The United States is confronting a wide array of national security challenges ranging from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s subversive cyber activities, to the perpetual threat of terrorism and security along the southern border. As Representative of the 23rd district of Texas, Congressman Will Hurd has used his background as an undercover operative in the CIA as well as his role as a cyber security specialist at a private firm to focus on national security issues in Congress. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Congressman Hurd to discuss his background, his views on the most pressing security issues facing the U.S., and if Congress is prepared to tackle these immense challenges.
The Cipher Brief: You’ve had quite an impressive career, working for the CIA, in the cyber security field, and now as the Representative for the 23rd District of Texas. Can you just tell us a little bit about these experiences and how they helped prepare you for your current position in Congress?
Will Hurd: They are super important to what I’ve been working on now. I serve on the Homeland Security Committee, I’m on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and I chair a subcommittee on information technology where we look at privacy and cyber security. And all of my previous experiences, whether it was in the CIA or working for Fusion X where we did technical vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, have helped me become a better policymaker.
I like to use ISIS as an example. They were great on the ground and they controlled, land, although they’re on the run now. But their ability to influence people 6,000 miles away is something we’ve never seen before.
Chasing al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan when they were writing night letters and putting it on peoples’ doorsteps – you can hit a couple hundred people a night that way. The overall principles and theories for countering that ideology are the same, but now we just have to do it on social media.
Having real world experience is important. Knowing the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. Knowing that Iran, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq are Shia and that the rest of the Muslim world is Sunni, and that there are problems there.
I had one of the original Mujahedeen fighters tell me, “I’ve been a Pakistani for 70 years, a young country, I’ve been a Muslim for 1,340 years, but I’ve been a Pashtun for 3,333 years.” It’s hard for Americans to understand how that has an impact on people, but seeing it and knowing that exists has been incredibly valuable to me in educating my colleagues and pushing for legislation that addresses these types of issues.
TCB: When describing your time in the CIA, you’ve said before, “I spent almost a decade as an undercover officer in the CIA, I was the guy in the back alley at 4 in the morning, collecting intelligence on threats to the homeland.” Do you ever miss those alleys?
Hurd: You know what, when I was in those alleys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I knew who my enemy was. Sometimes when I’m here in Congress, I don’t. Having learned to grow eyes in the back of my head has actually been very helpful here in Congress and on the campaign.
What I do miss is the can-do attitude of my colleagues within the CIA, and I would add Special Forces as well. The relationship between the SEALS and the Agency is one of the tightest that we have in the federal government. And I miss the, ‘yes is the answer, what is the question.’ When we were told “hey, try to better understand the plans and intentions of the Haqqani network in AfPak,” we couldn’t say “well, we don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough money.” We had to go out and do it. I miss that. I miss the friends who grow to be fast friends, and I do miss that aspect of it. But I’ll be honest, it’s great waking up, eating breakfast tacos in the morning, having a couple of vanilla lattes, and not worrying about someone trying to either put me in jail or shoot me.
TCB: We’ve spoken in the past about a handful of important national security topics, including counterterrorism and Afghanistan. But I want to take a step back and expand the scope slightly. In your view, what are some of the top national security threats facing the United States right now?
Hurd: Right now, at this moment in time, you have to start with North Korea. It’s the one place in the world where tens of millions of people could lose their lives in a matter of a couple of minutes. There’s no clear, good answer to how you deal with Kim Jung-un. Ultimately, everyone wants to see this resolved diplomatically. But I also believe—and this is something that I learned when I was in the CIA—we should be nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys.
Nine months ago, nobody would have expected the Chinese or the Russians to work with us at the UN Security Council on sanctions against North Korea. Nobody would have thought that Chinese President Xi Jinping would use the central bank to stop Chinese companies from working with the North Koreans. There have been some great diplomatic efforts. And it’s also improving the cooperation between South Korea and Japan, two people that have a long, contentious cultural relationship.
We have to be prepared to shoot down the next test. I’ve been saying that for some time. And we have to change the calculation. Kim Jung-un is interested in one thing; staying in power. And he believes in order to do that, he needs to do what his father and his grandfather, the first leader Kim Il Sung, could not do, and that’s attain nuclear weapons. So, we have to change that calculation. I would say, right now, this is the number one issue.
The number two issue, I believe, is Russia. Russia is not our ally – they are our adversary. When Russia’s GRU briefs Grizzly Step—and that’s how the intelligence community refers to Russia’s attempt to manipulate our elections—it’s going to go down as the greatest covert action campaign in the history of mother Russia, because it drove a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the White House, the intelligence community, and the American people.
The Russians right now have 900 tanks in Eastern Ukraine. They illegally annexed Crimea. They have convinced some people to refer to that activity as a Ukrainian separatist movement. It’s not a separatist movement. Russians violated the territorial sovereignty of a country by invading it. They’re now trying to say, “hey, we need a UN peacekeeping mission to resolve this conflict.” No, there’s a real simple way to resolve the conflict. Leave. You’re the ones that came in.
They’ve been perfecting their ability to use asymmetrical warfare and their ability to use disinformation in Eastern Europe for decades, and we, the United States, do not have a counter -covert influence strategy. Part of the reason is that covert influence is part of covert action. Covert action is the responsibility of the CIA, and the National Security Act of 1947 said that the CIA can’t do anything in the United States of America.
You also can’t do this through government alone. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Twitter feed is not going to be able to solve the problem of Russian disinformation. We have to be thinking boarder on how to do it. So I would say that’s the second issue.
And three, you’re always going to deal with terrorism. Anytime I talk to any person who has been in the global war on terrorism or dealt with this issue, they always ask, ‘what day do we celebrate in winning the global war on terrorism?’ And the best answer I got was from Ambassador Hank Crumpton, the fabled CIA officer who spent time as the head of counterterrorism at the State Department, and he said “terrorism is like influenza, something you’re never going to get rid of. You can inculcate communities from it, but it’s never going to go away.”
And so, that is always something that we’re going to have to deal with, especially as the tactics of terrorists are changing to knifing people, running over people with cars, and other things that don’t require any kind of specific experience or training, which makes it harder to track and uncover before the activity happens.
TCB: Do you really see a diplomatic solution as the way forward with North Korea? Is that a possible way to attain the ultimate objective, which is denuclearization of North Korea?
Hurd: I think it’s hard, because we’re going to have to question a lot of assumptions. We’re going to have to question the assumption of reunification. Is that something that Kim Jung-un would ever accept? Not unless it’s on his terms. The economic impact that reunification would have on South Korea is pretty dire.
Is there a face saving opportunity for Kim Jung-un to take advantage of to deescalate this entire situation? I was hopeful that with the new president in South Korea who was to the left of the previous administrations in South Korea when talking about extending an olive branch. It wasn’t as far as the sunshine policy, but it was closer to that than the last two presidents of South Korea had been. But I think Kim Jung-un has been pretty clear in rebuffing any of those types of advances.
South Koreans also pretty unanimously support keeping the THAAD missile defense batteries, which was a topic of debate during the most recent elections in South Korea. So, it’s going to be difficult at best, but again, when you know the driving motivation is to stay in power, the only way you can change Kim’s behavior is to think it will lead to him being out of power. That may be what drives him to the negotiating table.
TCB: After everything we’ve learned so far with respect to the ongoing investigation in Russian interference in our election, do you think the election system in the United States is vulnerable to further attacks from Russia or other countries?
Hurd: When it came to the counting of votes, it was clear, fair and square, there was no manipulation of that. But that shouldn’t stop us from hardening something that’s so important. Because of the distributed nature of voting, even in an individual county, let alone across the entire United States, that is a high barrier for an attacker to ultimately try to manipulate.
I was recently at the Black Hat cyber security conference. I believe they got access to 27 voting machines, and six hours later they had hacked all of them without any previous experience with these tools. From that experience, we’ve learned that there’s ways that we can improve the digital defenses of these machines. We can also improve the handling of them, making sure there’s always an audit trail.
Now, when it comes to the issue of political ads on social media, I think this is where you’re going to see some of the greatest debate over the next couple of months. Because if you were to do a political ad on television, there are certain ways that you have to identify that it is indeed a political ad in order to add transparency. So the question is going to be with respect to transparency within our elections, have we evolved to where we are in technology? And I think that is going to be one of the biggest areas of debate.
Having spent some time in Eastern Europe, I’m creating an axiom that says, the closer you are to Russia, the less likely you are to believe their nonsense. But the converse of this rule is true as well. The farther away you are from Russia, the more susceptible you are to their messaging or their payload. How do we identify this fake information? How do we identify these disinformation efforts and make sure we’re inculcating our communities against it? That’s a hard problem to solve, and it’s going to take all hands on deck.
TCB: The Trump administration recently unveiled new travel restrictions on foreign travelers, specifically from eight countries. Earlier this year, you mentioned that you believe the travel ban does not make us safer, is a sign of distrust to many of our allies, and you also introduced legislation in May that would enhance visa screening and procedures instead. Can you walk us through why you think that legislation is a preferred approach to the travel ban?
Hurd: I sat on a task force that looked at foreign fighters fighting with ISIS, specifically Americans going into Iraq and Syria. At the time, there were about 250 known cases of Americans who had done that. One of the things that we found during this whole exercise is that many of our allies were not checking travel documents of all known travelers. In some instances, they were only checking one out of every three travel documents. That’s crazy. Allies like France, again this is prior to the Paris attacks, were not checking known travelers against watch list information that we had been providing.
If you get the right information to the right people at the right time, you keep bad guys on the run and off our shores. That’s why I advocate for a more targeted approach to this problem, because if I’m committed and I have the resources, being able to slip into Europe, get a fake passport, and come to the United States through our ports of entry, it is not the most difficult thing to ultimately do. The only way we’re going to stop this is to ensure that we’re utilizing all of the information that we do have and that our allies are doing the same thing.
Part of the legislation I’ve introduced is making sure that our allies who have airports with last point of departures – that’s an airport where a flight goes directly to the United States – have the open source database and tools that we use with the Department of Homeland Security to run these kind of checks.
TCB: And you also mentioned our own security here in the homeland. I wanted to talk about the southern border and the wall there. You advocated for the construction of a smart wall, as opposed to a purely physical wall. What do you believe the status of border security is right now, and what exactly would the smart wall look like?
Hurd: So it’s 2017, and we do not have operational control of our border. What we don’t know, we don’t know, is larger than what we know we don’t know, and what we know we know. That is the ultimate problem, and that is why people are frustrated. But building a wall, a 30-foot high concrete structure that takes four hours to penetrate from sea to shining sea, is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security. Based on this administration’s numbers, it’s 24.5 million dollars a mile for roughly 2,000 miles of border. There’s already 650 miles of fencing, so if you do the math, multiplying it out for everywhere else, that’s $33 billion.
Now a smart wall utilizes technology that makes sense across the border. So in some places, radar makes sense. In some places, lidar makes sense. Lidar is basically radar, but instead of sound, it uses light. Cameras are efficient in some other areas. Some places you’re going to need more people. And so, you should take a mile by mile assessment of what we already have, and deploy those technologies along the border where it makes sense. Then make sure that all the data those sensors are collecting is beamed directly to the man or woman in border patrol. The price for that is about half a million dollars a mile. That’s a difference of 24 million dollars. It’s a better use of taxpayer dollars, and it’s more efficient.
The other problem we have is that the Narco trafficantes and the king pin human smugglers who are operating south of our border don’t have to worry about budget battles in Congress. So, the bad guys are better capitalized than we are. We need to make countering drugs and countering king pin human smugglers a counterterrorism priority. It’s not. When it comes to the national intelligence priority framework, those issues or not a top two or three issue. I think they should be.
We should also increase the amount of intelligence the CIA and NSA is collecting on these folks south of the border. Let’s work with our Mexican partners on this, against this shared problem. Here’s the difference: the narcos and the king pin human smugglers are not hiding in caves the way al Qaeda was in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We should stop this problem before it actually gets to the border, and again it’s a fraction of the cost.
TCB: You’ve written that if we want our country to be better, we need to be better. Is Congress currently in a state to deal with these threats right now, given the partisanship and rancor that’s going on?
Hurd: I actually think it’s improving. There are examples of how Congress is working together, and we’ve gotten big things done. Right now I look at the issue of cyber security; this is something where there really is bipartisan support. When you look at Ukraine, Congress has been bipartisan in the House and the Senate for the last couple of years in support of arming Ukrainians against the Russians. There are plenty of examples where if we work together, we can get things done.
Let’s focus on what we all agree on and get that done. My supposition is, way more unites us than divides us, and if we focus on that, we’ll be better off.