NCSC Chief On Foreign And Domestic Threats The U.S. Faces
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Over the years, I have interviewed Bill Evanina about everything from Chinese espionage to Edward Snowden to that time he was eating lunch at a diner in McLean, Va., and a guy slammed a Hummer into the wall, then backed up and tried again.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BILL EVANINA: Three or four times - and then he set himself on fire trying to burn the restaurant down.
KELLY: Evanina is career FBI, so he pulled the man, a disgruntled cook at the diner, from the burning Hummer, and then he handcuffed him. That was 2016. Then, as now, Bill Evanina was serving as chief of U.S. counterintelligence, meaning he's in charge of stopping foreign adversaries from stealing U.S. secrets.
I have been trying to get him to give us an interview about this massive Russia hack, and he has finally said yes in what will be, after 31 years of service, his last interview as a government official.
Bill Evanina, good to speak with you. How are you doing?
EVANINA: I'm great, Mary Louise, and thanks for the opportunity. I'm humbled to be here and very proud of the career and what we were able to do in defending our nation.
KELLY: Well, I'm going to ask you to take some tough questions on the Russia hack before we let you go, so let's dive in. This massive cyberattack, which came to light at the end of last year, how bad is it?
EVANINA: Without being too grandiose, it's bad. It's very concerning. We look at it as very complicated, complex, and it has the signature of a very disturbing attack. I think subsequent to the ongoing investigation that's being done in an aggressive manner by the FBI and CISA and some private sector organizations, I think we'll continue to expose some of the vulnerabilities that we currently have in our system, as well as look at how we as a nation are now going to have to deal with a supply chain vulnerability and how we're going to mitigate that.
KELLY: Well, understood that the investigation is ongoing, there have been questions as to whether classified material was breached. Was it?
EVANINA: Yeah, I can't speak to that right now. But I will say, Mary Louise, that I don't want to minimize what they've already done. Right? So oftentimes in the espionage world, you could obtain a lot of really good intelligence on foreign governments from unclassified material. Hypothetically, they could see communications in the unclassed arena from Government Official 1 to Government Official 2 and 3 and 4, copying members of Congress on really substantial geopolitical issues, policy issues, investigation issues.
KELLY: OK. When you say you can't speak to whether classified information was breached, that's because you don't know or because you can't say?
EVANINA: That's because I personally don't know.
KELLY: Bill Evanina, how did U.S. intelligence miss this? They were in there - this breach went undetected for months.
EVANINA: Well, that's a great question. I think your listeners should understand that when you look at how they obtained the data going through a contractor, a company - a software company, which promulgated itself into bigger companies, it's the epitome of the worst-case scenario (ph) supply chain attack.
And I think it's really complicated here because everyone wants an answer from the U.S. government. I'm not sure that's exactly where the culpability lies here with respect to how this happened. We do know, Mary Louise, that multiple countries out there are constantly searching, surveilling and exercising and being successful in breaches not only on government networks, but in the private sector. And I think this is really going to call to question, what's going to be our plan going forward?
KELLY: Let me change gears and ask you about the attack on the Capitol. I wonder, given your background with FBI, as we mentioned, also at the CIA - in your view, was this an intelligence failure?
EVANINA: I don't think so. And I'll be honest, Mary Louise, I'm still wrapping my arms around my own personal emotions on this...
KELLY: Yeah, we all are.
EVANINA: ...As a former FBI agent and now an intelligence official and a dad and a husband. I think, you know, we had an amazing group of Capitol Police officers who were heroes, some very heroic actions. And we had some potentially nefarious activities, some law enforcement actors as well. So we have to figure out what we're going to do and let the investigation take its place in movement. And I think this Capitol insurrection or whatever the definition is going to be, is going to be a massive learning point for our nation moving forward.
KELLY: There is so much focus at the moment on domestic instability. How might foreign adversaries - if you're Russia, if you're China, if you're Iran - watching this moment when the U.S. is completely consumed by domestic turmoil, how might they take advantage?
EVANINA: Well, they are taking advantage. And I think that's where we're coming in in the intelligence community. Our adversaries have continued to take advantage of our domestic crisises (ph), specifically in this last year. And I'll go back to the death of George Floyd. We saw Russia, China, Iran all play in that space. With COVID...
KELLY: Sorry - just what do you mean when you say Russia, China, Iran was playing in that George Floyd space?
KELLY: What do you mean?
EVANINA: ...Amplifying all the messages that they saw online. So I think, you know, when we look at Russia specifically, they pivoted after the 2016 election from their bots and their trolls to amplifying U.S. persons' information, which made it much more difficult.
So we watched, and we saw Russia, China, Iran take part in that amplification of social media and the strife in the protest. COVID exacerbated that. We saw them play a big role in trying to downplay the U.S. government's ability to provide a vaccine and distribute it. And then leading up to the elections, we saw, obviously, as you know, all three countries playing a role in sowing discord in our democracy. I think this last week will really amplify their ability to do more of sowing discord with the ultimate goal, Mary Louise, to say, democracy doesn't work. They want to be able to show their people and geopolitically around the world that democracy is not the answer.
KELLY: Do you worry about the state of the U.S. intelligence community that you're leaving? We have just lived through several years of deep and open tensions between the president of the United States and intelligence leaders.
EVANINA: Worry's probably not the right word that I would use. I think any kind of a transition - of a presidential transition and the turning over of thousands of people in the government, there's going to be some lag. But I can tell you that the men and women who fight the fight every day that aren't political appointees and are here at the higher level of government are going to work regardless. And that's what's going to make the country safe, regardless of who's in office and who their boss is.
KELLY: I guess that's what I'm getting at. I know people like you try desperately to stay out of politics and stay out of the fray. But there have been real questions raised in recent years over whether intelligence has been politicized in this last administration.
EVANINA: Yeah. I think it's a fair question. I think our nation is hyperpolarized. And I think that's - you know, we can't deny that. There's not one person in America who could say something authoritatively that more than 50% of the people will believe. And that's part of the problem, so even when intelligence is put forth, there's going to be a group of people who aren't going to agree with that. And I think we're going to have to find leadership that gets us off of that train that's going in the wrong direction.
But from my perspective, Mary Louise, I'm a career intelligence professional who ended up being confirmed by the Senate as a political appointee. And I was never pressured to skew, change a statement or look in a different direction. And I made that very clear that I would resign if that ever happened. And I can speak for myself. That did not happen to me, and I did not see that around my ecosystem.
KELLY: That is Bill Evanina. He is, for one more week, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
I wish you the best of luck in your next chapter.
EVANINA: Thank you, Mary Louise, and thanks for the opportunity. It's been a pleasure working with you over the years.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.