A Conversation With Chairman Adam Schiff
Adam Schiff discusses the foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States today, including China’s use of artificial intelligence and surveillance, as well as tensions with Iran and North Korea. Additionally, Schiff offers his thoughts on how the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence can effectively conduct oversight of the Administration’s foreign policies.
FEIST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Chairman Adam Schiff. I’m Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN.
A reminder: today’s meeting is on the record.
First, a little bit about our guest, Congressman Schiff. He has represented California’s Tenth Congressional District since 2001. He represents much of Los Angeles, including Hollywood, Pasadena. Since January, of course, he has served as the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Before joining the Congress, Congressman Schiff was a member of the California legislature, served for six years as an assistant United States attorney.
Congressman Schiff, welcome back to the Council, glad to have you here today.
SCHIFF: Thank you.
FEIST: There is a lot going on in the world and a lot going on with the intelligence committee, so before we start our conversation, I thought I’d give you a few minutes to offer your thoughts about the state of the world. (Laughter.)
SCHIFF: OK, well, the state of the world is in perfect harmony. (Laughter.) Things are pretty good, and there’s really nothing much to talk about today.
FEIST: All right, then that wraps this—(laughter)—meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.
SCHIFF: You know, I thought—we were talking backstage about what I might start out with as a few comments, so let me start out by telling you about a hearing that we’re going to have next week in the intel committee on the subject of deep fakes. This is that fairly new technology that allows you to create very realistic audio or video that is almost indistinguishable from the real but that is completely forged.
And I guess to go back and explain why this is of great interest and concern to the intel committee, I would take you back to 2016 as we were watching the Russians in real time dumping these documents that they had hacked from the DNC and the DCCC. The predominant concern that I had at the time was that they were going to start dumping forgeries among the real documents. It would have been very easy to do to take a real email between two real Clinton campaign workers and insert a completely fraudulent paragraph suggesting that the campaign was engaged in illegality.
You can imagine how incendiary that would be and how nearly impossible it would be to disprove the accuracy of that forged email. After all, these two people existed, you could corroborate other things in the emails, and in a highly polarized environment, you can imagine just how disruptive that would be.
Well, that capability for disruption—and by the way, as far as we could tell, the vast majority of what the Russians dumped were authentic—stolen, yes, but authentic documents. There was nothing to prevent them from escalating the last time; there is nothing to prevent them from escalating the next time. And the most severe escalation might be the introduction of a deep fake—a video of one of the candidates saying something they never said. And you can just see what that would play out like, how you would have good experts who might be willing to make public testimony that, after analyzing this and using the strongest AI, they determined that in fact this video of Joe Biden, or this video of Bernie Sanders, or whoever, was in fact a forgery because, if you look at the way they blink, or if you analyze their speech pattern or how their face moves when they speak, it’s inconsistent with how the real person does it—how on other channels they would say exactly the opposite thing. And the public would be left to doubt.
Psychologists will tell you, though, even beyond that—even when you are persuaded that what you have seen is not real, the damage is already done to some degree. You will never completely shed the negative lingering impression you have, which is why it was so disturbing to see, a week or two ago, this doctored video of Nancy Pelosi, this video that was slowed down but also made realistic—not simply just slowing down the speed to make it look as if she were slurring her words, or drunk, or impaired in some way, and why, when the president pushed this out and continues to push it out on his Twitter account, we are on such treacherous ground.
That was what’s called a cheap fake; very easy to make, very simple to make, real content just doctored. But if you look back at how impactful the Mitt Romney videotape about the 47 percent was, you could imagine how a videotape that is more incendiary could be election-altering. And this may be the future we are heading into, and when you combine that with the fact that we already have a president of the United States who says the things that are real—like the Access Hollywood tape—are fake, and things that are fake—like the Pelosi tape—he pushes out as real; when he has a presidential lawyer saying truth isn’t truth, and a spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, saying they are entitled to their own alternate facts. And then there is what Sarah Huckabee Sanders does every day—(laughter)—we are in an environment where the truth is under assault. And in that context there is what’s called the “liar’s dividend,” meaning that people that are lying all the time or lying part of the time can hide behind the fact that nobody can tell anymore what is really true. And I can’t imagine anything more corrosive to a democracy than an environment in which no one can tell what is true anymore, and you simply retreat to your tribe and view everything as true or false depending on what party you belong to or what group you belong to.
And so we are going to be exploring that next week, but this is I think one of the technologies on the horizon—it’s really already here. It’s a race between the AI to create them and the AI to detect them, but it’s something that we’re certainly going to be paying attention to, and all will need to be aware of.
FEIST: Congressman, we’ll try to make our way around the world over the course of the next hour and give our members a chance to ask some questions as well. But let’s start there.
Why now? Why are you focusing on deep fakes now? Photoshop has been around for a long, long time—you know, the ability to fake an email or fake a photograph is not new. Perhaps the technology on videos is a little different, but why now?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, it’s interesting because when we began our investigation of what the Russians did in our election a couple of years ago, we were really an unlikely venue in the intel committee to be looking at the impact of social media. And of course we were focused really on social media manipulation by a hostile foreign power. But it revealed to us a lot of the dynamics within social media; how falsehoods travel so much faster than truths, how bad actors—either foreign or domestic—could really manipulate public opinion.
And now we see that capability is only expanding. It would be very easy to introduce a doctored video that could have a very sizeable impact anonymously at various places around the globe at one time. And whoever introduced it would always have some level of plausible deniability, and probably far greater deniability than what the Mueller report was able to show about the Russian origin of the social media troll farm in St. Petersburg.
I have to think while the Russians have kept their St. Petersburg troll farm going for whatever reason, they and other bad actors around the world are sophisticated to know that they can use any number of other actors that are much more easily concealed for the introduction of videos like this or audio.
It’s not just, though, the Russians. Other countries may have an interest in provoking racial violence and can concoct videos that could be so incendiary as to cause rioting, and by the time it’s revealed that it’s a forgery, the violence has already occurred. And as—part of what the Russians have tried to do is not just interfere in our election, but rather turn Americans against other Americans. Having this powerful new tool is, I think, an additional weapon they can utilize.
FEIST: So is your hope to raise awareness so that people will begin—will question—stress test, if you will, things that they see, or is there a solution to—a technical solution to trying to ferret this out, or is it both?
SCHIFF: It’s both. We’re going to have experts that will shed light on the state of the technology, the efforts to develop AI that can detect, which are in a race with the AI to produce even better fakes. But I think we are going to have to be much more skeptical as consumers of what we see through social media. And even that, though, is such an imperfect answer, because it means when things that are out there that are true, it’s going to be more difficult to divine or demonstrate or recognize the truth when we see it.
I don’t know the answer to this. I do think that a lot of what we’re seeing at home and around the globe is the product of two revolutions going on at the same time—a revolution in the economy with globalization and automation that is hugely disruptive, that is causing great anxiety, and that kind of economic anxiety often is reflected in the form of xenophobic populism, and at the same time a revolution in communication not unlike the invention of the printing press, except for we had hundreds of years to get used to that innovation.
We’re having to get used to this one overnight. And I think it’s going to take us years and years to figure out, you know, how do we rely on what we see, and do we need to go far more back to trusted sources? But how do you do that in a world in which now most people get their news through social media?
FEIST: I recommend CNN as a trusted source. (Laughter.) That’d be a good start.
You mentioned the Russia investigation. Let’s do a couple of questions about that, and then we’ll go to some of the hot spots around the world.
So we learned from James Comey’s testimony before Congress that the FBI had started a counterintelligence investigation. This is distinguished from a criminal investigation that Robert Mueller continued.
Do you know what happened to that? What’s the status of that counterintelligence investigation? You’re the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. I presume you would be aware of such things.
SCHIFF: You know, that’s a very good question. And we have not been able to get a clear answer yet from the intelligence community or the FBI as to whether that investigation is still open, whether that investigation mushroomed into a set of other counterintelligence investigations, whether it was closed at some point. And it’s troubling that we can’t get a straight answer to that question. But we are trying, and we will get an answer to it.
I can tell you also that we will be doing a series of hearings—and we had one a few weeks ago—but we’ll be doing a series of hearings in the Intel Committee on volume one of the Mueller report. And I think probably the first that we will do will focus on the counterintelligence investigation, where we’ll have experts to help shed light on what is a counterintelligence investigation.
What does it mean that this began as a CIA investigation, not as a criminal probe? And what is the FBI process? And is there a formal process to open or close such an investigation? And what does it mean when Mueller in his report says that there were CIA agents embedded in his team, sending reports back to headquarters? And what are the implications of a presidential candidate seeking to make money in the capital of a hostile foreign power during the campaign and lying about it? And why would that be a counterintelligence concern for the FBI and for the country? We’ll be exploring all these issues.
FEIST: So what can you imagine you would get out of a counterintelligence investigation that we didn’t get from Robert Mueller’s team’s investigation that concluded beyond any doubt that Russia had attempted to interfere in our elections? I mean, we had a four-hundred-page report. What is it that a CIA investigation would do that was different than him?
SCHIFF: Well, a great deal. This began as an investigation through the FBI, primarily focused on whether U.S. persons were acting as witting or unwitting agents of a foreign power. Now, that kind of activity may be criminal or it may not be criminal.
Ultimately Bob Mueller interpreted his charter in a very narrow way, and that was to explore the Russians’ use of social media, to explore the Russian hacking-and-dumping operation, and to determine whether there was a criminal conspiracy, whether he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt each of the elements of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians in one or the other. And then that led to an investigation of obstruction of justice.
When you confine yourself to two criminal issues—the criminality around the hacking-and-dumping operation and the criminality around the social-media operation—it leaves a whole range of conduct that is less than criminal, or criminal as to other things, out.
You know, the one example of a clear counterintelligence issue that may not be criminal was, in fact, discussed, because it was looked at through the prism of both conspiracy and obstruction, and that was the Moscow Trump Tower. Moscow Trump Tower may not have been a crime for the president to seek to make that money during the campaign, to lie to the country about it.
And, in fact, a year after that effort ended, in the middle of 2017, when it was discovered that this had gone on much longer than the president had said and that Michael Cohen had testified before our committee that it didn’t end before the Iowa caucuses, that it continued at least until June of the election year, when the president was first confronted about this, his comments were quite telling.
And it’s fascinating, because the president dissembles so often that every now and then he’ll say something completely transparent, I think mostly because he doesn’t realize how damning it is. But in this circumstance, he said, well, first of all, it’s not a crime. But second, I might have lost the election. And why should I miss out on all those opportunities? That is, why should I miss out on all that money if I was going to lose the election?
And that could be his attitude to this day; that is, he’s never given up hope of that deal that he’s wanted to make his whole life. That deal is, if Mueller’s correct, one that stood to make him hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially the most lucrative of his life. It may be his view today, hey, I might lose reelection. Why should I miss out on all that money? I’d be a damn fool to criticize Vladimir Putin, who holds the keys to whether that deal happens?
That is a counterintelligence problem on steroids. There may be any number of other counterintelligence problems that were identified during the course of the investigation. But because they didn’t go into a charging decision on the hacking operation or the social-media operation, they’re completely left out of the report. But we ought to know if there are steps that we need to take to protect the country.
FEIST: So you have made it clear—your colleagues, chairmen of other committees—made it clear that you’re not satisfied with the level of cooperation from the attorney general. A contempt-of-Congress citation may be coming soon for Attorney General Barr.
I want to ask you what that means. President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, was held in contempt of Congress for not cooperating with one of their investigations. At least that was the interpretation of the Republicans who controlled Congress then. What’s it mean to hold him in contempt of Congress, and how is this any different than what the Republican Congress did with Eric Holder?
SCHIFF: Yeah. Well, what the Republicans did with Eric Holder, first of all, was they held him in criminal contempt. And this is the problem with abusing the contempt power or abusing the investigative power of Congress. The contempt against Eric Holder was completely unjustified.
FEIST: Although I’m sure Republicans will say the exact same thing about contempt citation against Attorney General Barr.
SCHIFF: They will say that. But you would have to take a completely moral-equivalent view of things divorced of the facts—(laughter)—to believe that’s the case. And this is precisely the problem. When you have the abuse of a Benghazi investigation, it taints every other investigation. When you have the abuse of the contempt powers with Eric Holder, it taints any future application of it. And it gives way to those arguments, well, OK, you said this was unfair. And how can you disagree with the Republicans who say this is unfair? You have to look below the surface at the actual facts.
But nonetheless, they held him in criminal contempt. That resulted in a referral to the Justice Department, which, of course, went nowhere.
FEIST: I presume this one will also not go very far.
SCHIFF: If we pursue a criminal contempt, it would be referred to Bill Barr. And because Bill Barr doesn’t pay attention to the advice of ethics lawyers, he probably wouldn’t recuse himself from that decision either. So obviously there would be little confidence that he would enforce his own contempt, or even delegate to others that decision. So it may be a civil contempt on the floor that is designed to allow us to bring court action to enforce the subpoenas.
But I do want to, before we move on from the subject of Barr and contempt, talk about, I think, the most grave concern I have about Bill Barr, and that is during his Senate testimony he opined that the president could have made the Mueller investigation go away any time he wanted because he thought it was unfair. That’s his view of the unitary executive. Under that view, a president is truly above the law because what president would not think an investigation against him or her was unfair? It also means that the president can make go away any of the investigations that were farmed out to any of the other elements of the Department of Justice. And because they’re stonewalling us on just about everything, it also means that we may not know, unless whistleblowers step forward, whether Bill Barr is abusing his authority even beyond the fundamental abuse by trying to exonerate the president on obstruction of justice.
And so we find ourselves, I think, for the first time with an attorney general who really is the president’s defense lawyer and spokesperson, and who’s quite good at it, and has the veneer of respectability to camouflage what he’s doing. He is not the sophist the Giuliani is. He’s much more dangerous. And I think he’s the second-most dangerous man in the country for that reason. When you listen to his interviews and you listen to the way he dissembles, when he was asked even on Fox News about, well, didn’t Don McGahn call for Mueller to be fired? His answer was no, no. He called for him to be removed. (Laughter.) As if that’s a distinction that really makes a difference here. When he was asked, well, you said that the president fully cooperated, but the president wouldn’t even sit down for an interview. No, no, I said the White House fully cooperated.
When you have an attorney general willing to dissemble that way, when you have an attorney general—and I hesitate to use the word, but there’s no other word that seems to apply here—that lies to Congress, as he did when Charlie Crist asked him about whether he was aware of these reservations that had been reported about the Mueller team, and he said that he was not. That’s a very dangerous situation. And as someone who came out of that department, I spent six years with the Justice Department and I venerate the department, to think that it is being led by someone this way, you know, breaks my heart for the department, but it’s profoundly concerning for the country.
FEIST: I want to shift gears a little bit, Congressman. I think it’s appropriate, we are here at the Council on Foreign Relations today on the thirtieth anniversary of the—of Tiananmen Square. And I know you’ve spoken out forcefully about China and the human rights record. Last night at 12:01 a.m. Beijing time the secretary of state put out a statement. Here’s—and I thought I’d read a little bit of what he said. Put out a statement and said: Over the decades that followed Tiananmen Square, the United States had hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. Those hopes have been dashed, he said—he write. China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests. Today, Chinese citizens have been subjected to a new wave of abuses, especially in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party leadership is methodically attempting to strangle the Uighur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith, including through the detention of more than a million members of Muslim minority groups. It was a tough statement. That statement sounds like it could have come from Adam Schiff.
SCHIFF: I was going to say this is a rare bit of agreement between the secretary and myself. I think that—and, actually, the very first hearing that we had on the Intel Committee when I became chair was not on Russia, or not on Russia alone, it was on the rise of authoritarianism around the world. And China’s a very dangerous and influential part of that trend. It’s certainly true that, you know, Russia has been undermining democracies in Europe and elsewhere. But China has been undermining democracy in a very different way. China’s been undermining democracy in a—in a powerful, technological way, with the promulgation of these so-called safe cities and the safe-city technology where CCTV cameras are ubiquitous. And Chinese citizens now are facially recognized by the software in these cameras. That ties into a database that includes information about their social scores, their credit history, their use of social media.
It is big brother come to life. And this is obviously not only a grave threat to the freedom and privacy of the Chinese people and their ability to associate or communicate their freedom, but it also—to the degree that China is now exporting this technology to other authoritarian countries—allows them to perpetuate their autocratic rule. And this, under the masquerade of safety and security. So I think that this is a very dangerous trend when you compare—when you consider the Chinese totalitarian model, and you consider the Russian autocratic model, and you consider that autocrats are on the rise around the world. It is threatening to freedom-loving people all over the globe, and ultimately is threatening to us here at home. And you would hope, and I’m encouraged by the secretary’s statement, but as we have seen from time to time the secretary speaks for himself, and the national security advisor speaks for himself, and the U.N. ambassador speaks for themselves, and the president speaks for himself. And they don’t often accord with each other.
Our president has more typically—and China may be the outlier—found common cause with the autocrats and little in common with fellow democrats around the world. So I fully concur with the secretary said in that statement. And I think this is a grave concern that we need to be paying attention to. And it’s certainly hugely consequential for the Uighurs, but consequential for hundreds of millions of other citizens of China, and ultimately consequential for people around the world.
FEIST: What levers do you think the United States should use—should be using to try to impact China’s human rights record?
SCHIFF: Well, it has to be part of the agenda. And, you know, apart from the statement on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, I’m not sure how much of this is actually on the agenda when we meet and talk with our Chinese counterparts. I’d be very surprised if any language like that is ever expressed by the secretary in his meetings with his Chinese counterparts, or by the president for that matter. And this doesn’t go unnoticed around the world. When the president calls Putin to congratulate him on an election, in which his opponent was effectively not allowed to run, and congratulates Erdogan on flawed elections in Turkey, or al-Sisi in Egypt, it sends a very clear message that human rights and democracy are really not even on the agenda. And so I think it has to be a priority in our meetings, our conversations, our interactions. I think we have to continue to press the issue. And I also think we need to do a far better job fighting back around the globe as China tries to export this technology.
I’m always struck when we have hearings in our committee on China, and we’ve been doing a deep dive on China in the Intel Committee. I would say that we spend more time focused on China just about anywhere else. You know, but for the Russian investigation, it would be more time than anywhere else. I’m continually struck by the fact that when we look at what China’s doing investing in its military, what China’s doing with its Belt and Road Initiative, and what China’s doing in terms of its diplomatic effort, as well as development assistance, what it’s doing in investment in R&D and technology, that you would think by comparison we’re a poor, impoverished country that can’t keep up with these Chinese investments. But we spend far more than China on defense, we just spend it very differently. And I really think that China is a very worthy rival. And we need to be rethinking how we’re spending our resources.
There’s no reason why China ought to be outspending us in development assistance or its Belt and Road Initiative. There’s no reason why it ought to be, you know, locking up mineral rights around the world while we sit on the sidelines. And, you know, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we’re still fighting the last war, and we’re not really investing the nation’s resource wisely to counter not just, you know, Chinese influence around the world, but most perniciously the export of these authoritarian ideas as well as technologies. The final thing I’ll say is, you know, China really has challenged one concept that I think we believed in, and maybe it was the failure of hope to triumph over experience, but the idea that with prosperity came liberalization, that you couldn’t maintain an authoritarian or totalitarian grip and have a robust economy, that the corruption that comes from state rule would inherently suppress economic growth.
But China’s found a way to grow and strengthen its grip on the lives of its people. So we cannot assume that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy anymore. And that, I think, ought to challenge us to think about more than laissez-faire in terms of how we deal with them.
FEIST: Well, to that end, the Trump administration has effectively banned Huawei technology to be used in the United States. The president says he is trying to get a fair trade deal with China, at the same time trying to force China to protect America’s intellectual property. Do you disagree with any of what the president’s doing along those lines?
SCHIFF: Well, I certainly agree with the strong steps taken against Huawei. And I certainly agree with taking strong steps to protect our intellectual property, and that many of the rules of the road in terms of our trade with China are deeply unfair. I don’t agree with much of anything about how the administration is trying to accomplish bringing about a fair trade situation with China, or protecting us from Chinese technologies that might threaten—
FEIST: Meaning the tariffs that the president has imposed? You don’t think that’s the proper approach?
SCHIFF: Well, meaning really across the whole board. And what I mean by that is if you look at Huawei, for example, the president announced very similar far-reaching sanctions on ZTE. Those lasted a week. And those were imposed on ZTE out of reasons of concern for privacy and espionage over the circumvention of sanctions on Iran and North Korea. They were announced with great fanfare. And then in a tweet, they were made to go away. There was never an explanation for why there was that complete and utter about-face. You know, there were reports at the same time that China had made a decision to invest half a billion in Trump-branded property in Indonesia, and maybe that was the reason. There was an effort to get China on board with North Korea sanctions, and maybe that was the reason. Who knows what the reason was?
But what we do know is that the president gave President Xi his top ask at the beginning of trade negotiations, which was relief for ZTE. Now, I don’t think, frankly, these security issues ought to be intermingled with the trade issues, because when they are it makes it look like it’s just protectionism. What’s being done to Huawei and what was done to ZTE is simply protectionism—when it’s not. At least, it shouldn’t be. And so I certainly don’t agree what they did to ZTE, or how they did it with ZTE, which remains a concern. But it has caused me, and I’m sure the Chinese and others, to wonder: Is he going to similarly cave on Huawei as part of the trade talks? And what’s more—
FEIST: Do you think he will?
SCHIFF: Honestly, I have no idea. I hope not. But I have no idea. You know, I will say this, I have the conviction, sadly, that as we get closer to 2020 and as his desperation for something he can call a victory with China becomes all the greater, he will sacrifice anything and everything he needs—including our security vis-à-vis Huawei, or anything else. So there will be a deal before 2020, even if it means he completely gives away the farm. And it will just be the usual kind of marketing ploy about how this is the greatest deal since sliced bread.
So—but there are real trade inequities with China that we ought to be pressing. But we ought to do it in a logical and rational way, which is anything but what’s happening. You know, I’ll give you a perfect illustration. I was in Seattle some months ago and talked with Amazon about China. Amazon’s competitor is able to freely operate in the United States. Amazon is not able to freely operate in China. Now, why we would allow that kind of situation to persist, I don’t know. That is a very clear-cut double standard that we ought to insist on equality of treatment. And we would be on very solid ground. But in the—in the haphazard way that we’ve been slapping tariffs here and there, and the Chinese have been responding, it’s hard to make heads or tails out of what the strategy is, except that it is very idiosyncratic, very kind of temperamentally motivated, and headed to a very inconclusive result.
FEIST: All right. I’d like to invite our members to join the conversation and to ask a question. Please raise your hand, state your name and affiliation, and remember these are questions, not comments. The best way to know it’s a question is to make sure your sentence ends with a question mark. (Laughter.) So we’ll start right over here. Yes, ma’am, in the second row.
Q: Thank you for making time to be with us this morning. Maureen Farrell from Department of Defense.
Wondering if you could project a little bit about the future of congressional oversight of intel vice defense, as things seem to be merging in some spaces—some arenas, such as the space domain. Thank you.
SCHIFF: Well, you know, I’ll give you the good news/bad news in terms of oversight within our committee. The good news is that, notwithstanding our differences over Russia, which have been substantial obviously, we’ve been able to do all of our other oversight in a completely nonpartisan way. And that’s been true through the worst of things. And so we’ve been able to pass our annual intel authorization bills that, you know, look at our overhead architecture, look at the defense intelligence issues, look at human intelligence, and signals intelligence, and allocate the budget among the agencies, make sure that we have protections for privacy. And we’ve been able to get all that done and pass these bills out with enormous bipartisan support and get them passed in the house. For all of our dysfunction, there’s only one committee and one house that’s been able to pass an intel authorization every year, and that’s ours.
Now, you’ve seen our differences on Russia. They’re profound, and I won’t sugarcoat them, although I have to say that even on Russia, we wrote—the ranking member and I—two bipartisan letters to the Justice Department demanding the full report, unredacted, as well as underlying documents and counterintelligence and foreign intelligence information. And the Justice Department has started to provide some of the materials that we’ve asked for on a rolling basis. So we have reached a tentative agreement with the Justice Department, which they have already begun to make production. We hope that that will continue. But we I think have been able to do very effective oversight of the areas you mentioned.
And obviously there are—you know, that’s another area of tremendous challenge in terms of Chinese competition. And, you know, one of the real fundamental aspects of that challenge is, in terms of our overhead architecture, it’s far more cost-effective to disable overhead architecture than it is to build and launch. And there aren’t a lot of great and easy answers to that dilemma. But I think our oversight in going on well on those issues.
FEIST: Right here on the front row, yes.
Q: Thanks, Sam. Jon Alterman, CSIS.
Mr. Chairman, when I was in college the threat to the United States came also from Moscow, but it was a nuclear threat. And I’m sure you read many of the same books I did about a whole doctrine of nuclear deterrence. When you talk about the cyber realm, do you think cyber activities can be deterred? And if so, what would a doctrine of cyber deterrence look like?
SCHIFF: It’s a great question. And, you know, one of the profound distinctions between the nuclear confrontation and Cold War is that you had pretty good certainty, if it ever came to that, of knowing where the nuclear missile came from. Cyberattacks will always have some measure of deniability, which makes them very attractive. It’s probably the most asymmetric of all battlefields. And I remember during the Obama administration when the North Koreans attacked Sony. And I take a particular interest in that because I represent Hollywood, quite literally. Hollywood is in my district. And if the North Koreans were willing to attack us over a bad movie, then—(laughter)—you know, what else might they be willing to attack us with? And I urge the Obama administration to react strongly and establish a deterrent, because it was quite clear that if we didn’t we were going to see a lot more of this, and not just by the North Koreans.
I don’t think they responded strongly enough to North Korea. And I remember at the time the lights were flickering on Pyongyang and going out, and people wondered: Is that our response? You couldn’t tell, because the lights were always flickering and going on in Pyongyang. (Laughter.) But if you can’t tell, it’s not much of a deterrent. And—
FEIST: Do you think it was our response?
SCHIFF: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. But I think that the concern in the administration was that if there were a cyber response to North Korea and North Korea escalated, that we stood more to lose than they did. Even though their capabilities were much more primitive than ours, we’re much more vulnerable, given how plugged in we are.
My argument to the administration, though, was you don’t have to respond in a cyber way. The South Koreans, when they’re attacked even with artillery by the North, don’t always respond with artillery. They often respond with information. They turn the loudspeakers up. They tell North Koreans what a despotic regime they live under and how the Kims are starving their own people to feed a nuclear program that’s making them less safe.
And my argument to the administration at the time was let’s respond with information. And I think that would cause Kim to have to think, do I want to go through this again if I hack into some other American company? We didn’t do anything like that. I think it was a mistake. I think maybe the Russians were watching as this went on and realized, OK, this is more or less an area where there’s little risk of repercussion.
So what can be done to establish a deterrent? There are any number of ways that we can respond when we’re attacked in the cyber realm, and some of those may take cyber form. You know, we discussed, when the Russians were hacking our democratic institutions, do we want to hack back? Do we want to release Putin’s finances or where he’s hidden his billions or—and there’s obviously a concern with then getting into a hack for hack. So maybe there are better ways to respond to a Russian cyberattack.
Certainly sanctions was one of the courses that we chose, and sanctions are a very powerful deterrent for Russia. I mean, the only thing Putin really fears is not losing a democratic election, because they’re not democratic anymore, but he does fear the capacity of people gathering in massive numbers to displace even their autocratic rule. And what drives people to the streets potentially is a deterioration of their economic well-being, which is, I think, one of the reasons why sanctions hit so much close to home with Moscow. And I don’t think the sanctions that we implemented were strong enough. And I think when we back off sanctions on Rusal and Deripaska and what not, it sends exactly the wrong message.
It also sends exactly the wrong message when the president gets off the phone with Vladimir Putin and tells him he thinks this whole thing is a hoax. I mean, it’s like telling the guy who was just arrested for burglarizing your home, in front of the police, that you think it’s a hoax, that nobody, in fact, even burglarized your home, or if they did, it wasn’t the guy in the orange suit.
And I think that communicates to Putin the exact opposite of deterrent. It basically tells Putin, if you want to get involved in our next elections, go right ahead. This American president is too weak to ever call you out on it. And what’s more, he may be grateful. And so I think we’ve established exactly the opposite of deterrence.
I do think, at the individual agency level, people are doing the best they can. And we’re certainly, in the intel community, keeping close eye on Russian plans and intentions, as well as the plans and intentions of others. But what should be happening is the president of the United States should be going around his Cabinet asking the secretary of defense, I want you to develop for me a proportionate response to every form that we can anticipate of Russian cyber interference.
If they continue the same kind of low to mid-level social-media interference that we’re seeing now, and has never stopped, what should our response be? If they escalate with hacking again, what should our response be? If they escalate with deep fakes, what should our response be? And Secretary of State, what have you told Lavrov or others about the kind of sanctions they’re going to see if they screw with us again? Because it’s going to be like nothing they’ve ever seen before.
I mean, those things can be a deterrent. I don’t think it’s happening, at least certainly not to the degree it should be. But there are lots of ways that we could be deterring malevolent action. And, you know, we should be looking at a menu of options, and we should be looking at them now. And we should be interacting and sending that deterrent message ASAP.
FEIST: What are you most worried about the Russians doing in the 2020 election, if anything? What’s the thing that keeps you the most awake at night?
SCHIFF: You know, I think—I guess what has me the most concerned at the moment is they don’t have to be so overt next time with hacking and dumping. That can too easily be traced back.
You know, one of the things that was a deterrent, frankly, were the two indictments that the Mueller team returned, because it told the Russians we’re pretty damn good at attribution. We know what your monthly budget was in your internet research agency. We know private emails from some of your workers. We know what your chain of command was. We know what subdivisions within the GRU or what not are involved in these things.
I’m sure when those indictments dropped, there were jaws dropping in Moscow as well about just how much we knew. So the Russians may feel that if they’re too overt about it, the risk of blowback is simply too great. But there are other ways to have potentially even bigger impact than hacking and dumping. And I think, you know, the introduction of these deep fakes, fairly anonymously through third parties, in remote parts of the world, once they’re introduced into the social-media ecosystem from wherever that would take place, it could be hugely disruptive and hugely influential.
So I guess I would consider that one of the more profound risks right now that the Russians decide not to be in your face about this but to be just as disruptive in ways that are subject to greater deniability.
FEIST: Question from this side of the room. Yes, sir. Just wait for the microphone, please.
Q: Jim Pardew.
To me one of the great holes in the Mueller report is the failure to look at money. He doesn’t address potential Russian contributions to the campaign or to the Trump family. What is the House going to do to give some priority to the investigation of the Russian use of financing to undermine our democracy?
SCHIFF: Well, this has been a concern that I’ve had for quite some time, because it certainly appeared to me over the last couple of years that Mueller was not following the money. And, you know, it was my view and it remains my view that the scope of what he was given to do allowed him to follow the money. But whether he made the decision or Rod Rosenstein made it for him that that charter should be viewed narrowly and it didn’t include looking at the issue of money laundering, I don’t know. It’s one of the questions I would like to ask him.
But there’s no indication at all in the report that that’s something Mueller looked at. And I think it would be negligent for us not to. If the financial leverage that the Russians hold over the president is not just the dangling of Moscow Trump Tower but that they’ve been doing business with him for years and laundering money through the business, that could be equally or more compromising since that would be criminal activity.
Now, I don’t know that to be the case. And maybe when we research this, we’ll find it’s not the case. But we have already begun that investigation, and we’re already in litigation over Deutsche Bank and other financial records. And because this president has chosen to be so opaque about his financial interests, I think we have to look into this prudently.
So we’re trying to follow the money. And so far the court opinions have been enormously positive in the two cases that have gone to opinion so far, in the Deutsche Bank litigation as well as the (measures?) accounting litigation. The courts not only made short shrift of the Trump administration’s arguments. It was basically the sort of legal-opinion equivalent of, you know, get out of here and don’t let the courthouse doors hit you on the back side on the way out. They didn’t even find serious legal questions raised by the Trump lawyers.
And so, you know, I think the Trump lawyers are sophisticated enough to know they have no legal argument. But they feel as long as they can draw this out, as long as they can stall this, they can push this possibly beyond 2020. They’ll delay it as long as possible. But the courts seem more than aware of this and are moving with all speed to resolve these questions, which I think is very positive.
FEIST: Yes, sir. Wait for the microphone. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates.
As a former prosecutor myself, I’m delighted that somebody like you, with your skills, is in the job that you have.
My question is this: What are the Trump-supporter responses to the Russian election interference? Is it, well, it happened on Obama’s watch and Obama didn’t do enough to stop it? Now it has been reported that the heads of the intelligence agencies in the summer of 2016 came up and briefed the Gang of Eight on what they were discovering and wanted to go public with what they were discovering about the Russian interference, and particularly, connections to the Trump campaign. It has also been reported that Mitch McConnell said, no, if you do that, we’ll call that as a political foul. Don’t do that.
Now you were a member of the Gang of Eight. Can you shed any light on that?
SCHIFF: Well, I can’t discuss what took place at any of the Gang of Eight meetings, but I—you know, I can say a few things. First—and I said this at the time as well as afterward—I don’t think the Obama administration was as aggressive in real time as they should have been. And in fact, in the summer of 2016 while we were watching the hacking and dumping operation go on, Senator Feinstein and I were deeply concerned about what we were seeing, and we urged the intelligence community and the administration to make public attribution of what the Russians were doing, call them out on it.
And I think there was a great concern within the administration that if they did that, that they would appear to be interfering in the election, that it would play into the narrative that the Trump campaign wanted to claim that the process was rigged somehow.
That never resonated with me—that argument, and I thought it far more deleterious that we knew this was going on, and we were not pointing it out to the American people. And what? We were going to wait until after the election to tell them that a foreign power was interfering? I thought we ought to trust the American people with what to do with that information.
But we were not making sufficient headway fast enough, and Senator Feinstein and I took the unusual step of issuing our own statement of attribution, and did so on the basis of the information we were being provided. And we wanted to say so. And we had to vet our statement with the intelligence community. So it was a strange thing where the intelligence community was allowing us to say, on the basis of information that we were seeing, but was not making its own attribution. Now that was in the summer. They ultimately did make attribution before the election in a written statement signed by, I think, two of the intelligence agency heads, or one of the agency heads and the secretary of Homeland Security.
It was, of course, the day that the Access Hollywood tape came out and the day that the Podesta stuff started being dumped. And I think, the administration figures have since said, you know, that was really unfortunate timing. I don’t think that’s an adequate answer. If the attribution didn’t get sufficient attention, there were other ways to highlight the importance of what was going on. But I think what stayed their hand were those concerns over appearing to be meddling, and I think that was a mistake, and I’ve said that all along.
It is true also, though, that in terms of congressional recognition of what was going on, in terms of congressional outreach to the states to put them on notice, to urge their attention to the threat to their voting systems, that we could not get bipartisan support to do it except in a very milquetoast way that was in itself delayed.
And yes, McConnell was not willing to make the full-throated kind of appeal to the states that they pay serious attention to this, and so, you know, those kind of steps were left to Senator Feinstein and myself when what was really called for was strong, bipartisan statements out of Congress and a strong response out of the administration.
Of course none of that justifies the Trump campaign’s eagerness to get Russian help, the president’s open appeal to the Russians to hack his opponents’ emails, the degree to which they built the exploitation of that stolen information into their campaign plan. You know, they would like to lay the responsibility at the Obama administration, but they were thrilled to get Russian help and made no bones about it as the president’s own son said, when he was very explicitly offered, he would love to get that kind of help.
FEIST: Yes, ma’am, in the second row.
Q: Thanks very much. I’m Barbara Slavin. I run a program on Iran at the Atlantic Council.
I want to ask you about the intelligence on Iranian activities. How concerned are you about these purported threats? Do you trust the administration and the intelligence community to accurately portray this information? What is your belief on how it started? And what is your advice to the administration about avoiding a war with Iran?
SCHIFF: Thank you. Well, I think it’s certainly accurate and correct that the risk of conflict with Iran is greater now than it had been, and there is an increased risk and threat level as it pertains to U.S. forces or our allies. But I don’t view this as fundamentally an intelligence question. You know, on the intelligence community—committee, you know, we’re always thrilled when people are talking about the issue of intelligence, and want to ensure that the intelligence is sound, and that’s, you know, core to our responsibility.
But in this case it seems to me a distraction. Yes, the threat level is greater, but how did we get here? I mean, this was so eminently predictable. It’s like provoking someone and provoking someone, and then you are surprised when the intelligence tells you that they are inclined to provoke back. We should be surprised if the threat level hadn’t gone up, and when you look at the course of action over the last couple of years, it began with the president deeply upset that he had to certify that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal because they were. And to the credit of the intelligence agencies, they told the administration that Iran was complying.
I think through this all the intel community and intel leaders—and Dan Coats and Gina Haspel and others—have been very good about speaking truth to power. They tell us the plain scoop, and I think they share that with the administration also.
The problem isn’t with the intelligence or how it is being represented by the intelligence agencies, although there have been several occasions where the administration has been misrepresenting things about a whole host of issues. But the problem is that, unable to certify that Iran was falling out of compliance, the president ultimately decided, well, we’re just going to leave anyway. We’re going to renege on the treaty.
And of course, this also meant that we were the ones reneging on an international agreement—not Iran. It meant that, in future, other world powers were going to have to consider whether America keeps its word anymore or whether a treaty was only as good as the life of that administration. That’s really never been how we viewed treaties before; that a treaty dies when you change presidents.
But not content with leaving ourselves from the agreement, we have sought to get Europe to leave the agreement, and not content with trying to get Europe to leave the agreement through the revocation of waivers on oil sales, we’re trying to get Iran to leave the agreement. And I don’t really understand that. Where is that supposed to lead? I’ve never understood that. And I think it’s why, you know, even people that were opposed to the agreement from the beginning didn’t think we should renege on the agreement having entered into it.
You know, I keep on asking some of our foreign partners, and administration figures, and others, where is this supposed to lead? How is this supposed to make us more secure? I can never get an adequate answer to that. I mean, what’s—you know—you know, I represent Hollywood, so I often think in movie lines. And I’m reminded of Denzel saying, you know, explain this to me like I’m a six-year-old.
How is this supposed to make us more safe? What’s supposed to happen here? Do we really find it credible that Iran is going to come begging to renegotiate everything and give up everything? Is that plausible? And if it’s not plausible, then where are we headed? So, yes, those actions—the labeling of the IRGC as a terrorist organization—were going to predictively lead to a situation of much greater likelihood of conflict, and they have.
Now, don’t get me wrong; Iran is a uniquely malevolent actor. They continue to sponsor terror. They are responsible for terrible violence and death in places like Yemen and Syria and elsewhere. And so they are a grave threat to the region and to ourselves.
But I think, you know, it was entirely predictable that we would get to the point where we are today. You know, I’m glad that the administration seems to be taking its foot off the pedal and maybe easing away from some of these tensions. But to me, the question of whether the intelligence really shows an increased thereat level is far less the issue than how did we get here and how do we avoid taking steps that just increase the likelihood of conflict even more.
FEIST: So today we end on Iran. That brings us to the end of our conversation. I want to thank you all for joining us, both members here in the room and those watching around the country. And thank you, Congressman Schiff, for your time today. (Applause.)
SCHIFF: Thank you. (Applause.)
FEIST: Thanks very much.