an important distinction here between the healthy skepticism that policy makers should always have and disparagement.”

Rogers, without directly referencing Mr. Trump’s tweets and other statements about the intelligence community, expressed worry that NSA and U.S. Cyber Command’s recruiting and retention challenges could be exacerbated if the workforce began to feel that they did not have the support of top administration officials.

“I don’t want to lose good, motivated people who want to help serve this nation because they feel they’re not generating value,” he said. “I’m the first to acknowledge there’s room for a wide range of opinions about the results we generate. We don’t question that for one minute — every intelligence professional knows that — it doesn’t bother any of us. But what we do is in no small part driven in part by the confidence of our leaders in what we do. And without that confidence, I just don’t want a situation where our workforce decides to walk.  I think that really is not a good place for us to be.”

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