A Conversation with Richard Burr
This is the keynote session of the Hacked Elections, Online Influence Operations, and the Threat to Democracy symposium.
This symposium convenes policymakers, business executives, and other opinion leaders for a candid analysis of the cybersecurity threat to democracies, particularly to the election systems themselves and the subsequent attempts to shape the public debate through disinformation and online commentary.
SANGER: Well, Senator, thank you for joining us.
To all of those of who are now well-fed and back in the room, I’m David Sanger from The New York Times.
And I’d like to welcome Senator Richard Burr for—to the keynote of this—it’s been a fascinating morning, a discussion of Russia, the election interference, but also broader cyber issues. And we’re very glad that you’ve come here to the Council to talk to us.
BURR: Delighted to be here, David. And good to see you. I question the meal part. It didn’t look like it was substantial enough, but—(laughter)—that hopefully will keep you from sleeping through this part of it.
SANGER: It’s the Council. We’re on a tight budget, that’s right.
So, for those of you who don’t know, Senator Burr is in his third term, senator from North Carolina. I haven’t sorted out whether you’re in the Duke-rooting side of the state or the University of North Carolina-rooting side of the state.
BURR: Whichever one wins. (Laughter.)
SANGER: OK. It’s probably a good sign for what we’re going to be discussing for the rest of the day.
He is, of course, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And for his sins as becoming the chairman, he is now managing the most complex, the most politically charged, and I would say probably the most important Senate investigation run in at least a generation, maybe two. And it’s not every day that a senator gets to run an investigation where there are disclosures happening every day on the front pages of the newspapers, there is a parallel criminal investigation underway, and where the president from his own party gets to declare on Twitter every few days that the entire investigation is part of a witch hunt. So that gives you a—gives you a sense.
BURR: Yeah, nor can I ever remember an investigation that every news article that’s written had no named sources in it—(laughter)—which is a—which is a fascinating—to me, it’s a fascinating thing that should take journalism schools and turn them on their head a little bit.
SANGER: I think that’s—that is almost certainly true, but I also think it’s true that the news that’s been produced on this, while certainly there have been some errors along the way, we’ve actually seen some significant leads in the investigation broken by news organizations, whether they were anonymous sources or not, which has made this to be, you know, an added complexity of this entire thing.
BURR: And that was—David, it wasn’t a critical statement.
BURR: It was a statement that will come out to—for you to better understand as I talk about a complexity of an investigation like this. Certain things happen. And it forces you in a certain direction.
And to some degree, my concern long-term is that if we get too accustomed to unnamed sources, that that will be the predominance of what’s out there. And I only ask you to look at what we’re going through right now with members of Congress on sexual harassment, many of which probably have every reason to be concerned and should rethink their profession and rethink decisions they’ve made. I firmly believe that some people will be captured in this that aren’t guilty of something because the way the stampede starts. And it doesn’t necessarily stop until innocent people are stepped on. So I use that as a—as a relative example.
SANGER: Oh, it’s an interesting one.
I’ll tell you how the next hour will lay out. The Senator and I are going to talk for about 30 minutes. And then we’re going to open it up to questions from all of you. We’re on the record, so no—there may be anonymous sources in this investigation, but not today.
So let me start, Senator, with this—just sort of more of a historical look at this. Your committee’s main responsibility is oversight of the intelligence community. You could argue that the failure to see this coming was among the biggest intelligence failures that the United States has suffered in recent times. There’s an argument about whether we had strategic warning this was coming or whether there was tactical warning, but certainly there were large elements of this—especially the social media part—that we never heard about. In fact, when you go back—I looked before you were coming at the—as I was preparing for this—at the national threat assessments that you get each year.
In 2007, cyber wasn’t mentioned at all. It started to be mentioned. It’s been the number one for the past four or five years. The weaponization of information warfare has been many of them, interestingly enough. And then, of course, that’s part of what it is that you’re doing. So start by telling us, if you can, do you view this as a significant intelligence failure? And how does that figure into what you’re planning to do with your report?
BURR: Well, let me say this: I don’t see this as an intelligence failure. I think the intelligence that we had on an ongoing basis should have required us to ask more questions and to look a little deeper. Did we have an imagination that was wide enough to say cyber is probably the number-one threat, therefore since technology is the tool that they’ve chosen and default to, should we look at technology as the easiest way for them to penetrate and influence the American electorate? We should have looked no further than the news outlets that are controlled by the Kremlin—RT and Sputnik—and extrapolated from that we needed to look at those avenues that reached the masses in America that are not traditional media outlets. We didn’t do that. And I think, as evidenced, so were the social media platforms caught flat-footed.
I’m not as concerned with looking back on it and trying to understand where we should have seen the red flag in responding. I am very conscious of the fact that we need to look forward and, if we can, look around the corner. Try to figure out how not just Russia but others will exploit the ability to create chaos in our society, to potentially influence one’s views as it relates to elections. Might even be a tool of nation-states that want to buy interest in U.S. companies and choose initially to use social media platforms to drive the price down before they make the acquisition. So this expands to a much greater breadth than I think any of us ever envisioned. This is not limited just to elections, it’s not limited to Russia. It is now a tool that’s available for any country potentially to use as long as they have innovation and they have capital, and we continue to export that daily.
SANGER: Just one more on this question of whether or not there was intelligence failure or not. So you sit in a lot of public hearings, but you sit in far more closed hearings. If you think about the years leading up to the 2016 election, in many of those hearings, especially the closed hearings, you spend an enormous amount of time on our cyber capabilities, both offensive and defensive. Was there any prolonged discussion of either the question of whether the Russians would take techniques that they had used, successfully in some cases, in Ukraine, in the Baltics, and bring them here? And was there discussion about the social media risk? Do you remember those coming up very much prior to the election?
BURR: David, two distinctly different questions. I believe that the intelligence community as a whole saw in real time Russia’s efforts at disinformation in the United States. The mere recognition of that has to be followed by some type of policy action, and I think both the intelligence community and the Hill were anxious for nine months of the last administration to see the leadership guidance that was needed to exercise different policy towards individuals that carried this out.
In the case of ‘16, we were focused significantly on Russia and Russia’s intentions as it related to our election cycle, but I could have made the same case in ‘16 that this was about another nation-state’s—or multiple nation-states’ efforts to hack our critical infrastructure, to steal personal data, to target U.S.—the whole of USG, and I think in all cases the—Russia’s intent for the election and other nation-states’ targeting of all of those areas of public and private entities, we had no response. And I think the investigation will be limited to the previous administration’s response or lack thereof as it related to Russia’s intent in ’16 to our election process. But from a committee standpoint, we are very focused on what we need to do going forward on the whole issue of cyber and where technology drives this.
SANGER: So on the deterrent side of that, it—you could argue the Obama administration underreacted. They said they had very clear reasons for not wanting to react prior to the election. We could debate whether those were good or bad, but this wasn’t the first time the Russians had come into the United States, so were the hacks on the State Department, the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Black Energy, which was inside our electric grid, and yet in most of those cases you didn’t see the administration, the intelligence community, the State Department nor the White House coming out in public and naming the Russians or naming other actors, with the exception of Sony and North Korea, and imposing a cost for that.
So do you think the administration, do you think the Congress has basically done too little to create a price here for cyber actors in general, and might the Russians have been less willing to go into the election hacks had they paid a price?
BURR: Well, let me say this, that I think the committee’s role is to assess what we did or didn’t do, and to make from that recommendations as to hopefully how we change our policies going forward. So I don’t think you’ll see in our final report us arguing one side or the other or whether we should have or shouldn’t have.
I think to believe that Russia has changed since the Cold War is just an absolute myth. How can this happen today? It’s almost like Vladimir Putin is a KGB officer. (Laughter.)
I think we believe that as we change and we accept different practices, that everybody else does. And as it relates to Russia, they still believe that if it’s bad for the United States, it has to be good for us. So, when you look at the magnitude of it, and you say for them to go onto social media, and to take two opposing groups and to set up a rally for both sides of the same issue on the same day at the same location, so that the media shot that night will be the video of two groups confronting themselves and create the perception of chaos in the United States, someone will rationalize that and say, well, how did that impact the election? They don’t care. It’s projecting chaos inside the United States that provides them the vacuum to do other things.
So, as a committee, I’m less concerned with what chaos they’re up to. I want to limit through policy the tools that they can use.
And let me just say, because I said this in the public hearing, which we’ve had—11?—11 of this year, and I think everybody was worried I would have none. If I could have gotten away with none, make no mistake, I would have done none. (Laughter.) But I’ve had 11 because there was value to what we did for the American people, and that’s my threshold. If the American people can learn something that can be shared publicly, then I make every attempt to try to do that. But from a standpoint of companies, companies have to take some individual responsibility for the protection of the system we allow to have in this country. And in the absence of that individual responsibility by each company, then you only leave it up to us.
Now, look at the makeup of Congress. Do you really want to leave technology decisions up to the group that I serve with? (Laughter.) I mean, at 7:00 at night a lot of my colleagues are in their pajamas watching “Hollywood Squares.” (Laughter.) So—
SANGER: We hope. (Laughs.)
BURR: So they’re not necessarily the one that you want out counseling you on the next iPhone that you buy. But by the same standpoint, the same education you’re going through, we have to take policymakers through it. And I can only tell you this, that I can’t come up with a solution to end cyber unless I have help from tech companies, because they’re the ones that are innovating in the space.
And, David, let me just take a moment of personal privilege. If you think you’ve seen technologies at a pace that you never dreamed, you just haven’t looked at the next 10 years. My dad, bless his heart, died three years ago. He was 90 years old. He’d lived a fruitful life. And I remember the day before he died he was still lucid, and I said, “Dad, is there anything you regret?” Now, he was born in ’21. He served in the Second World War. He listened to the news on the radio. He watched the news on the TV. He actually had a cellphone and he used it before he died. And he looked up and me and he said, “Yeah, I’m going to die and never figure out how a fax machine works.” (Laughter.) Now, to him, because of when he grew up, he was more concerned with how it worked than what it did. And in a cellphone he could envision that somehow, some way you could talk in one side and you can hear the voice on the other. Maybe it’s the can and the string theory. But he never could figure out how you put a piece of paper in and on the other side you pulled a piece of paper out.
And I would only tell you that we’re hung up in the United States because we always ask how it works. When David lays his phone down here, if you’re over 50 you look at it and say: How does it work? And if you’re under 50, you look at it and say: What else will it do? Now, understand, from a policymaker’s standpoint, I have to bring those two generations together, because the over 50 controls capital and the under 50 controls innovation. One without the other is no good.
The unique thing about where we are—and this is why I’m driving the committee so hard on technology and cyber and all of these issues—is that over the next 10 years what you’ve seen emerge over the last 30 years will be dwarfed in comparison to what you see over the next 10 years. By 2020, you won’t fill out an application for patent protection of a technology because the year and a half it takes the patent office to approve it, your technology’s going to be obsolete.
My point is, we don’t have the time then to be going through the discussions that we have today about what are we going to do to Russia, what are we going to do to China, what are we going to do to this, because their level of innovation will be on the same pace, if not greater, than ours. If anything, our architecture of government slows down the deployment of technology in this country, where they have no architectural impediments to rolling out technology, whether that’s in the military complex that they have or whether it’s in the private sector complex. They compete just like that.
We’ve got a tremendous amount of self-imposed impediments that are going to stand in our way from us fully deploying technology. That will put us at a distinct disadvantage, I think. Or, if we begin to handle some of the policy issues, it can put us in the driver’s seat for the next 50 years. This all plays into intelligence as well.
SANGER: Absolutely. And that’s going to—in some ways, going to be some of the most interesting parts of the report as you make your way through what we were prepared for and what wasn’t. A few political questions for you, Senator. I was hoping that you may be able to take on this. You described before a Russia that, as you said, hadn’t really emerged from the Cold War.
And I hear that from many of your colleagues, Democrats and Republicans now. In fact, we hear it from everybody in the political spectrum, except the president himself. He’ll talk about North Korea as a threat. He’ll talk about Iran as a threat. He’ll talk about terrorism as a threat. He’ll talk about cyber as a threat, as I discussed with him at some length in the foreign policy interviews leading up to—in the campaign that Maggie Haberman and I did with him. But not Russia. Why not?
BURR: Well, I could probably make the case that there are other countries, North Korea—
SANGER: I say, he talked about North Korea and Iran frequently, yeah.
BURR: Those seem to be the two hotbeds in the world right now from a standpoint of less than perfect relationships that we have. The president said when he ran, and I think he practiced in business, the ability to go to a table and the person across the table not to have a clue as to where he’s coming from. And I think in many cases that’s his art of negotiating. I think he’s continued that in his role as president. It is uncomfortable sometimes for members of Congress. It is uncomfortable sometimes for the American people. It is his style. I don’t think it’s going to change. At the end of the day, he will be judged, just like every president is, by what they say in the books that they write after you’re gone.
It has also been amazing to me as I search out, like you do, David. I search out individuals that have been in certain fields for a long time, negotiated deals with North Korea in the past, and sat down with them and said: What do you think about the president’s North Korea strategy right now? And was amazed that many that I respect said: I can’t disagree with it. So I think that there is a—it’s almost a sport of public criticism towards how he does. But when you get in—but when you down to the content of what he does, what I’m finding is that people who I would perceive as subject experts don’t have too much critical to say about the content of what he does.
SANGER: So you’re saying the substance is better than the noise around it?
BURR: And the noise around it—I’ve said this to reporters on the Hill because they come to me with every tweet. I don’t tweet. They still haven’t learned I don’t read them, whether it’s my wife’s or the president’s. (Laughter.) But my comment to them is—
SANGER: I’m trying to figure out which of those two could get you in more trouble. (Laughter.)
BURR: That’s an open question.
SANGER: Yeah. (Laughs.)
BURR: But my point to them is this. As long as you cover it, he’s going to continue to do it, because in his world, when you control every segment of the news, why would you ever give that up? And sometimes it’s a little more outlandish than the last time. But when it dominates the news cycle for the next 60 minutes—and we are a world where, relative to news, we’re broken down to every 60 minutes and every show needs a highlight the next 60 minutes.
Do understand, there’s a generation coming behind us that is not on a 60-minute cycle. They are on an instantaneous cycle. Their news goes to them instantaneously on their devices. They are not programmed to watch the 6:30 news at night. They’re not programmed to watch the news every hour on cable. They get it. They don’t fact-check very much, but they get it. And they make decisions based upon what they get.
Shouldn’t be a shock to us they buy the same way. Think about this statistic just real quick. By 2026—50 percent of the 16-year-olds that turn 16 after 2020 will never have a driver’s license and never own a car. We’re seeing generational change in habits that makes the description that I gave you of my father look normal.
You—David, my point is this. You have to look at all of this in the same bucket to try to figure out what are the right policies in the future.
SANGER: Well, building on this thought the president has not said very much about Russia, the central mystery that it strikes me that you’re trying to grapple with within the investigation is this. What might the president be so worried about that he denied contacts with the Russians? Remember, it was only in February we were told there were no contacts between the campaign, transition, with the Russians, and then denounced the attempts to go investigate those contacts, to the point that we read that he asked you to wrap this up very quickly.
Have you uncovered anything that would explain why it is that he was so intent on denying those contacts and so determined to have the investigations end quickly?
BURR: Let me say this, that when we complete our investigation, we intend to have this thorough report shared with the American people as we possibly can. And it will, I think, answer many of those questions. And I’m not going to cut the investigation short and make news on that today.
But I think it’s important to understand that if we were—if we were talking a year and a half ago, there’s nobody in this room that believed that the organization of their—of the Trump campaign was capable of collusion. Think about that statement. Up till about the first of October, there was nobody in America, including the president, that believed he was going to win.
So when you put things in those contexts—and that’s what we have to do when we go back and look at an investigation, because we’re trying to put our mindset in the same mindset that policymakers, election officials, foreign governments, were in at the time. You can’t do the investigation just looking through the rear-view mirror and taking today’s perspective. And we’re beginning to sort through all of that, some of which will probably be alarming and concerning. Some of it won’t play out to have the same impact that I think some stories have suggested. But I think what you can be assured of is that our review of that information will be as thorough as we possibly can do.
SANGER: Let me ask you a little bit about the broader Russia hacking. So it wasn’t just the Democratic targets, as you alluded to before, but a lot of government and non-government targets we’ve seen. And yet, the Russians do not appear to had much trouble penetrating American targets, and they’re the lead suspects in the Shadow Brokers and Vault 7 leaks, which were—you’ve read about pretty broadly in the—in the open press. These were the leaks that appear to have come out of the NSA and the CIA. So there’s a concern now—seems to be a growing concern that even our intelligence agencies can’t protect their most valuable secrets. Why do you think that is? What is it that has made the intelligence agencies themselves as vulnerable as every other group that you have talked about here?
BURR: Well, let me—let me bring up two things. When Amazon spends $2 billion a year to defend their cloud platform, which I believe is a(n) accurate number, and the U.S. government doesn’t spend anywhere near 2 billion (dollars)—200—2 billion (dollars) to defend its data, are we shocked that our data gets hacked? We shouldn’t be.
And then I’m going to—I’m going to read you a statement that was made, and I’m going to challenge you to tell me who said it. The quote is this: “It’s often difficult to determine the precise effects of Russian political influence activities. Typically, they seek to capitalize on existing sentiment within the countries, and cause and effect is hard to establish. Their resources do not guarantee success, but in a close election or legislative battle they could spell the difference. These activities are designed to exploit internal conflicts and doubts, in the expectations that these will tip public opinion and government policy.” Any clue as to who that was?
BURR: That was Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA Robert Gates, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the United States policy towards Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union in 1985. This isn’t new.
But I don’t think that we’ve kept Russia—and for those that truly do follow Russia—and by the way, I think I used Russia, and his actual quote has “Soviet,” but I thought I’d change that. (Laughter.) If we don’t keep them focused as the threat—there was once a time where 70 percent of the folks that worked in the intelligence agency were educated in Russian. Not the case today, as you can well imagine. We surge to where the greatest concern is. We forget the fact that some don’t diminish in the threat that they present to the country, and Russia happens to represent that.
SANGER: Let me ask you about two older Russian threats, and then we’re going to go out to the audience here. The North Koreans launched a pretty successful—appears to be successful at least long-running test last week—ran for more than 50 minutes—an ICBM that looked a lot like an old SS-18. It wasn’t quite that. When we looked at the engines that were on those, it looks to be the Russian RD-250 engines. Go way back to the ’60s, produced in Ukraine for many years when it was still part of Russia. Do you have any evidence or any reason to believe that Russia is now a or has been a significant supplier to the North Korean missile program that is occupying whatever waking hours you have that are not devoted to the current investigation?
BURR: Well, I think it’s safe to say that the stated U.S. government position is we want to disrupt, based on the sanctions, any technologies that would further their missile program, their ability to project a threat globally—not just to us, but around the world. Would it surprise me that Russia might attempt to provide products? No, that wouldn’t surprise me. I think that your reference to the similarities of a—of an ’80s-style power plant might be accurate. But I think that the one—the one mistake, I think, we would make is to say that North Korea on its own can’t innovate.
Remember, North Korea was one that hacked Sony. I think North Korea continues to carry out incredible cyber operations. They would probably be somewhere in the three to five category of globally who we’re most concerned with for cyber. So I don’t think you can look at the progress of the North Korean missile program and not think that that can be generated internally. So it may be that we’re no longer in a world where the sanctions have the same impact that they might have two years ago or 10 years ago. And this is something that policymakers have to put into their thought process as we determine what’s the way forward.
SANGER: And are the sanctions you passed recently being enforced, to your mind?
BURR: I think for the most part we keep a pretty good eye on sanctions. And I think we would all point to the obvious countries or specific areas where it might not be fully enforced, but sanctions are a significant tool that still does alter, in a fairly significant way, the actions of people like North Korea.
SANGER: Well, let’s go out to all of you. There are some microphones around. I’ll remind you that we are on the record. And I ask you just to keep your questions very short. Make sure they’re a question and not a lecture. And we’ll start with you, sir.
BURR: Nice (docks ?).
Q: (Laughs.) Thank you, Senator. Thank you both for the time. Adam Ghetti with Ionic Security.
Senator, you mentioned that by 2020, approximately, tech companies won’t file nearly as many tech patents because by the time it’ll take the patent office to evaluate them the technology will be outdated. So we look at a year and a half timeframe of technology refresh rates, and that we’re going to have 10 to 20 X the impact of technology the next 10 years we had in the last 30. How do you feel, from an intelligence perspective, that countries like China and Russia are investing on the orders of magnitude of 10 to 20 times the amount of capital into the research advancement for supercomputing and machine learning, while the U.S. is decreasing its overall support for those same things? And a case in point, organization that keeps track of the global supercomputers that are publicly known. And the last, however long that thing’s been around, China’s had, I think, a dozen on there, give or take. And in the last year they’ve put 41 up.
BURR: Well, one would be a general statement that I feel very confident about the level of investment we have in making sure that technologically we can compete globally with all of our adversaries. And that’s both from an economic standpoint and from a military standpoint. Let me just be real clear: If it takes 2 ½ years to procure a weapons system at the Department of Defense, and China can do it in 30 days, we will have a distinct disadvantage as you begin to roll in new technologies. So—
SANGER: Two and a half years at the Pentagon would be called record speed over there, right?
BURR: I’m trying to be diplomatic, since this is on the record. (Laughter.) But I think that gives you an example of what we’re up against. I think that—I don’t think that the whole of government understands the disruption that technology will play the next 10 years. Placement of data, systems, security within the systems, firewalls, where you actually do the computing, the sorting of data. And my hope is that we will see a much greater partnership between the private sector and USG going forward, because don’t have all the base strength. And we compete with the private sector for the talent that we have within the intelligence community, within the Defense Department, wherever. Nowhere else in the world—it’s all one. It’s shared. And that’s why you can look at somebody that works for a software company in Russia and automatically assume that because of the rules over there they practically work for the FSB.
SANGER: Over here.
BURR: I’m not suggesting that any U.S. tech companies become controlled by the federal government. I said partnership.
Q: Well, thanks. I actually wanted to follow up on that point. I’m Emelia Probasco with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.
Do you think that with this responsibility for the private sector and the implications of the technology for national security, that we should be sharing intelligence with them on a limited basis, or that there’s some other new relationship that we should have with these type companies to help prepare them for the implications of their technology?
BURR: That we, the U.S. government, should be sharing with the private sector? I think there’s a pretty good sharing relationship that exists today. And, you know, the one point I would make is that technology doesn’t affect just one thing. It’s going to affect everything. And if I looked at where the greatest impacts are, it’s probably not in the world I deal in every day. It’s probably in health care.
I mean, I could pick some sectors where technology is a potential game changer from a standpoint of—I’ll just make this statement. We had at least a six-month debate on the Affordable Care Act. I looked at technology not long ago that can be loaded in this phone, that probably will be approved by 2020, that will allow you to take a retinal scan from your phone, a breath analysis into the phone, a blood sample from not penetrating the skin, and send it to a lab where it will be tested against 49 biomarkers by 2020 that will give you a report within a matter of minutes or hours that tells you whether you have a disease or not.
The whole debate we had about where do you live based upon where is a doctor, where is a hospital, by 2020 it’s out the window. Technology is taking care of that. I’m not addressing the insurance side of it. I’m addressing how some of the issues that we were grappling with in this debate are off the deck.
SANGER: Right down here on the aisle.
Q: Joanne Young, law firm of Kirstein & Young.
How do you square the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has named our election process critical infrastructure with the fact that our election system is largely state and locally run? And what do you see the federal government’s role generally in the American election system, given the threat of cyberattacks?
BURR: I think it’s safe to say those secretaries of state or equivalent in 50 states took great offense at what they perceived as Homeland Security’s attempt to take over their election process in their states. And—
SANGER: Was it that, or was it—
BURR: I don’t think it was intended to be that, but I think that the interpretation was that, because we lacked the clarity in policy—now, I’m a little bit empathetic of Secretary Johnson’s role at the time that we never experienced anything like this. They were pressed for an answer, not only in putting together an intelligence report, the ICA, in 90 days, I think, but they were also impressed with trying to come back with things that assured the American people that the federal government was on top of it.
SANGER: You might explain to the group what the ICA stands for.
BURR: The ICA was the report that President Obama asked the intelligence community to put together on Russia’s involvement in our election cycle. It was briefed to the president and to the Congress in December. It was released publicly to the American people in January.
SANGER: And briefed to President Trump, who said—President-elect Trump—who said at the time he accepted the conclusions.
BURR: Correct. So, going forward, there are lessons learned that we’ve uncovered in the investigation. They weren’t difficult. A lot of notifications weren’t made to states where there was ongoing attempts by Russia to get into their data files.
Now, let me say emphatically, we have verified that there were no—there’s no election fraud. There’s no change of vote totals. But there were attempts to get into voter files for reasons that we don’t know. But our federal policy was that if the secretary state wasn’t cleared from a standpoint of security, then she couldn’t—she or he couldn’t be notified. So—
SANGER: Is that a problem with the clearance system, Senator, or is that the problem that we should have just declassified all this information right away and put it out there?
BURR: My take is we should have declassified the information and/or found somebody with a clearance status that we could have notified.
SANGER: Can you see any particular reason that information couldn’t have been made public? I mean, I had this push and pull with the Obama administration at the time. They were quite insistent it would remain classified. I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
BURR: In hindsight, I don’t think I see anything that declassified it wouldn’t—except that there were potentially sources and methods that might have jeopardized. And I—but I think there was a way for us to make notifications that might have sanitized it to a way that we could have declassified it. The fact is, David, we didn’t. And even in the intel authorization bill which we finished four or five months ago, we wrote a piece in there that instructed that every state would have somebody that was designated and cleared to be the recipient of notifications when this happens in the future. So there is a federal action.
The determination of how states run elections? States. That is their responsibility, and we don’t want to do anything to change that.
SANGER: Gentleman right here.
Q: Thank you. Thank you for your time, Senator. Kamal Lukovac (ph) from George Mason University.
I was just wondering, is committee concerned of less-capable countries, perhaps our allies, that are or could be targeted themselves, but are not capable of identifying or perhaps finding the results? Is the committee at this time concerned or aware of any Russian actions towards allies or friends that are going through election cycles before ours—our next one?
BURR: Yes. (Laughter.) I’ll look backwards: France, Germany, Montenegro, Netherlands. I could probably look forward. I think to believe that Russia’s not attempting in the United States to do things potentially for the ’18 cycle I think would be ignorant on our part.
SANGER: Have you seen any evidence on Capitol Hill among your colleagues, many of whom run for reelection I hear, that in fact there is continued Russian activity?
BURR: I think all of my colleagues probably are worried or should be worried about it. I think every state should be worried about it.
It is the committee’s intent to put out recommendations as part of our final or interim report. And David and I had a conversation before we came out, so let me—let me distinguish those for you. If we’re not to a point that we can write a final report with sufficient time for states to be able to handle their primaries this year, then we will probably make a joint decision to release our recommendations on election security by itself so that states can at least have the blueprint that we suggest. These are not necessarily initiatives that involve federal legislation or federal initiative.
I’d just give you one as an example. I couldn’t in good conscience tell any state that it would be wise in 2018 not to have a paper trail of the vote total. Now, that may only affect a couple of states, but with the limited amount that I know right now, I can’t go into 2018 and say that would be a wise thing for you to do, to give up on that ability to go back and check the accuracy of vote tallies.
So the things that we do, I don’t think you’re going to learn anything in there that you didn’t think yourself. They will be common sense. It’s just we’re adding a voice to the fact that there’s a sense of urgency to do it.
SANGER: And what’s your timeline for the rest of the report? So those—that would come out within the first quarter, I guess, because you’re heading into primary season and—
BURR: Well, if I—if I gave you that timeline, then you’d be the one journalist in the country that had this.
SANGER: Well—(laughter)—I can’t object to that. (Laughs.)
BURR: I will answer you the same way I answered the president. And you alluded to a statement that the president made to me, and I want to put that in context. That was in a telephone conversation that the president and I had last May. It wasn’t last week. The subject of the telephone call had nothing to do with the investigation. And as we concluded that conversation, in the only way he can do it, he says, hey, I hope you can finish this investigation as quickly as you can. And I responded: When we have interviewed everybody that needs to be interviewed, and we feel like we have answered every question that the committee jurisdictionally should, we will finish. And that’s the answer I’d give you, is that when I started in this we had a well-defined box of interests. And with every interview, there may have been another individual that was added. With every news story, there may have been another individual that was added. What really hurts is when they’re added, but they’re not relevant. (Laughter.) Because every individual that is added, it puts about three more weeks into an investigation, so that’s why it makes it difficult for me to look out.
I can tell you, with the known individuals, and we have interviewed well-over a hundred, I know exactly how many I’ve got on the deck to interview, I know how many interviews can be done in a week, in a month, so I could project today when I finish those and when we can begin to conclude and write a report. I can’t tell you how many people might get on the deck between now and that time that we didn’t know about.
SANGER: Well, you’ve had some put on the deck the other day by Special Counsel Mueller, because when he submitted the public documents on the plea deal that General Flynn signed, you saw stories immediately appearing, based on the plea deal, that said that he had consulted with other people about his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak. So I assume now you have to go back and, unless you had already, interview everybody who he might have been in contact with. And there were some public references in the indictment—in the statement of fact about who those might be.
BURR: When you’ve—when you’ve interviewed a hundred-plus people, you have probably captured a lot of folks that nobody in the room would think would be on that list. So I’m not sure that the special counsel’s actions brought any surprises to the committee. Again, we’ve been at this now for almost just over 11 months. And we have had unprecedented access to individuals and to intelligence, setting a precedent that has never been set in the history of this country.
And, you know, I see it bandied around in the media and I get it from people back at home about, how much is this costing us? We’ve done it with the same professional staff that is already hired by my committee. And that’s why we’re at 100-plus individuals that we’ve interviewed, well-more than any other committee. It’s because we were able to start on day one because they’re seasoned, professional staff that knew exactly what they were doing, knew exactly where to look, knew exactly what to ask. Had we turned outside and said let’s go get a basket of people to come in, I’m not sure I could have gotten them security clearance in 90 days, much less already have been in the interview mode. So I think we’ve made the right decision.
And again, I’m willing to let the American people judge the product that we come out with at the end of this. And I can assure you it’s not going to be something that I’m going to be able to influence because they will test it against the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and they will eventually test it against Bob Mueller’s independent counsel. So I have every reason to try to get this right.
SANGER: OK, let’s see, in the back corner right there.
Q: Senator, given—I’m Jack Janes from Johns Hopkins.
Given the last point that you just made, and given the fact that you said that the generation of 26 doesn’t fact check very much, how much confidence do you have that when this report comes out that it won’t be put into the tribal chemistry that we have in this country right now, that people will take whatever you say, with the clairvoyant and the rational presentation you just made, and run with it in two different directions? How much confidence do you have and how do we get out of this vicious circle that we’re in to begin with?
SANGER: Interesting question.
BURR: The short answer is I don’t have a lot of confidence. But what you’ve presented in your question is the challenge I accept for the product that we produce. Tribal atmosphere, I haven’t heard that one, I’m going to remember that, I wrote it down.
We’ve got a couple of routes we can go from the standpoint of a committee and that product that we end up with. I don’t think you can have political differences if your objective is to lay down the facts, and to let the American people see facts and come to their conclusion. So though I’m chairman, I do this with the support of all members, because that’s the way the Intelligence Committee always functions. There may be a point in time where I need to exercise the chair’s prerogative in moving forward. We’re not there for me to make a call because, I got to tell you, that Senator Warner and I and every member of the committee have worked together. If you were interviewed by this staff, you couldn’t pick out who was Republican and who was Democrat. And I know that because I’ve had individuals who have been interviewed who came up to me and told me that. Nor has any member participated in any of the private interviews.
So my point is this: We may be, when we conclude, in a situation where we don’t choose to have a committee vote on anything, where our intent is to lay the facts down. And if there’s a disagreement about how to interpret the facts, there may be a majority-minority views on the facts. But what I have said from day one to the staff and to all the members, there is no substitute for us verifying that what we’re putting down are facts.
SANGER: Well, one of your members, Angus King, said at a session I was at the other day that he thought you’d be able to get complete committee unity on what the Russians did, the timeline, even the recommendations going forward. He thought that the split would come on the question of was there collusion, was there conspiracy, was there any moment in which the president’s motives looked like they were to obstruct justice. Do you agree with him? Is that an area where you’re likely to go into disagreement?
BURR: Well, I think most Americans would probably agree with that. That’s the area where politics potentially could come into play. And last time I checked, this town was full of politics. So I expect it to continue. I think what we’ve tried to do is to leave politics out of it from the standpoint of the investigation. I can do that structurally. What I can’t leave out is politics as it relates to how the final facts are spun. So short of the committee having some disagreement on what we write, I’d rather not write anything. And if we do, I’d rather write it as this is the majority, this is in the minority. But here’s unanimous agreement on here are the facts. And if somebody wants to be influenced by either one of the reports, great. If they want to assess and come to their own conclusion based upon the facts, I need to provide them the opportunity to do that. And that’s what we’ll attempt to do.
SANGER: So we have just a few minutes left. So I’m going to take two or three questions together and we’ll let you pick which ones you actually want to answer. (Laughs.) A great Washington tradition.
We’ll start right here and then the gentleman right in front.
Q: Good to see you, sir. Thanks, again, for coming out. Dave Cooper (sp) with the ITEA (ph) company as well, from industry.
Sir, $6 billion to the cost of an aircraft carrier. We just established 2 billion—I’m sorry, 6 billion (dollars) for an aircraft carrier. Two billion (dollars) for Google to secure their environment. Why would we not put more money into creating that ecosystem? And then the second piece of that is can we bring in industry, defense contractors, into that ecosystem? There’s no way we can at all afford to, as companies, match what these threats are. And our supply chain seems to be—
BURR: When you say, bring the companies in, to the defense of the data?
Q: Possibly. If we’re going to create an ecosystem, say of 2 billion (dollars), why are we not actually bringing our contracting supply chain into that?
SANGER: That is one, and then, sir.
Q: Hi. Derek Johnson, Federal Computer Week.
Earlier you talked about wanting to look forward and, if possible, look around the corner when it comes to election cybersecurity. Some folks on the stage here before you talked about not wanting to get bogged down in the last war or the details and the tactics of the last war. My question is, and cognizant of the fact that the report is yet to come out, what is around the corner. What issues or problems or holes are out there that we are not discussing or talking about that you think will come into play over the next 10-year timespan that referenced?
SANGER: And we’re going to take one last one. It’s right there.
Q: Ben Deering, Department of Energy.
It’s been discussed earlier, and in many other forums, that maybe the U.S. government needs to establish a more credible cyber-deterrence policy. I was wondering, what are your thoughts on what the U.S. government can do to establish that? And what’s the role for Congress in that process? And I would only clarify that I don’t just mean responding to cyber events, what cyber means; using all tools at our disposal.
BURR: I’m going to wrap both of your questions into the second one and the third one, because cyber is the greatest threat. Now, I may be more concerned today about a potential North Korea action. But when I’m going to bed and I lay my head on the pillow, what am I thinking about? I’m thinking about cyber. I’m thinking about the vulnerabilities that it presents to us.
If I get the gist of where you’re going, Senator Feinstein and I have been focused on the cyber issue for three years, three or four years. I wish I could tell you today that I’ve come up with a legislative remedy to secure not just USG but secure personal data, regardless of whether it’s a target or wherever. I haven’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve come up with the belief that that can’t be done.
So our answer is a combination of moving data to the Cloud, riding on somebody else’s investment in security, private sector. So I’m looking at a public-private partnership with a—in a different way, understanding what we need to do in the future from a standpoint of where do you sort that data. Do you bring that data back down and sort it? Do you try to sort it up there? We’ve got to rethink the whole security of the connections.
Now, for those in business—and I’ve tested this on CEOs; it didn’t go over real well—I said if you’ll take every employee off of Internet connection and ask them to come to work and bring their iPad or their iPhone and do their personal shopping on that versus on your desktop computer, then I can cut out 80 percent of the risk of a cyber intrusion into your business, because I’ve cut down the number of portals that get outside. And without exception, every CEO has looked at me and said I can’t do that or I wouldn’t have any employees.
So you’ve got to understand where I start from. And I would imagine that if I went to agencies within the federal government, I would probably get the same answer. So if I can’t control the number of portals, then I’ve got to try to put together a partnership that controls where things are—where data is stored and how much is invested to protect it. And then we’ve got to rethink everything that we do with that data.
You know, I’ve given you a world that some of you sort of understand what I’m saying about technology and its disruption. But the one thing that everybody has to understand, it’s not just technology’s advancement that lets you have an autonomous car. It’s a meticulous commitment on the part of the companies that are doing the software of having people label the software.
Let me explain. It’s getting a map and teaching a computer what a tree is, what a pedestrian is, what a car is, what a hydrant is, what a curb is, what a line means. If not, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t learn this on its own. It’s able to learn once you’re able to label what it is it learns from.
There’s a step that we have yet to get to of though we have accomplished it on autonomous vehicles, we’ve got a long way to go on everything else. It’s estimated that there are 200,000 people in China—between 100,000 in the government complex and 100,000 in the private complex—that do nothing but label data, because until you label it, you can’t use it as a learning instrument for artificial intelligence. We’re nowhere near that.
So for the foreseeable future, cyber will continue to be the thing I most fear. And it’s primarily because everybody can innovate. Everybody has smart people, which means everybody can potentially look at us at their target. The reason that we prioritize, and the five that I would name at the top you would also name at the top, it’s because their capabilities are matched with their intent. Anybody below the line, they may have the capabilities, but the intent may not be there to penetrate the United States.
SANGER: And your five are Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and who did you leave out?
BURR: I’m going to leave out the last one, if I can.
SANGER: Well, Senator, when they designed this beautiful building here, they put a secret dungeon down underneath for moderators who run over time, and I’m trying to avoid being—joining their company. So I thank you very much for spending the time with us, for a fascinating discussion. I hope you come back for more.
BURR: Thank you, David. (Applause.)