Modern field guide to security and privacy

What Trump's cabinet picks say about cybersecurity

Though President-elect Donald Trump has offered few specifics for his plans to beef up US digital defenses, his cabinet picks have called for a more assertive American role in cyberspace and against Russian hacking.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as defense secretary in Washington. January 12, 2017.

Apart from blaming Russian and Chinese hackers for high-profile cybersecurity breaches, President-elect Donald Trump hasn't offered many specifics on his plan to bolster US digital defenses.

But Mr. Trump’s cabinet picks aren't waiting for guidance from the incoming president. In confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill this week, many called for a stronger government role in protecting cyberspace and more forcefully condemned Russia’s suspected involvement in election-related hacks than Mr. Trump.

"I realize [cybersecurity] is a new domain, but that does not give us an excuse not to address it on an urgent basis," said retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, nominated to lead the Defense Department, at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

"We’re going to have to come up with the guiding principles that work for this sort of thing," said Mr. Mattis, who once headed up US Central Command, overseeing American troops stationed in the Middle East.

He also called Russia a "key strategic competitor," seemingly departing from Trump's position that the US and Russia work more closely together. In a series of recent tweets, Trump said, "When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!"

Testifying in the Senate on Thursday, both Mattis and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas, Trump's pick to lead the CIA, endorsed US intelligence community findings that Russian President Putin orchestrated a suspected digital interference campaign to smear Hillary Clinton with breaches, targeted leaks, and fake news ahead of November's elections. 

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, the president-elect’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, also affirmed that assessment in a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday. Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of the global oil giant ExxonMobil, both said they had not been briefed, and did not directly endorse the intelligence community's findings.

"It’s pretty clear about what took place here about Russia involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy," said Mr. Pompeo. "This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leaders inside Russia." 

But after last week's Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report suggesting that Russia could also undermine European democracies by staging influence campaigns to disrupt upcoming elections in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, Mattis appeared to take those criticisms a step further, suggesting Russia's aggressive foreign policy represented an effort to tarnish critical Western institutions such as NATO.

"The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance," he said.

It's not clear how – if at all – the incoming Trump administration plans to further investigate the suspected Russian hacks, or retaliate further against Moscow.

Mattis and Mr. Tillerson declined to state whether they’d endorse a proposal to beef up sanctions against Moscow in response to the hacks. On Thursday, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) of California became the latest member of congress to call for a wider legislative probe into the DNC hack, a cause championed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York.

Still, Trump's fledgling administration is making cybersecurity a focus with the inauguration just a week away. On Thursday, Trump moved to put together a task force to bolster US cybersecurity, naming former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to head up a group that will create a plan to boost the nation's digital defenses within the first 90 days of the new administration. 

Trump's cabinet picks are also coming to terms with a world where the US in no longer the single dominant player in cybersecurity.  

"Three or four or five years ago, we talked about the United States would not have a peer competitor in cyber for 20 years or 25 years,” Mr. Kelly, the president-elect’s pick to lead Homeland Security, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "Now, we know that we have some pretty darn close to peer competitors."

As they advance through confirmation hearings, Trump’s cabinet picks could face tremendous challenges in confronting his rapid-fire policy positions on cybersecurity – particularly in the president-elect’s confrontations with the intelligence community. 

At Wednesday's news conference, Trump seem to blame intelligence agencies for leaking an unconfirmed private dossier prepared by a former British intelligence officer to media organizations. The document alleges that Trump received inside information about the Russian influence campaign to discredit Mrs. Clinton and participated in salacious sex acts.

And in subsequent tweets, the president-elect blamed the intelligence community for leaking that information – reportedly prepared as opposition research on behest of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign – with the president-elect comparing his charge to practices used in Nazi Germany. 

Despite Trump’s insistence that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him the document was “phony,” the outgoing spy chief said intelligence officials had not made “any judgment” on its reliability. 

"I think everybody loses if this continues," Michael Sulmeyer, director of the Cyber Security Project at Harvard University's Belfer Center said of Trump's recent criticism of the intelligence community. "We have to trust that the information that underpins those decisions is founded in reality and not conspiracy."

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