Everyone in the room sat up straight as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell read the latest tweet from the White House out loud. Following what Donald Trump referred to as the “great success” of the Helsinki summit, he had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington in the fall. That’s when every eye and camera turned to Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence. Coats paused. With a knowing smile he asked, “Say that again?” The tension broke, and the audience burst into laughter. “That’s going to be special,” he added.
The clip went viral. This year’s Aspen Security Forum was full of moments like this. For three and a half days, national security experts made headlines as they discussed the power dynamics driving many of today’s global conflicts. The forum was broadcast by outlets across the political spectrum in the United States and around the world. Reporters jostled for standing-room-only spots to hear speakers such as Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Commander of US Cyber Command and Director of the National Security Agency Paul Nakasone, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Director Wray’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt kicked off the event. Holt asked him to clarify his reaction to Putin’s denials of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
“The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed,” Wray said. “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.” He expressed concern that the public’s exclusive focus on Russia is distracting it from cyber threats from other nations, particularly China—America’s most challenging threat, Wray said, because of the volume and scale of its intelligence operations.
Cyber threats are the focus of the Department of Justice’s new Cyber-Digital Task Force, and at the forum, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein took the stage to formally issue the task force’s report. It evaluates the department’s work in detecting, deterring, and disrupting threats, and it details how hostile foreign influence operations have been used to target US democratic processes—including elections.
“These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, they are meant to undermine democracy on a daily basis regardless of whether it is election time or not,” Rosenstein said. He told the audience not to underestimate US law enforcement’s ability to fight back. Manipulating elections, he warned, will lead to investigations, indictments, and sanctions.
Although Trump and Kim Jong Un are currently on polite terms, denuclearization talks with North Korea have become stagnant. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, stressed that now is the time to put maximum pressure on the regime. “No power wants to give up nuclear weapons unless they feel self-preservation is at risk,” he said, adding that he believes both sanctions and the threat of a military option should be in play.
Panelists at the forum also assessed security challenges created by immigration. Secretary of Homeland Security Nielsen faced tough questions from NBC’s Peter Alexander regarding the administration’s policy on separating families at the US-Mexico border. Nielsen denied that family separation was a result of the zero-tolerance policy for illegal migration, saying that she too wants to protect the thousands of children in the Department of Homeland Security’s care.
“We have to make sure that the system allows us to keep children and families together,” she said. “Right now, under the law and court cases, we cannot do that.” It was a startling claim given that, until this administration, the United States has historically kept families together. Congress and the White House should work in tandem, Nielsen said, to address the “push factors” of immigration.
Government policies were not the only ones under the microscope at the forum. Representatives from Facebook defended the company’s decision to allow content from Infowars and Holocaust deniers to permeate users’ newsfeeds. “We do not generally remove content just because it is factually inaccurate,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy and counterterrorism, said. In the weeks after the forum, however, Facebook decided to remove the Infowars pages for violating its graphic-violence and hate-speech policies.
In the wake of the last presidential election, tech companies have been asked to help protect democratic processes. Bickert announced that Facebook is shielding its users against disinformation by deploying artificial-intelligence tools that detect fake accounts. Tom Burt, the vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, revealed that the company had recently worked with law enforcement to foil a Russian attempt to hack the campaigns of three candidates running for office in the midterm elections.
Today’s threat environment is so complex, the government can’t handle it alone. Tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft are going to have to work more closely with government agencies if the United States wants to combat the full range of online attacks. General Nakasone emphasized the significance of the government’s relationships with allies in industry and academia. “Whether it’s in the information sphere, the economic sphere, the military sphere, we have to address our adversaries with the combined weight of what we have,” he said. The Aspen Security Forum provides a space for these partnerships to form and flourish. And the conversations will continue at next year’s forum, from July 17 to 20, 2019.
As Institute CEO Dan Porterfield noted, the Aspen Security Forum showcases “concentrated, candid, principled, nonpartisan, and patriotic commentary on all of our national security threats.”