Politics

Transcript: David Sanger talks with Michael Morell on “Intelligence Matters”

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – DAVID SANGER

HOST: MICHAEL MORELL
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:
David, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is terrific to have you on the show.
DAVID SANGER:
Great to be back here with you, Mike.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Your book, David, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, has been a huge hit. It was published a year ago, and it is now out in paperback with a brand new chapter. It will soon be published in eight languages. And I understand an HBO documentary is in the works. So congratulations.
DAVID SANGER:
Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun. And it’s reminded me that everybody feels touched by cyber issues.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah. So maybe the place to start, David, is: What motivated you to write the book?
DAVID SANGER:
Mike, you know, when you’re doing this in a journalistic way and you’re trying to cover the world of cyber, you’re doing everything from writing about the thefts of people’s credit card data, to the theft of their security clearance data through, you know, OPM theft and so forth, to state-on-state actions. North Korea going after Sony, Iranians going after the American banks, American offensive actions against Iran or Korea.

And then you’re also writing about influence operations. And what I discovered over time was that people didn’t really get the interconnections between these, that while every one of these operations is different — and some are done by states, and some by criminals, and some by teenagers — that in fact the technology that enables all of these are a great connective thread and the problem of deterring them is also another great connective thread. And I wanted to just see if I could try to grapple with both of those.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I mean, this is a technical issue. How did you educate yourself on such a technical issue?
DAVID SANGER:
The trick in doing this as a journalist is to on the one hand get deep enough into the technology that you don’t make a lot of stupid mistakes and on the other hand not get in so deep that when you’re writing about it you’re losing everybody who hasn’t had the time to go delve into it. And the hardest part about writing the book wasn’t really getting educated about this, although, you know, it’s difficult and technology–
MICHAEL MORELL:
Just because you had –reported on it so much.
DAVID SANGER:
Yeah, and I’ve done this basically since the first book I wrote more than ten years ago called The Inheritance, in which Mike McConnell, who of course was the director of national intelligence, was the first one to begin to explain to me his efforts to get the government — you’ll remember this here in the end of the Bush administration — to think about the huge state vulnerabilities in a big way, and to think about offensive cyber in a bigger way, and so forth.

So I’ve written about it across three different books. The critical review I liked the most about this book came when somebody wrote that I didn’t do enough code analysis in the book. And I thought to myself, “Okay, if that’s the main criticism, I can live with that.” What I wanted to be sure to do was get people to understand that this is a geopolitical problem as much as a technological problem.

And it’s the technologists who think about technology and think about technological solutions. The geopolitical types think about treaties or norms. And there’s very little interaction between the two, which is a lot the way the nuclear world was in the 1950s when you had a group of technologists who were thinking about what became missile defenses and you had a group of geopoliticians.

And, you know, there were some books. Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy was sort of the first to try to go merge the two. And I thought that was a really admirable kind of model, not that any of us could live up to Henry Kissinger.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah, but I spend a lotta time at Politics and Prose here in D.C. — on Saturdays you can find me there — And I pick out every book on cyber. And most of them aren’t accessible. And I pick up yours, and I read yours, and it is very accessible–
DAVID SANGER:
Thanks.
MICHAEL MORELL:
–to the public. And I think that is one of the things that distinguishes it. And I think in part it’s a reflection of everything you just said and it’s a reflection of being a journalist and making this accessible to your readers whatever you’re writing, right? So I think that is a real– something that really stands out for your book.

David, in the new chapter that’s in the paperback you cover issues such as 5G as well as the new leeway that the Trump administration has granted for offensive cyber operations. Why did you think those were so important that you needed to stop and write a new chapter for the paperback?
DAVID SANGER:
Well, first, just as a reader I know that when I pick up paperbacks I don’t want to be in the situation of reading something that I think might be out of date. So I always think it’s important when you do a paperback to, you know, make sure the reader is getting the newest stuff they can get.

5G is fascinating to me because it is becoming over time the new Berlin Wall. Who controls the networks is going to be far more important over the next 20 years than who’s got longer-range missiles or who’s got more powerful nuclear weapons. The networks will be the symbol of national control. And for good and bad, and I think it’s mostly for bad, we are devolving into a world in which there is sort of an authoritarian-controlled internet dominated by Chinese technology.

But the Russians themselves are about to go pass a law that would basically require all Russian networks to run through the government and thus through government control. And then a Western sort of free internet. And that’s the big issue that 5G has brought about. Because it is basically a new way of connecting the internet of things to a pathway that we understand–
MICHAEL MORELL:
So this is a real inflection point in your mind, 5G?
DAVID SANGER:
Not only is it a real inflection point, but the decisions made over the next 18 months are really going to determine where this goes. Because in the next– just as you look at the pace of the technology being deployed, every European nation, most African and Latin American nations are going to have to go choose who’s building their 5G network. Because if you don’t make a choice, you’re basically missing the revolution, right?

And that choice of whether it’s going to be a West — and the U.S. doesn’t make much of this switching equipment, but some European firms like Nokia and Ericsson do, and Samsung does — or whether you pick the Chinese manufacturers is really going to be a big political determinant of what camp you fall into.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And the U.S. government is engaged in this issue. We’re trying to convince people that there are other countries that there are security issues here and they should not go the way of Huawei and Chinese companies. How do you think we’re doing in that?
DAVID SANGER:
Not great for two reasons. One is, as is the wont frequently of this administration, they have decided to go announce what the penalty is if you don’t go along with the American way here rather than what the incentive is. So the penalty they’ve announced is we will cut you off from all of your intelligence if we think it’s going to run across a network the Chinese will be able to get into.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that isn’t a bad choice to make. And you would know better than I from your own history about that. But that’s a two-way street. I mean, think how much in your days at the CIA you depended on what you were hearing from cooperative foreign intelligence services. We cut off them, they cut off us. But the sec–
MICHAEL MORELL:
And it’s also not something you do publicly.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
It’s a very private conversation.
DAVID SANGER:
Right. So they’ve done it publicly, and I think they’ve done it without thinking through. You know, Bob Gates used to have this great phrase when he was defense secretary. He said, “The three words that are least asked in Washington are, ‘And then what?'” You know? (LAUGH) So I’m not sure they’ve fully thought this one through. The second problem we have is that while the president gets out and says we’re going to go win on this, we don’t have manufacturers in the game.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Right. So, David, let’s go back to the greater leeway that the Trump administration is giving NSA, Cyber Command to conduct cyber offensive operations. Talk about that a little bit.
DAVID SANGER:
So during the Obama administration, President Obama’s worked for a long time on something that you recall as being called PPD-20. It was Presidential Decision Directive 20. And it basically laid out the rules under which you could conduct offensive cyber operations. And it had two big features two it in the unclassified version.

And as it turned out, we all read the classified version because it was in the Snowden trove. They didn’t differ much, interestingly. But basically the essence of it was that the president himself had to get involved in almost any significant cyber decision. And the second was there were a lot of other stakeholders who would sit and have a role in the decision making for offensive cyber.

Could be the Commerce Department if you thought there was a significant economic issue, the Treasury Department if you thought there was a significant financial issue. And there are many because some involve dealing with central banks or so forth. Or the Swiss system. Many other players in the game. I think the Trump administration rightly concluded there were too many players and it was gunking everything up and also came to the conclusion that not every step that you take necessarily requires presidential signoff and all the time and energy that takes.

So now they’re doing a more streamlined system. And what they advertise is the first example of this came during the midterm elections when they went into the Internet Research Agency and shut them down for a few days. Didn’t put them out of business. Put messages to the cell phones of members of the Internet Research Agency that basically said, “We know who you are. We know what you’re working on. And you might want to think about that before you take– design your next internet ads.”

The question is: Where’s the threshold? What actually is the moment at which you say, “This might be a deterrent. But it could also lead to an escalation of a cyber war”? In which case you’d want the president and the president’s advisors into this early on.
MICHAEL MORELL:
David, speaking of inflection points, in your book you document what you see as several seminal events in cyber. So you talk about Stuxnet in Iran. You talk about the Sony hacks that emanated from North Korea and many others. And one of the questions I wanted to ask you is: Do you believe that actions by the U.S., possible actions by the U.S. such as Stuxnet created a precedent that said to other countries, “This is okay to do”? Or do you think those other countries would have done those things anyway?
DAVID SANGER:
I think it provided an excuse for things that they likely would have done anyway. But it also inspired them to bigger and greater uses of cyber. So let me give you an example. In the Stuxnet case, which was a U.S.-Israeli operation — I can say that even if people who used to be in the community might not be able to. In that particular case, the code got out. And that’s just fact.

In the summer of 2010 it started floating around the world. And we have now seen pieces of that code, techniques used in that code be adopted by other players and other states and shot back at us or our allies. A few years ago in October of 2016 while we were sort of focused on other things as a nation, a group that called itself the Shadow Brokers published a lot of other code that appears to have been code for U.S. offensive operations, U.S. offensive weapons that came out of the Tailored Access Operations unit of the NSA, which is the special forces of the NSA.

We have seen that code used by the North Koreans in WannaCry. We’ve seen other elements of it used by the Russians. So on the one hand, Stuxnet, which was known in the U.S. government as Olympic Games, I think allowed countries that were going to do this anyway to say, “We’re not doing anything the Americans aren’t doing.” The Snowden disclosures allowed them to say, “See? The Americans are really breaking into our systems without their paying attention to the legal limits on those.”

And the new code that has made its way out has given them the tools to go off and replicate it even if they didn’t have a significant development capability. The last thing that’s important to note here is when I was first writing about Stuxnet in a previous book called Confront and Conceal, it was hard to find another that was making sophisticated use of cyber, something other than just denial-of-service attacks.

When I was working on this book, we stopped counting after, you know, 200 or 250 sophisticated attacks. And I would guess — and this is mostly guesswork — that there are now probably 35 nations that have some sophisticated cyber capability. That’s a lotta proliferation very fast.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So in talking about seminal cyber events, where would you put what the Russians did in 2016 not with regard to stealing information and giving it to WikiLeaks or other platforms to make public but what they did in terms of weaponizing social media?
DAVID SANGER:
Just as Stuxnet may be the model for how you use cyber to go in and manipulate actual industrial events, I think what the Russians did in 2016 is the model for how you go and turn social media to purposes that we had not imagined. We had a failure of imagination here. If you think there was a failure of imagination prior to 9/11, this was the cyber failure of imagination.

And you can see that it wasn’t just the U.S. government that had that. Facebook had it. You know, in the reporting that I did for the book, what was the most interesting moments in dealing with Facebook, for example, was their admission that they didn’t even have a radar built to see whether this was happening.

So they had shut down some Internet Research Agency accounts after the Times had run a magazine piece on it. They had never sort of gone back to monitor whether the Russians were coming back. So I think that this has been a big model. For 2020, I think we know two things.

One, the Russians aren’t going to play the same playbook, right? They’re going to have to pick new and different ways. And secondly, other states are going to step in and maybe just non-state actors as well. But certainly other states will play with this. And in the midterms, guess who showed up on social media for the first time? The Iranians.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah, the DNI at the worldwide threat testimony talked about not only the Russians but now the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans. And he said “and others.” And I wonder who those others are, right? I have a few ideas. But it was very interesting. So this is a growing problem.
DAVID SANGER:
And the U.S. is not the only target. I mean, obviously there’s a chapter in the book about Ukraine called Putin’s Petri Dish. I mean, everything that Vladimir Putin did in the 2016 elections he tested out in Ukraine, and we weren’t paying enough attention to it. We were watching very carefully as he turned the power off in a few places, but we weren’t watching what he did in the election system.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So, David, I’m going to ask you maybe the most fundamental question. It seems like for the last ten years, maybe ever since cyber became a thing, that the gap between the capabilities of the adversaries and our ability to defend ourselves has been growing. What’s it going to take to bring those two lines back together? What’s it going to take for defense to catch up with offense? Or is that just not possible in this world?
DAVID SANGER:
It may not be possible for a while. It’s not, Mike, that our defenses are getting worse. They’re actually getting better. I mean, just think of–
MICHAEL MORELL:
It’s a gap, right? It’s the gap–
DAVID SANGER:
There’s a big gap. And just think of your own life. I mean, you know, you now get that six-digit note back from your bank whenever you’re going to go in to make– they’re trying to make sure it’s you. You do a lot more things to basically have good cyber hygiene as we’re on our phones and our computers.

The problem is this: as the internet of things grows, the surface area for attack grows. Again, you see it in your own house. Ten years ago, you probably had two things connected to the internet. Maybe a desktop computer and a laptop. Today, you’ve got your Alexa, your Fitbit, the car outside your–
MICHAEL MORELL:
Your refrigerator.
DAVID SANGER:
–in your driveway. I’ve never figured out what to do with an internet–
MICHAEL MORELL:
Well, it’s– exactly. (LAUGH)
DAVID SANGER:
–an internet-connected refrigerator. I guess if it told me to eat less, (LAUGH) that would probably be good. And, you know, your TV. Your smart TV. And the list goes on and on. And so the problem isn’t that we’re not getting better at defense. It’s that the opportunities for offense are expanding so much faster.

And so the first thing we need to do is to make sure that everything we put on the internet basically has a good-housekeeping seal of approval that there’s serious cybersecurity in it. Now, you buy these cheap security cameras for outside your house from Chinese manufacturers. It’s almost impossible to change the password. So it’s no surprise that somebody strung hundreds of thousands of these together to mount a botnet attack a few years ago, right?

And many more things like that will be happening. What I’m hoping doesn’t have to happen is the cyber 9/11, the cyber Pearl Harbor, whatever you would call it. I actually argue in the book that’s less likely because the true use of cyber for states is as a short-of-war weapon. And doing something that would bring about a military response strikes me as the stupidest thing they could probably do.
MICHAEL MORELL:
I think that’s exactly right. I think that’s exactly right. So what grade would you give the Trump administration in trying to get our arms around this problem?
DAVID SANGER:
So if you had asked me this question in the first year of the administration, I would have given them a B or a B+. And they’ve actually gotten worse. And that takes work. The reason I would have given a B or B+ is they put some people in place at the beginning at the White House who had good background in this.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Rob Joyce–
DAVID SANGER:
Tom Bossert was the homeland security advisor. He had worked in this. Rob Joyce, who you just mentioned, had run that Tailored Access Operations unit at the NSA. And that’s exactly who you want in charge of your cyber defense, is somebody who has been on the offense for 20 or so years. Because nobody’s going to come in and pull the wool over their eyes, saying, “This system is secure,” if you’ve been breaking into them for years successfully, right?
MICHAEL MORELL:
This is why Israel has the best cybersecurity firms on the planet.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right. Because they take people from Unit 8200, which does cyber offense and did part of Olympic Games, and they go off and they put together their cybersecurity firms. So what happened? As soon as John Bolton came in, Mr. Bossert was pushed out the door and he was replaced with a very nice, very competent Coast Guard admiral who will tell you himself he’s got no cyber background.

And Mr. Joyce’s position, which was cybersecurity coordinator, was eliminated. And the biggest problem that the U.S. government has in cybersecurity to my mind, and I push back on this because you were on the inside and I wasn’t, is so many different agencies have a piece of this.

The NSA, Cyber Command, the CIA, Department of Homeland of Security — which is responsible for domestic civilian defenses — the Treasury Department, so many others that if you don’t have somebody making sure everyone’s marching in the same direction you’ve just got chaos. And you saw that in our story recently about Secretary Nielsen trying to get the president’s attention on 2020 and being told, “Don’t bring it up in front of him because it just reminds him of his concerns, the accusations that–“
MICHAEL MORELL:
Russia somehow.
DAVID SANGER:
–“what the Russians did made his presidency illegitimate.”
MICHAEL MORELL:
David, I want to shift gears a little bit here and talk about covering the intelligence community as a journalist. What differentiates it from covering other issues?
DAVID SANGER:
Well, the main thing that differentiates it, and particularly in the cyber arena, is that so much is classified. And I argue in the book that we’ve actually gotten to the point where the huge amount of classification that we wrap around cyber is actually getting in the way of our deterrence.

Because we’re not willing as a nation to get out and talk very much about our cyber capabilities, we’re not willing to get out and talk about our doctrine: “Do this to us, and here’s what might happen.” All of which we managed to do in the nuclear age while keeping the workings of nuclear weapons secret. That we’re actually getting in our own way.

Now, I realize that in the intelligence community this is not a widely held view. And many of my friends and many of your friends have argued with me on this, although they’ve entertained the possibility that putting 25-year secret stamps on intelligence about cyber that’s probably useful to you for about three weeks may not be the optimal solution to all of this.

The big issue for us as journalists is this: If we followed what the U.S. government wanted to do, we would never write about anything, including offensive operations like Olympic Games, which weren’t revealed by any journalist. They were revealed by the fact that the code managed to get out by mistake.

And the question is balancing national security with the importance of making sure that Americans understand that what we do as a nation in the cyber world is as important as what’s done to us. And that is frequently a subject of great debate. And you and I had that debate a few–
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
DAVID SANGER:
–times when you were in office.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So that’s what I want to ask you about. So what I call the James Madison issue, right?
DAVID SANGER:
It’s completely the Madison issue–
MICHAEL MORELL:
So if I have a security clearance and I give you information, I am breaking the law and I can go to jail.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
You publishing that is not a crime thanks to the First Amendment.
DAVID SANGER:
Right. Unless somebody reinterprets the hundred-year-old Espionage Act.
MICHAEL MORELL:
But do you still feel a responsibility to handle that classified information in a certain way? How do you think about that as a journalist?
DAVID SANGER:
Absolutely I do. Now, I also work at the New York Times. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We have set rules and standards. And we go to the government frequently when we have information that’s classified. Not just on cyber but on a range of other things. Terrorism issues and so forth. And we say, “This is what we’re getting ready to publish. If you’ve got concerns about that, the time to tell us is before we publish, not after.” That puts your colleagues, your former colleagues in a tough position. Because on the one hand, if they talk to us about it, they could be in violation of just the oath you just described. And so frequently we say to them, “Look, we understand that. We appreciate that. We’re not trying to suggest that you should go to jail. We are trying to suggest that you go get permission from an original classification authority — that may be the president, the national security advisor, the CIA director, whoever it is — and deal with us on this subject.” That’s usually an interesting first test for us.

Because if the issue isn’t important enough for them to take up the line, it’s probably not important enough for us to really get worried about the government’s objections. Now, if on the other hand you do get permission, and that does happen, and you and I had an example or two of that when you were still in office–
MICHAEL MORELL:
Which is the story you start the book with.
DAVID SANGER:
I start the book with. And it dealt with Olympic Games. And for your sins you were given the short card, the short straw of having to deal with me on that. And I’m not sure how you feel about it. My view was that was the model working at its very best. You had concerns. I tried to address almost every one of them.

I’m sure you weren’t happy that the story got out in the end, but I also think we kept details that would have been of a security concern to the U.S. from being in it. Many of them were blown by Snowden a year later, but we couldn’t have known that at the time–
MICHAEL MORELL:
But I think what’s important for the listeners is that a place like the New York Times or The Washington Post does feel a responsibility about how to handle classified information and does talk to the government about it whereas a place like WikiLeaks, and I don’t want to get into a debate about whether they have First Amendment protections or not, does not do that, right?
DAVID SANGER:
They’re not a news organization.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Fundamentally different approach to handling it.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right. Their view is, “Publish everything.” Our view is when you get the New York Times on the web, on your phone, in paper, you’re getting an edited, thought-about presentation. And this is part of the thinking about what you’re getting. Now, part of the difficulty is in this world in which the price of publication has dropped to zero, first of all, you’ll have many more people who don’t have those standards. That’s their right.

But secondly, even if they did, I’m not sure that the CIA or the NSA is going to respond to their phone call the way they may when somebody calls up and says, “Hi, I’m from The New York Times, or The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal. We need to talk about something.”
MICHAEL MORELL:
So David, the second question I wanted to ask you about intelligence in journalism is: I sense among some journalists who cover the intelligence community — and this is not true of you — But I sense among some that when there’s part of the story that they don’t have the facts about, that they often go to the darkest corner of the room.

They often assume the government is doing the worst. And I saw this play out in the early days of the Snowden revelations where some media organizations — not the New York Times — but some media organizations said the government had much more than it really had in the telephone metadata program, for example.
DAVID SANGER:
Yep.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Right? That people said, “They’re listening to your phone calls. They know when you call your grandmother in Arkansas,” right? They went to the darkest corner of the room. And I’m just wondering if you see the same thing, or am I biased here?
DAVID SANGER:
I do see the same thing. It’s because people frequently confuse a capability with the reality. Now, fact of the matter is the biggest problem the intelligence community faces is a huge stream of data. And, you know, I would argue — and it’s one of the reasons I think encryption is important — is that right now the intelligence community is in the golden age of collection.

If you had to send the FBI back 20 years and say, “By the way, you no longer have the ability to go on to Google Maps or to subpoena something from Google and find out where somebody has been driving,” they’d be pretty upset, right? Because this is a huge new capability for them. On the other hand, we have to realize that you’re not all that interested in the conversations with Grandma.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Right.
DAVID SANGER:
And that you are restricted by legal restrictions that I find most members of the U.S. government take very seriously either because they believe in them or because they understand the penalties of violating them. That said, we did see particularly during the Bush administration some moments where the president ordered the intelligence community to do things that I think were beyond the law.

And in the case of the metadata programs, going and doing interceptions outside of getting a warrant through the FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. Ultimately, they were given that power by Congress. But just declaring as a president, “I don’t care what the law is. We’re going to go off and collect this anyway,” I think is going a bit far. And I think that was worthwhile journalism to do.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Yeah. So people need to remember that the government has abused its power in the past.
DAVID SANGER:
It doesn’t mean they’re doing it on a regular basis now–
MICHAEL MORELL:
It doesn’t mean they’re doing it on a regular basis, but it has happened. And quite frankly, one of the important reasons for congressional oversight and one of the important reasons for the First Amendment and the protections it provides to the media is to protect the American people from that abuse of power. I mean, it’s incredibly important.
DAVID SANGER:
It is. And, you know, that’s the difference not only between us and China and us and Russia but to some degree between us and Britain. I mean, there’s nothing like the First Amendment even in the Western world. And we discovered that in the Snowden documents because a lot of them dealt with GCHQ, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency.

And, you know, their answer to any question we gave for a while — they’ve now changed their tune some — was, “I’m sorry. To discuss that or even to print anything about it is to violate the Official Secrets Act. So just go away.” So this idea of having a back and forth of the kind you and I were discussing before, that didn’t really exist in Britain. They’re coming around to that not because of any legal change but because of the recognition that so much more gets out now in the cyber age that they don’t have a choice.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Transparency’s becoming a more important thing for the intelligence community in order to actually protect what it needs to protect I think.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right. Now, the next step in that is actually reducing the wild overclassification of things. And if you go back to WikiLeaks, the original sin of the modern era here, right, which the New York Times — I was on the team that published a good number of the State Department cables and tried to write some interesting interpretive understandings of our diplomacy from that.

But if you go back to that moment, you will see that the material that we got I would say 15, 20% of it were newspaper articles that somebody had read in some embassy somewhere, put in the cable system, and stamped “secret.” You could Google them the same day. That’s ridiculous. And when you do that, you so undercut the coin of the realm of what secrecy’s really about. And I realize this sounds like a crazy idea, but I would almost put a budgetary restriction on classification. Because right–
MICHAEL MORELL:
You get a certain number and that’s it?
DAVID SANGER:
That’s it. (LAUGH) That basically it goes like this, Mike. That, you know, you only can buy a certain number of airplanes for the budget you have, right? And so every time you hit a stamp, since it costs some money to protect that information there is a charge against your budget. And until you do something like that, I don’t think any agency will have any incentive to do anything other than stamp everything.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So, David, we just have a few more moments here. And I wanted to ask you about the state of journalism in the age of Trump. Talk a bit about what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of your profession covering this president.
DAVID SANGER:
So I think in the world of strengths is that despite all the tweets, despite all the threats, despite the incredibly dangerous use of the phrase “enemy of the people,” a phrase used over the past century by dictators, right, that the best news organizations in America have not backed down.

And if you go through the Mueller report that was released a few weeks ago and you look at the number of revelations in there that we at the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post had published a year or a year and a half ago that the president called fake news or denied that it turns out Mueller found the evidence for, it’s a pretty good hit rate. Well over 90%–
MICHAEL MORELL:
There wasn’t much new quite frankly in the Mueller report.
DAVID SANGER:
And we were in one way sort of happy to go see that. Now, what’s the downside of what we’ve done? I think that in the commentariat it’s easy to take the evidence and then immediately rush to a collusion, conspiracy element that Mueller did not find, right? Doesn’t mean it’s not there, but he certainly didn’t find it and did the most thorough search I could imagine.

And I think there’s a great danger in Twitter and the fast pace of all of this to simply sort of shoot back at the latest outbursts from the president or their staff. I also think that the White House has done itself huge damage by not only not briefing the press and not dealing with all of this. But we now know from the Mueller report Sarah Sanders saying that she had no factual basis in some things that she told us on pretty important matters, that she was just making things up, including what she had heard from FBI agents that she hadn’t heard from.

And what does that do? It means that on a really important story, on the kinds of stories that you and I have been talking about on this session, when you call the White House and you try to go deal with them, your willingness to believe what they’re saying, even if it’s true, is going to be undercut.

And in previous administrations that you served in– I mean, you and I first met I think when you were briefing the president during the Bush administration and other times. We had our disputes with the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration. We had our disputes about their prosecution of sources. But in the end when something important came along, I knew we were having an honest conversation. And I can’t always be assured of that now.
MICHAEL MORELL:
So what I found in dealing with journalists when CIA had a concern about a piece and I was asked to engage with a journalist or with an editor was the extent to which that conversation was effective from my perspective totally depended on trust.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s right.
MICHAEL MORELL:
And whether I had built previous trust with that person or not.
DAVID SANGER:
That’s absolutely right–
MICHAEL MORELL:
And that’s not happening now.
DAVID SANGER:
It’s not happening now. And even with people who I think you and I respect, including the current CIA director, she has not done any media outreach at least that I’ve seen. And I assume that I probably would have seen it had she done it. And I can understand that. She was working in operations for a long time. She hasn’t dealt with the press.
MICHAEL MORELL:
Good reason to keep your head down in this environment.
DAVID SANGER:
In this administration, you want to keep your head down. When the moment comes that there’s a big story like that where we have to have the kind of dealings that you and I had back then, she’s not going to have that built-up relationship with enough of those key reporters and editors to say, “Hey, look. You know, you know me. And this is actually really important.” And, Mike, when you said to me, “Look, David, I’m much more concerned about A, B, and C than I am about D, E, and F,” I could take that to the bank.
MICHAEL MORELL:
David, just one more question about cyber. And that is: What do you think the next big development is? Is it deepfakes? Is it something else? How do you think about that?
DAVID SANGER:
It’s the merger of several new technologies. So deepfakes basically comes from an ability to go manipulate data in a convincing way that could be, you know, making a politician say something he never said, or it seems that they’re saying this on, you know, a YouTube video, to seeing an incoming nuclear attack that isn’t really happening. So that’s one set of concerns.

Artificial intelligence will have the effect of speeding up a lot of the things that are already moving too fast for us to make rational decisions. And an example I frequently use comes out of the nuclear age, a day when Bill Perry was woken up in the middle of the night and was told that there were more than a hundred incoming nuclear weapons to the United States, right?

They sorted it out and quickly figured out that it was actually a training tape that had gotten put in the system. But supposing this happens at the record speed that comes from having artificial intelligence on both sides. And you can’t build into that artificial intelligence the thing that made Bill Perry most suspicious, which was this was not a great moment of tension between the Soviet Union and United States when that happened.

So I worry about the speed-up that takes humans out of the loop. And the last thing I worry about is that quantum computing will both make it much easier for states to encrypt, which may be good, but also will probably destroy our current encryption. And so there’ll be a lot more concern about who’s in your network. And that’s where it meshes with where we began, at 5G. Because if you’re not confident where your data’s going and you’re not confident in how well it’s encrypted, you can be rushed into bad decisions.
MICHAEL MORELL:
The book is The Perfect Weapon. The author is David Sanger. Even if you read the hardback, you’re going to want to pick up the paperback and read the new chapter. David, thanks for being with us.
DAVID SANGER:
Thank you, Mike. Great to be with you.
* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *


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