When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11, our response was relatively swift – in just shy of a month we’d launched a furious attack on Afghanistan and our war drums had taken up a staccato aimed at Iraq. Likewise, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we decisively entered World War II and showed the world exactly what happens when another nation messes with America.
But the way we’re responding to cyberattacks launched by nation-states more closely resembles our long slide into World War I.
Now, I’m not suggesting we recklessly hit Russia or any other country (China, North Korea and Iran, I’m looking at you) with some sort of cyber “shock and awe” before it’s clear exactly what we’re fighting. Cyberattacks are often murkier than their physical peers with countless and heavily funded perpetrators lurking in the shadows. Attribution can be difficult. Nation-states don’t exactly flaunt their flags as they drop cyber bombs on U.S. interests.
But I am suggesting that we don’t fall so deep into a political divide that we can’t see a cyberthreat clearly and respond swiftly. In other words, let’s stop politicizing cybersecurity. No doubt, we’re a nation divided and have been for quite some time – nowhere is that more obvious than on my Facebook page where high school friends and those acquired later in life go at each other vigorously with heated, often clever, and sometimes dumb, volleys on everything from Christmas salutations to standardized tests to Sasha Obama’s absence at her father’s farewell address. And, of course, whether or not Russian operatives mucked with the presidential election. Where they land on that last question, not surprisingly, has much to do with which candidate got their vote on Nov. 8.
That the the public struggles to understand the evidence of a cybercrime, is understandable. For them, cyber forensics, long-established in the security industry, is a budding field that they don’t quite get – or trust – yet. They’re roughly where the O.J. jury was 20 years ago, grappling with DNA and other forensic evidence during a high-profile trial, which eventually spawned a whole CSI TV franchise and forever changed the expectations of jurors.
They’ve also had their heads filled with partisan nonsense – malarkey in the vernacular of the vice president – by those with partisan agendas. Did a law enforcement body, the FBI, that’s carefully cultivated a non-partisan image, become a political tool during the campaign? Are intelligence bodies manipulating their findings to delegitimize an impending presidency already out of favor with the majority of voters? Is a president-elect dismissing intelligence before seeing it or mischaracterizing findings because he fears he will be delegitimized? Or possibly because he doesn’t want ties with the nation-state in question, whose leader he’s praised, to be exposed? With all these theories swirling around, and no concrete evidence to commend or condemn them, the public can almost be forgiven for choosing up sides and squaring off like opposing sports teams. Almost.
I’m less forgiving of lawmakers and political leaders, who, frankly, should know better than to stir the partisan waters on this particular issue.
Whether you believe the conclusions of the intelligence organizations, Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election should ratchet up the clang of warning bells in the heads of Democratic, Republican and Independents alike and provoke at least the same scrutiny given to Hillary Clinton’s private email server…scratch that, it deserves much more. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been a vocal opponent of playing politics with cybersecurity, recently calling out what he sees as a minority of fellow Republicans who “are gleeful” about Russia’s interference. “You’re a political hack,” Graham charged. “You’re not a patriot.”
A quick look at historical cyberforensics shows that Russia’s meddling in U.S. affairs didn’t begin with the presidential election. And it’s most certainly not going to end there, particularly if those with the power and wherewithal to act can’t land on the same page.
By politicizing cybersecurity we’re diluting its import and relegating it as a lesser threat than physical attacks, when, in fact, the consequences can be greater since hackers can infiltrate, manipulate data and lie in wait to maximize the value and the consequences of an attack.
At a breakfast meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Tuesday, Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, contended that compromised data integrity is a growing threat going forward. (Check out what SC Media Managing Editor Greg Masters had to say about data integrity last fall.)
Politicizing cybersecurity makes it more difficult to assign attribution…and to move quickly to respond when we do. Monaco says we’re currently open to using every tool in our arsenal to battle nation-state cyber-interference, we just need to be more nimble and quicker on the draw.
There was a time when people in this country, regardless of party affiliation, would have been offended and angry at any attack on our country. It’s time that we unite on the gravity of cybersecurity and find solutions and raise protections that will safeguard us against future attacks, no matter who the adversary. I’ll admit to having a dim view of our Congress’s ability and willingness to do that. So many years of obstructionism and inertia have compromised their ability and desire to govern. And, by and large, they aren’t up to speed on cyber issues just yet. A long, sloping learning curve stretches out before them.
There are some indications that lawmakers are willing to put down their political saws to take on cyber adversaries – Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are pressing for investigations into the Russia’s interference and the usual suspects across the aisle, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have indicated they won’t let up until Congress fully understands the extent – and influence – of Russia’s actions on the U.S. presidential election. I certainly hope that’s true and they make cybersecurity a priority going forward. The adversaries certainly aren’t going to pause to indulge our political squabbling.