Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, told the Aspen Security Forum today that he believes the U.S. national security community lacks the capability to prevent a “cyber-9/11”—meaning a collapse of critical infrastructure caused by malware unleashed by a state or transnational organized crime group.
“Imagine a shutdown of the electric grid in New England in February,” Coats said, “when the temperatures might be minus three or minus 10. and the inability to start that back up in just a few hours, and the chaos that would occur, and the deaths that would occur and the devastation that would occur, just on that act. My own personal opinion is, I think we’re all behind the curve” to head off such an attack.
Because of such fears, he said, the Intelligence Community is urgently focusing on “how we can provide cyber defenses in a better way — how we can look at neutralizing these issues.” He said that Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, had told him that a “multitude” of hacker attacks are thwarted daily by government and private information technology systems. But, he said, the U.S. and its allies must go beyond building better defensive software and hardware.
“I personally…think we need an offensive strategy as well as a defensive strategy,” Coats said. “I guess I’ve watched too many NFL games – two minutes to go, and my favorite team drops into protection and the game end up with a competed pass and them kicking a field goal and winning. You have to blend the defensive and offensive.”
“I think it’s one of the major challenges that we have, and I guess it’s something that does keep you awake at night,” he continued. “You might not even know the attribution of where it came from, of someone, or group or nation that devised a way to go after your infrastructure in such a way that it brings significant harm to the American people.”
Coats said he did not know until he saw the headline earlier today that the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted up a communication from Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to Moscow boasting that during the 2016 campaign, then-Senator Jeff Sessions had discussed Donald Trump’s position on matters of interest to Russia and prospects for Russian-U.S. relations. “I’m going to ask. Is this for real? Is this the real thing? And try to get some details before I draw a conclusion,” Coats said. “I’m trying to do that with everything.”
Coats had no kind words for the Russians. Asked if the intelligence community is divided on the conclusion that Russian intelligence tried to meddle in the 2016 elect, Coats said flatly, “there is no dissent.”
When NBC news anchor Lester Holt asked if Russia was still making active attempts to influence the U.S. government, Coats nodded vigorously. He said that the Russians were known to be using these techniques on electoral processes in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He added that the president of Montenegro had recently complained to him that “the Russians are messing with us.”
“They’re trying to undermine western democracy,” Coats said. “They’re doing it not just with us but they’re doing it with nations that are following the democratic process across the world.”
“Is anybody shocked that the Russians are trying to influence how we think?” the intelligence chief exclaimed. “I grew up being told the Russians were trying to influence how we think. They’re just…quite a bit more sophisticated than they used to be…They’ve been doing it better than they used to, but they’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Elaine Shannon is a National Security Editor at The Cipher Brief.