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John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The annual Aspen Security Forum draws some of the world’s top thinkers on foreign policy, intelligence and geopolitics — and this year, it was perhaps even more exciting than usual. Attendees were abuzz about the widespread allegation, made last week, that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee, and debated how the United States should respond.

We sat down with senior columnist and former CIA chief John McLaughlin, who is just back from Aspen, to hear the latest.

OZY: Were the Russians really behind this?

John McLaughlin: That’s being widely reported as the conviction of unnamed “American intelligence agencies,” but no U.S. official who holds that view is confident enough to say so publicly. That’s because the hardest thing in solving cyber puzzles is what the experts call “attribution” — in other words, whodunit. Skilled hackers will hop from server to server and country to country, leaving a trail so twisted and confusing that it takes a long time to figure out where the attack originated, and who is behind it. It could be a government, private hackers, organized crime or someone impersonating the group you think is responsible.

The government would have to handle this for what it potentially is at base — an attack on our democratic process, not just on one party.

OZY: Was there any consensus among the officials who spoke at the Aspen Security Forum?

J.M.: All of them — notably Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and White House senior counterterrorism official Lisa Monaco — were careful not to assign blame yet. But none of them downplayed the potential seriousness of the breach. Their consensus seemed to be that it’s one thing to spy on another country’s plans and thinking — nothing shocking there — but doing so with the intention of spinning the results to influence an election would be a much bigger deal. All the officials implied that if the investigation concludes Russia did indeed hack the DNC to shift public opinion, senior levels of the U.S. government would be caucusing on how to respond.

OZY: Does it make sense to you that the Russians are behind this?

J.M.: The circumstantial evidence cited by the press points to Russia — private experts claim to see a Russian “signature” in some of what they’ve unearthed, and Russia certainly has the expertise and a track record of using cyber tools in conflicts. But I agree with the senior intelligence officials who are saying let’s wait until we’ve gathered and analyzed all the facts. If I learned anything from more than 30 years in the intelligence profession, it’s to be sure you really know before expressing certainty on a matter of great importance to national policy.

OZY: What will it mean if the government concludes the hack was a Russian operation?

J.M.: Well, there are two separate issues here. First, who hacked into the DNC computer system? Second, did the perpetrator then leak the information with the aim of affecting our election? On the first, it is of course deplorable and damaging, but not particularly shocking, at least to me, that some foreign power would do this if it could — just to know as much as possible about what’s going on in the U.S. On the second — evidence that someone is doing so to affect and shape the democratic process here — that would, as the senior officials at Aspen suggested, go beyond what nations typically tolerate in the spy world.

OZY: How does politics play into all of this?

J.M.: I don’t have to tell you that all sorts of allegations are flying in this vicious political season. I’m staying out of that except to say that if our government concludes this is as serious as rumored, it must keep party politics out of it and avoid seeming to take sides in the presidential battle. The government would have to handle this for what it potentially is at base — an attack on our democratic process, not just on one party. This is the main point in a statement that a group of us at Aspen issued on a bipartisan basis — we called on the parties and our government to tighten cybersecurity on all aspects of the election process. 

OZY: What bigger-picture elements should we be thinking about?

J.M.: This is just the latest sign that cybersecurity is growing as a problem — with no certainty where it leads as we all become more and more dependent on connectivity. Insecure networks are an enormous vulnerability for the country and for all of us personally, especially as we continue lashing up all parts of our lives in what is now known as the Internet of Things (IOT). During the Cold War, when nuclear weapons posed an existential threat, we and the Soviets figured out how to negotiate reductions, develop some rules of the road and give each other some reassuring transparency. We’re nowhere close to that in cyber — an international realm that now operates with no particular rules and massive potential for miscalculation and damage.



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