Transcript: Dan Coats Warns The Lights Are 'Blinking Red' On Russian Cyberattacks "Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack," the director of National Intelligence told a D.C. think tank on July 13. Here is the full transcript.
NPR logo Transcript: Dan Coats Warns The Lights Are 'Blinking Red' On Russian Cyberattacks

Transcript: Dan Coats Warns The Lights Are 'Blinking Red' On Russian Cyberattacks

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in March. He warned a think tank last week that cyberattacks from Russia and others are ongoing: "The warning lights are blinking red again." Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in March. He warned a think tank last week that cyberattacks from Russia and others are ongoing: "The warning lights are blinking red again."

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The director of National Intelligence spoke before the Hudson Institute, a D.C.-based conservative think tank, on July 13. Transcript provided by the Hudson Institute.

Ken, thank you very much. It's nice to be here at Hudson. We enjoyed Hudson's presence in Indiana for a time. Then former OMB Director Mitch Daniels became governor of Indiana — in the meantime, lured Hudson to come to the middle of the country to get a different perspective perhaps than what we get from the coast. You were there for a number of years. I had the privilege of working with people there. We understand why you came back here, moving it to more foreign policy-focused stuff. And a lot of that is what happens here. But we do appreciate the fact that you still value Indiana. Some of your employees might be missing the ease of living and cost of living in Indiana relative to Washington — not to mention the commute to work. But nevertheless, it's very nice for me to be able to be here with you to lay some groundwork for what I think is one of — if not the — top challenge that we face in terms of threats to our country, to our people and our processes in the future.

So before I sit down with Walter to talk about a range of global threats that we face, I'd like to focus my initial remarks on the growing cyber threat to our nation's security. And specifically, I'd like to put the current cyber threat in terms of the threats that we've had in a historical context and to define who is most responsible and what are they attempting to do, and then discuss the intelligence community's response to that. So each morning when I get up, I'm given a roundtable of news on what happened while I was asleep, or what happened yesterday around the world. And almost without fail, the longest section of this news roundup is the section on cyber issues, which details multiple reports of cyberattacks and alerts. This issue affects all of us. And it is increasingly affecting numerous aspects of our daily life, as many of you are familiar with.

You only need to go back less than two decades ago to put, I think, the current cyber threat into its proper context. In 2001, our vulnerability was heightened because of the stovepipe approach of our intelligence and law enforcement communities that produced what they called "silos of information." At the time, intelligence and law enforcement communities were identifying alarming activities that suggested that an attack was potentially coming to the United States. It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then CIA Director George Tenet, the system was blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.

Every day, foreign actors — the worst offenders being Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — are penetrating our digital infrastructure and conducting a range of cyber intrusions and attacks against targets in the United States. The targets range from U.S. businesses to the federal government (including our military), to state and local governments, to academic and financial institutions and elements of our critical infrastructure — just to name a few. The attacks come in different forms. Some are tailored to achieve very tactical goals while others are implemented for strategic purpose, including the possibility of a crippling cyberattack against our critical infrastructure.

All of these disparate efforts share a common purpose: to exploit America's openness in order to undermine our long-term competitive advantage.

In regards to the state actions, Russia has been the most aggressive foreign actor — no question. And they continue their efforts to undermine our democracy. In regards to the upcoming midterm elections, I think there may have been some confusion between what we are seeing now compared to what we saw in 2016. As the Department of Homeland Security noted, we are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and voter databases that we experienced in 2016. However, we fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself. Therefore, and moreover, we are seeing aggressive attempts to manipulate social media and to spread propaganda focused on hot-button issues that are intended to exacerbate socio-political divisions. Despite public statements by the Kremlin to the contrary, we continue to see individuals affiliated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency creating new social media accounts, masquerading as Americans, and then using these accounts to draw attention to divisive issues. We have learned, just before this meeting, about the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials relative to their role in 2016.

But focusing on the potential impact of these actions on our midterm elections misses the more important point: these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America's democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not. Russian actors and others are exploring vulnerabilities in our critical infrastructure as well. The DHS and FBI — in coordination with international partners — have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors.

The warning signs are there, the system is blinking, and that is why I believe we are at a critical point. Today, unlike the status of our intelligence community in 2001, we're much more integrated and much better at sharing information between agencies. But the evolving cyber threat is illuminating new daily challenges in how we treat information. We are dealing with information silos of a different kind, including between the public and private sector.

But here's the good news. As I just mentioned — but it needs to be stated again — the intelligence community today is more integrated than it's ever been. We are sharing information across agencies at all levels. In regard to the midterms, we are partnering with DHS and FBI to provide support, information and grants to state election officials from all 50 states. We will continue to look for opportunities to support this effort. And regarding the larger cyber threat issue, the president has signed an executive order strengthening the cybersecurity of federal networks and critical infrastructure, in which the president tasked a whole-of-government risk management review resulting in a number of actions that OMB is now taking to strengthen U.S. networks with IT modernizing guidelines. The president has also authorized the use of all available tools of state power — including attribution, criminal indictments and economic levers — to punish malicious cyber actors. Our leaders at the National Security Council consider this as a top priority. And we are continuously pursuing actions on this issue. As you know, we're in a transition period with the NSC, but I have had numerous talks with our new national security adviser and members of the NSC about the importance of raising this to a top issue, and they're doing so. Within the government, we're working continuously to detect, warn and — when necessary — respond to cyber threats. We have a multi-agency Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center that builds understanding of cyber threats to inform decision-makers. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are demonstrating leadership on the foreign influence threat and applying a more assertive federal response, as we have just seen today. And my former colleagues in the House and the Senate are bringing significant attention to the threat from cyber and have expressed strong support for legislative action.

Having said that, we have to do better in what we deliver to our customers: how we get it to them and the speed by which they receive it. Today, those crosscutting cyber threats have been illuminated — but how rigidly we still act when it comes to public discourse. Respective self-interests of the government, the private sector and the public have created independence rather than complimentary lines of effort and awareness. As a result, we need to think differently about our customers.

In many ways, the nature of the cyber threat requires that we — the national security community — treat the private sector and American people as intelligence customers. And that is why you will see us talking about this threat more vocally, and why you will continue to see us publish unclassified assessments and statements to inform the American people.

Everyone, if we are to succeed in dealing with this threat, we must take ownership of the challenge. It will take the government, the private sector and the American people all doing their part to better position our country for the future. As a government, we are having a more open dialogue about this threat. In particular, we in the IC need to provide the information available to us to the private sector and to the public to better inform their decision-making. And we need the private sector to see the public good in developing greater protections in the software, information systems and applications on the market. We also need the American people to verify the credibility of the sources of information upon which they base their decisions. Whether those sources are social media reports, cable news or newspapers, it is essential that we all apply critical thinking to all sources of information. This evolution in the IC's approach is part of the transformation which we're driving within the ODNI and throughout the IC in coming years. We have brought together experts and leaders from across the intelligence community to take stock of where we are and what we must do to reach the next level of effectiveness.

The result of this effort, which brought together the heads and deputies of all the intelligence community agencies — all 17 of them — is a new vision for the future of the intelligence community. We call it Intelligence Community 2025. Where do we need to be? What kind of capabilities do we need to have? What kind of insights do we need to have in terms of the threats that we face? And we are putting together significant efforts to stay ahead of the game and ahead of the curve, to be able to deliver to our customers, starting with the president, working through his policymakers, working through the agencies, and working through the American public with both the private and the government sector. So with that, at this particular time I would like to thank you for the invitation. I know that we'll have a good discussion with Walter Russell Mead about this. We can look at the larger threats or whatever questions that need to be addressed. And I would much rather do that than continue to talk up here, even though, as a former senator, we love to talk.