National Security

Summer at Aspen: Aspen Security Forum

October 1, 2017  • Douglas Farrar

The Aspen Security Forum remains the leading venue for US national security policymakers and experts to discuss the most critical threats of the day. This year, the conversation exposed unusual divisions between the US president and his own security and intelligence community.

Afghanistan policy, cybersecurity, and Russian hacking were among the many topics covered during three and a half summer days in Aspen, when experts grappled with the increasingly diverse and complex geopolitical threats facing the United States at home and abroad. Speakers at the 2017 Aspen Security Forum included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Thomas Bossert, US Cyber Command Commander and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and then–Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who kicked off the event in an interview with NBC’s Pete Williams.

Kelly, who shortly after speaking was named the White House chief of staff, strongly defended the Trump administration’s support for a laptop ban on airplanes. He argued that smart, sophisticated people out in the world are spending their time thinking about how to blow up planes in flight. He added that government tests show that one way to do it is with laptop-sized explosive devices.

Weeks before it was announced, Dunford illuminated the new administration policy on Afghanistan in a conversation with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “We should only provide more capability on the ground if it’s in the context of a broader strategy that has a chance of being successful,” he said. “The purpose of those additional forces would be to train Afghan security forces who are actually the ones responsible for security and the ones fighting every day.”

What was remarkable about this year’s forum was the degree to which administration officials, when asked pointed questions by moderators, had answers that appeared to diverge with the views of their boss, the mercurial Donald Trump.

Aspen Security Forum attendees were alarmed by both the complexity and difficulty of the threat environment.

The president has repeatedly questioned the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Russians conducted cyber-attacks against the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. But Pompeo declared the Russians to be a dangerous adversary that required a strong response. He appeared frustrated at having to answer for the president’s tweets. “Just look, this is the 19th time you all have asked,” he said. “I’m happy to answer for the 20th time. It’s quite easy: I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election as is the entire intelligence community, yes.”

Coats agreed that the intelligence community was unanimous in its assessment of Russian hacking, saying, “There was no dissent, and I have stated that publicly.”

Bossert went even further. When asked if the Russians had paid a big enough price for their intervention in the 2016 election, he said: “They’re not paying anything. It’s a very cheap exercise [cyber-attacks] for them and a very high reward, and so no.” Bossert also announced a preliminary vision of a cybersecurity deterrence policy whereby the United States and its allies would pursue sanctions against countries conducting offensive cyber-attacks. Once a set of standards on cyberattacks has been formulated, Bossert suggested, any country in violation of those norms would then face further sanctions from a bilateral or multilateral group of nations. “That’s not just blocking somebody’s bank account,” he said. “That’s blocking their ability to do business in other banks in countries that do dollar-denominated transactions.”

Many former administration officials were more unsparing and, at times, searing when it came to the new president and national security. Former CIA Director John Brennan urged members of Congress to take action against the administration should Trump fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. “I really hope that our members of Congress, elected representatives, are going to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,'” he said. “Stop making apologies and excuses for things that are happening that really flout our system of laws and government.”

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if he thought Trump took the threat of Russia seriously. “It’s hard to tell,” Clapper said. “I sometimes wonder whether what he’s about is Making Russia Great Again. I really wonder about that sometimes, whether he does take it as seriously as clearly I think Dan Coats and Mike Pompeo both do. And that’s a real concern.”

Clapper’s sentiments served as a metaphor for this Security Forum. At many points, the usual conversations on the robustness of US security policy and evaluations of foreign threats were eclipsed by the Trump-Russia investigation, which found its way into nearly every panel. Attendees were certainly heartened by hearing from the thoughtful and competent senior government officials dedicated to keeping us safe. Yet they might also have been alarmed by both the complexity and difficulty of the threat environment—and the policy decisions and rhetoric from the White House. With the blistering pace of change in the national security environment, next year’s forum, from July 18 to 21, promises to be even more fascinating.