Sen. Mazie Hirono addressed America's top intelligence official and asked what would seem to be a simple question: When it comes to U.S. cyber policy, especially as it relates to deterring Russian interference operations, who's in charge?
Beyond the Department of Homeland Security's primary role in defending the election process, Hirono (D-HI) asked, "Who's in the lead to bring everyone together? Somebody has to take the lead... Noting also that the 2018 elections are right around the corner, why do we not have a whole-of-government strategy already in place?"
Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence and the man overseeing America's 17 intelligence agencies, faltered as he began his answer before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, but ended it with painful clarity:
Lawmakers have long bemoaned the lack of U.S. strategy when it comes to deterring Russia in the digital space, but Coats' admission is startling because it suggests the U.S. government -- two years after it became aware of the influence operations -- hasn't even designated a point person or agency to lead on how best to respond.
The same appears to go for broader U.S. cyber security policy as well. Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked Coats if he'd seen any progress in the formulation of that policy over the last few years and added, "who is heading it up?"
"There's no -- it is a whole-of-government effort," Coats said. "There is White House involvement as well as agencies involvement. But in specific answer to your question, I don't think progress has been made quick enough to put us in a position where we have a firm policy and understanding, not only ourselves but what our adversaries know relative to how we're going to deal with this. It's a dicey issue."
A frustrated Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said later that the "whole of government" approach he keeps hearing about seems to him to have become a catchphrase for "someone else's job."
Coats appeared to express some frustration with lawmakers who have been turning their ire on him and his intelligence community colleagues and pointed out that taking new action is a "policy decision." His mandate, he said, is to provide intelligence to policy-makers -- meaning the White House and Congress.
"Each agency is well-aware of the need... to do this," Coats said earlier in his exchange with Hirono. "But as I did say, one coherent strategy, worked between the executive branch and the congressional branch has not been put in place yet."
So what has the White House done? Coats assured lawmakers that the White House "has been engaged on this."
At one point he said that Trump told the intelligence community leaders that he assumes they're "doing [their] jobs" when it comes to cyber threats, but later Coats had to clarify that in that case Trump was not specifically talking about the cyber threat from Russia.
As to a broader cyber doctrine from the White House, Coats said that there are "ongoing discussions" about it, but he said he could not provide lawmakers with a "specific date" for when that would be ready.
"I can only say that we will continue to provide as much information and intelligence that we can gather to the policy-makers so they can make this decision," Coats said.
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