News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former Russia Adviser On Massive Cyberattack On Government Agencies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate. Those are the words of Thomas Bossert, who advised both President George W. Bush and President Donald Trump on homeland security. Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney compared it to Russian bombers flying undetected over our entire country. Both men, of course, are talking about the massive cyberattack believed to have been perpetuated by Russia on scores of U.S. government and private networks. The attack went undetected for months.

Well, let's bring in Fiona Hill. She has spent her career studying Russia. She served until last year as President Trump's most senior Russia adviser on the National Security Council.

Fiona Hill, hey there. Welcome back.

FIONA HILL: Oh, thanks so much, Mary Louise. Thanks.

KELLY: Start with something you just heard me say, that this breach is believed to have been perpetuated by Russia. Is there any reason to believe this was anyone other than Russia?

HILL: No, I don't think so, I mean, given the number of private sector entities, the amount of government entities who have attributed it to Russia. There's also, you know, longstanding hallmarks of a Russian operation that many of them are very familiar with. I mean, people have been on the lookout for these kinds of attacks. And obviously, you know, they've discovered one. And this is - they've been able to do all the forensics. So I don't think there's any reason to question it.

KELLY: When you say they're hallmarks that seem familiar to the way Russian hackers do their work, like what?

HILL: Yes, certainly having worked with many of the people who have been looking at this, cybersecurity experts - you know, they're very familiar with the telltale signs that Russians and other actors leave behind.

KELLY: You'll have seen President Trump's tweet raising the possibility that this was China. Is it possible this was China?

HILL: Well, China has certainly done actions on this kind of scale. A few years ago, we had a Chinese hack, which, of course, exfiltrated all kinds of data out of U.S. government systems, including the personal data of many of the people who had filled out security clearances and full-time, part-time employees of the government.

KELLY: But you're saying the signature on this one appears to be consistent with Russia?

HILL: Exactly. So, I mean, the fact that he's saying, well, China, you know, could have done this, well, China could have done an operation on this scale, but I don't think there's any question that this is Russia.

KELLY: As someone who has advised President Trump, why, in your view, is he so resistant to blaming Russia or confronting Russia?

HILL: I'm afraid to say that there's a very personal element to this. President Trump has been fixated on President Putin for some considerable period of time. It's President Putin's style of governance. It's his seemingly unchecked power. It's the way that he presents himself personally as a leader. I think that there's a lot that Trump admires in Putin's style. And I think he finds it extraordinarily hard because he was convinced that they had personal chemistry to think that Putin would do something like this on his watch.

I mean, I think we've seen that President Trump is the same person in private and public who takes everything very personally, who believes very much in his own personal charisma, his own personal role. And he's become personally invested in Vladimir Putin as a result of thinking that they have a relationship. And he's lost sight, unfortunately, then, of the national security perspective of all of this. And I think that's one of the reasons why he's both in denial to himself and has said very little about this.

KELLY: How did this happen? I mean, understanding you're out of government now, but do you think the U.S. was asleep at the wheel, distracted by the pandemic, the election, other things?

HILL: Well, look; I think all of these things are issues. I think part of it is also a problem when your team is getting undermined. And we were also in the midst of an election, of course, in which we were extraordinarily worried about a repeat performance of 2016, a hack of the election. But I think as a result of that, we put a lot of resources onto this. I mean, I can't say for sure because, I mean, I know that we have an awful lot of very technically capable, hardworking people across the entire system. But it was certainly the case that we were being pushed to look in one particular area.

And then the other point is, as well, that the president has actually undermined the intelligence community at every turn. He's been, you know, pitted against them since very much the beginning of his presidency and indeed has been putting political loyalists in place essentially to investigate the intelligence community. He's also sacked so many cabinet members and senior people in the key places that one would want to see pulling together as a cohesive team to tackle this kind of issue. And he's been at odds with other branches of government. Congress haven't been, you know, pulling together with either the executive branch of the departments of agencies either. This takes a whole-of-government effort and a whole-of-society effort.

KELLY: May I say, I've interviewed you now a number of times, Fiona Hill. I have never heard you speak so openly - in such an openly critical way of the administration you served. Has something changed?

HILL: No, I think that really what we've had is more of an accumulation of facts to basically point out to people. I mean, what I've been trying to do all along, including last year when I was testifying, is trying not to politicize everything.

KELLY: You're talking about in the impeachment inquiry. Go on.

HILL: That is correct, because this is actually part of our problem. When we politicize Russia and we get into partisan fights, this is exactly when we lay ourselves vulnerable. And the whole message that I've been trying to get across is we need to pull together. You know, I think, you know, part of the problem for many of the people have been trying to speak out like myself at earlier times, is, you know, you're painted as a disgruntled employee, as somebody with an agenda. Well, speaking out as a political act doesn't have to be partisan. You have to speak out on behalf of the country. And I think at this kind of stage, it should be inescapable to everyone about, you know, our failure to tackle COVID, our failure to get ahead of this kind of hack, our failure, frankly, to be able to hand off the presidency in a smooth fashion.

President Trump is already talking about massive demonstrations on the streets of Washington, D.C., on January 6 and talking in the language of in another country, in another setting, that people would say, hey, he's trying to basically instigate a coup. So, I mean, I think at this point, if the larger population has not quite got the message, then I feel like I've got to speak out a bit more strongly.

KELLY: That is Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution. She served as director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council in the Trump administration.

Great to speak with you, as always. Thank you.

HILL: Thank you, Mary Louise. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EIK OCTOBRE SONG, "RAPID EYE MOVEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.