My condition today was likely not as acute as Matt Whitaker’s dehydrated performance, soaking the carpets of the White House press room with his beads of sweat while he responded to reporters peppering him with questions about the Special Counsel’s investigation. That performance, while puzzling and embarrassing, was starkly real. There was no video or audio manipulation there — no ‘”deep fake” performance by the fake Acting Attorney General.
“Deep fake” action, however, took center stage before the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and co-chaired by Senator Mark Warner D-VA) where the U.S. Intelligence Community was giving its annual worldwide threat assessment. Cybersecurity, in its various forms, was identified as the significant threat that we are still not equipped to deal with or contain. The ability of foreign players to manipulate artificial intelligence in the form of audio and video to create false scenarios and affect political results is a growing viral menace.
According to witnesses, Russia, China, North Korea, and ISIS are the major threats to the United States. Iran is not identified as a significant danger because they are technically in compliance with the international nuclear agreement. This assessment is in sharp contrast to the stream of presidential tweets and pronouncements that ignore Russian election meddling, praise the Chinese trade negotiations, emphasize Trump’s warm relationship with Kim Jong Un, and portend the demise of ISIS. Instead, Trump focuses like a laser on our Southern border and sends military troops to deal with putative assaults to our national security. It is not accidental that the Intelligence Assessment delivered today failed to mention border security. Trump cannot be happy with this result.
While Sen. Angus King characterized the IC response to the various threat matrixes as agile, mobile, and hostile, is the United States capable of meeting the “deep fake” threat? Experts, such as John Carlin, the former head of the National Security Division at the Department of Justice believes the FBI is very capable in collecting intelligence and the attributing cyber intrusions to specific state and non-state actors. However, in his book, Dawn of The Code War, Carlin believes that information loses its value if the Administration fails to implement policies that levy a cost on violators, denies its veracity, or fails to act upon it. This is the situation the United States, unfortunately, finds itself in today.
Sen. Kamala Harris proved an effective questioner of the intelligence witnesses. She was very agile, mobile and had just the right amount of gracious hostility in her questioning. She asked DNI Secretary Coates what was the status of the report on actions taken to identify and protect against Russian election meddling. Coates demurred and suggested that it be addressed in the afternoon’s closed session. Though sometimes a necessary evil to avoid the disclosure of sensitive information — especially intelligence sources and methods — this closed session deferral is also used to mask the conflicts between the intelligence community’s views with the volatile and morphing positions of the White House.
Over a year ago, the IC glaringly admitted that Trump had taken no actions nor instructed their agencies to take measures to protect the American people from foreign election tampering. It appears that there has been no change. Trump continues to ignore the threat and arrogantly suggests that his Intelligence Community should go back to school.
Sen. Harris’ next question dealt with the Trump debacle in Helsinki. Were there any official records of the 2-hour plus meeting held between Putin and Trump? Once again, the IC witnesses deferred this question to the afternoon session. Helsinki has left our spooks spooked, especially since we now know that Trump took the notes away from his interpreter and destroyed them. The fact that Trump continues to repeat this behavior, meeting alone with Putin and insisting that no record be kept, is behavior that invites counterintelligence scrutiny.
If our enemies find it more fruitful and prudent to attack us on cyber, why is Trump pushing scenes from a movie to justify his desire to declare a “deep fake” national emergency? One thing is certain, we need tough Senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee to give the American people the proper SIGINT– i.e., the truth.
Not only did FBI Director Wray believe that Russian meddling will continue in 2020, but also that it will adapt and multiply. According to Wray, China and Russia will coordinate to disrupt the American way of life. With China’s expertise in the theft of intellectual property, military secrets, technology, and the subterfuge of multiple supply chains, the FBI has an impossible task to address these threats. They will need help from Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to counteract the ‘deep fake” phenomenon going forward.
The United States has never been more vulnerable and susceptible to attack. Trump’s leadership vacuum and his single-task focus on a border wall are leading us to the precipice. Trump watches TV movies like Sicario the Soldado, filled with characters toting prayer rugs, gagging women, pouring drugs through the border and taking sharp turns in fast cars. Fantasy is not reality and cannot be the basis for U.S. foreign policy. Instead, when he goes to bed, Trump should be reading the Annual Intelligence Community Report from cover to cover until he has a firm grasp on the genuine crises that confront and threaten us.