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Bipartisan Signaling from the House

In a discussion moderated by Walter Pincus of the Cipher Brief, Representatives David Nunes (R-California) and Adam Schiff (D-California) spoke directly about cyber threats and US organization to meet them.

The Congressmen, respectively the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, enumerated the threat actors clearly, naming Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and "radical Islam." Both saw ongoing attempts to degrade the credibility of US elections. When Pincus asked about how one ought to talk to the American people about these threats, Representative Nunes offered counsel of caution and good digital hygiene. We don't yet, he pointed out, really know where cyberwar begins. This remains unclear as both a matter of national policy and international law.

Representative Schiff noted that response to cyberattacks need not themselves be cyber retaliation. In particular, he urged public attribution of Russian hacking. He thinks a proper response should begin with naming and shaming, and then should be calibrated to the nature of the threat. Hacking for intelligence is one thing, hacking for influence another, and hacking for destruction yet another. He rounded out the motives of state-level actors with IP theft. This last, he thought, may be amenable to negotiation. In other cases, he recommended taking action that would impose a cost the attacker would recognize as such. In the case of North Korean hacking, for example, he speculated that overt propaganda—"leaflets and loudspeakers"—would get the regime's attention, especially if it showed some prospect of communicating to the the North Korean people "what an awful regime they live under." And he stressed that our failure to at least name, and perhaps sanction, the Russian government only encourages further attack.

Both thought that Intelligence Community reorganization should be approached with caution. Nunes wondered if splitting NSA and Cyber Command was "smart," given the current threat. Both expressed some support for some reorganization of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that might facilitate closer coordination with the Combatant Commands, but they stopped short of approving of a merger of DIA and CIA. Schiff characterized the relationship between DIA and the Combatant Commands as "complicated," citing controversy over CENTCOM's estimation of Iraqi special forces capabilities as an example of such complexity. For his part, he thought CIA would do well to refocus on its core collection responsibilities.

The State Department received a share of criticism. It's "in need of reform," and in some ways is failing to live up to its responsibilities to the rest of the Government. It has, they thought, too many generalists, and not enough specialists. It takes time to train experts, linguistically and otherwise, and Foreign Service career and assignment policies, both Representatives indicated, needed a thorough review. Nunes said the Department's deep and enduring problems should make reform a high priority.

Finally, Nunes in particular saw a problem with relations between the Executive Branch and Congress, and he sees the "disconnect" between Congressional authorizers and appropriators as a deep and enduring obstacle to correcting this. "It's very easy for the Executive Branch to hide from Congress as long as Congress is divided in this way," he said, adding, "It's too easy for the DoD and other executive agencies to hide in the cracks of Title 10 and 15."