The vice president delivered a fiery campaign-style cybersecurity speech at a Homeland Security cyber conference Tuesday. Here’s an explainer.
Vice President Mike Pence closed out the Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity conference in New York Tuesday with a campaign-style barn burner that made some big claims about the Trump administration’s cyber successes.
Pence’s address, which marked the highest profile executive branch cybersecurity speech since the Trump team took office, also savaged the Obama administration for “let[ting] the American people down when it came to cyber defense” and “all but neglect[ing] cybersecurity.”
In some cases, Pence gave a fair reading of the digital threat facing the nation and what the Trump team is doing about it. In other cases, the vice president shaded the truth or took credit for work that was already underway when Trump took office.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you, Secretary Nielsen. And thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership at the Department of Homeland Security. Would you all join me in thanking Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for her leadership and for bringing together this historic summit today? (Applause.)
To the Secretary and to Secretary Perry, Director Wray, Director Alles, to all the public servants that are gathered here, and to all the leaders of industry and academia who’ve come from near and far: It is my honor to welcome you all at the close of the events today at the first-ever National Cybersecurity Summit. Thank you all for being here today. (Applause.)
And I bring greetings and gratitude for your participation in this conference from a great champion of American security, President Donald Trump. I’m here today on behalf of the President because cybersecurity is a major focus of this administration.
President Donald Trump issued a cybersecurity executive order in May, 2017, that directed federal agencies to use a Commerce Department framework for information security protections and vowed that top officials would be held accountable for cyber insecurities. The administration also ordered up studies on combating botnets, boosting the cyber workforce and other issues.
The Homeland Security Department has also launched new efforts to improve supply chain cybersecurity and protect government email systems against spoofing and phishing attacks.
Over the last year, at the President’s direction, we’ve taken unprecedented action to strengthen our digital infrastructure and defenses because we know that cybersecurity has never been more important to the American people.
“Unprecedented” is a stretch. Several elements of the cyber executive order were new, but they mostly grew out of Obama administration efforts. The Homeland Security Department’s decision to ban the Russian anti-virus company Kaspersky from federal networks went beyond any Obama-era efforts in terms of singling out a specific private company as a digital threat. Obama officials had warned that Kaspersky posed a threat in public hearings, however, and Kaspersky was already scrubbed from national security networks.
America depends on the digital world more with every passing day, as all the industry leaders here know too well. It’s opened countless new doors of opportunity, created extraordinary new sources of prosperity, and unleashed a new era of entrepreneurship and innovation that has infused nearly every aspect of our lives and our society.
Yet while this revolution has spurred new opportunities, as you all have discussed here today, it has also spawned new threats.
Criminal terrorists, foreign adversaries constantly prowling this digital domain represent a threat to this nation. And America’s digital infrastructure is under constant cyberattack.
This is a little like warning of Ebola and toe stubbing in the same sentence. Terrorist groups have indeed tried to move the battle to cyberspace but with little effect.
The most significant cyber terrorism case to hit a U.S. courtroom was Ardit Ferizi, an ISIL-linked Kosovar hacker who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for releasing hacked personal information about U.S. military personnel. The information was so bland, though, that many cyber watchers initially speculated Ferizi merely claimed he’d hacked it and actually found it through public internet searches.
Nation states, such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, on the other hand, have breached numerous federal agencies, as well as U.S. critical infrastructure, such as energy plants and dams.
Cyber theorist Peter Singer put it this way in a memorable 2012 essay: “In many ways, cyber terrorism is like the Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week,’ when we obsess about shark attacks despite the fact that you are roughly 15,000 times more likely to be hurt or killed in an accident involving a toilet.”
ISIL and other terrorist groups have had significantly more success recruiting online, something Singer described in an email to Nextgov as “hacking ideas and people” rather than hacking networks.
The federal government alone experiences hundreds of thousands of digital assaults every day. And across the entire country, the number of attacks on our digital infrastructure is impossible to calculate. Our digital foes are targeting every facet of our society.
Pence is actually lowballing here, depending on your definition of “digital assault.” On an average day, the Pentagon alone repels about 36 million malicious emails, according to Defense Information Systems Agency operations director David Bennett.
They threaten our families’ privacy, like the hackers who breached the credit bureau Equifax last year and made off with the Social Security numbers and other personal information of nearly 150 million Americans.
They extort our hard-earned money, as we saw in the North Korean “WannaCry” attack that held more than 200,000 devices in 150 countries hostage, demanding a ransom.
Most experts believe the WannaCry attack was aimed more at wreaking havoc than at cashing in. The total take for the global malware attack was $140,000 in Bitcoin, hardly a handsome return on investment.
Foreign interests also routinely steal trade secrets from some of our most important industries. As our administration’s recent 301 trade investigation found, for many years, China has directed bureaucrats and businesses to find and steal our nation’s intellectual property and advanced technologies, especially those pertaining to our national defense.
There’s an interesting distinction here between intellectual property more broadly and in the national defense sector.
Former President Barack Obama reached an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 that neither country would hack the other country’s companies for purely commercial gain. This was after years of Chinese digital IP theft in major industry sectors.
The agreement did not address digital spying and IP theft that might prove commercially advantageous but also served some national security purpose – such as, say, stealing the plans for a sleek new fighter jet. That kind of hacking falls under the heading of traditional espionage and the U.S. does as much of it as any other nation.
Cybersecurity firms, including FireEye, have reported that Chinese commercial hacking decreased substantially after the 2015 deal, but it didn’t disappear entirely. After the agreement, however, the Obama administration dramatically stepped down its criticism of Chinese IP theft.
It’s not clear from the language of the U.S. Trade Representative report that Pence cites if the level of digital IP theft has increased since January, 2016, or if the Trump administration is gunning for a further reduction. Administration officials have declined to get into specifics about the issue.
Our cyber adversaries also seek to infiltrate our critical infrastructure, including our electrical grid, power stations, so that in some future conflict they might have the opportunity to shut down the nerve center of American energy and our national life.
The Homeland Security Department and FBI have warned specifically about “Russian government actions targeting U.S. government entities as well as organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.”
They also target our economy. A single Russian malware attack last year cost a major American shipping company roughly $400 million. And in 2016, cyberattacks, it is estimated, cost our economy as much as $109 billion.
The figure from a February report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates the cost between $57 billion and $109 billion.
Cyber attackers also go after government at every level, such as in March, when criminal hackers hobbled the city of Atlanta and crippled many basic services for several days.
And as the American people know all too well, our adversaries increasingly use the digital world to manipulate, to divide, to chip away at our most cherished values.
In the face of these threats, the American people demand, and deserve, the strongest possible defense. And we will give it to them. (Applause.)
But sadly, previous administrations have let the American people down when it came to cyber defense. At the outset of this administration, it became clear from early on: In a very real sense, we inherited a cyber crisis. The last administration all but neglected cybersecurity, even though the digital threats were growing more numerous and more dangerous by the day. In 2014, a foreign government actually hacked into the White House network itself, and yet, in the face of constant attacks like that, the last administration too often chose silence and paralysis over strength and action.
This section of the speech raised hackles among many cyber experts and former government officials who considered it both off-base and unnecessarily partisan.
Jason Healey, who worked on cyber in the George W. Bush White House, described it this way on Twitter:
Phil Reitinger, an Obama administration cyber lead at the Homeland Security Departmentnoted that cybersecurity has traditionally been a genuinely bipartisan issue, both in Congress and between administrations.
Most cyber experts and former officials describe cyber policy and operations as basically continuous through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations with the sense of focus and urgency increasing as the threat increased. This was particularly true during the Obama administration when the pace of major attacks rose dramatically.
But make no mistake about it: Those days are over. At President Trump’s direction, our administration has taken decisive action to fortify America’s cybersecurity capabilities. We’re also forging new partnerships, evidenced by this conference today, all across our society and also with state and local governments and with great corporations so well represented here.
We’ve secured vital new funding for cybersecurity. In our first year in office, we allocated an additional $1.2 billion for digital defense, and next year, our administration has requested a record $15 billion to secure America’s cyber frontiers. And we'll continue to work with Congress to provide the resources we need to defend our nation from the threats we face in the digital domain.
This represents about a 4 percent hike over the prior fiscal year with about half the funding going to the military and half to civilian agencies. Despite the overall hike in cyber funding, the administration’s budget request cuts funding for cyber research activities.
But this critical issue requires more than new funding. America also needs a central hub for cybersecurity. And today we call on the United States Senate to follow the lead of the House of Representatives and, before the end of this year, enact legislation to create a new agency under the authority of DHS. The time has come for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to commence. Thank you. (Applause.)
This wouldn’t actually be a new agency. The legislation Pence is describing would rename the clunkily-titled National Protection and Programs Directorate, or NPPD, to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. The Senate Homeland Security Committee has passed this as part of a broader bill to reauthorize the Homeland Security Department, which has not yet reached the floor.
This agency will bring together the resources of our national government to focus on cybersecurity. And it's an idea whose time has come.
In addition to funding and reforms, our administration is hardening federal networks as never before. We’re taking renewed action to identify and eliminate weaknesses that our adversaries could exploit.
For example, the federal government has long allowed Kaspersky Lab, a Russian anti-virus software, to be installed on federal devices, even though it has a direct relationship with the Russian government and intelligence services. This threat existed for many years, but our administration ended the threat last year when we banned Kaspersky Lab software from the entire federal government. (Applause.)
Kaspersky disputes that the company has any untoward relationship with the Russian government or intelligence services. The official rationale for the Homeland Security ban isn’t an existing relationship but a Russian law that the department says might compel Kaspersky to assist Russian government spying.
Also, technically, the administration’s Kaspersky ban only applied to civilian agencies. It was Congress that expanded the ban to the Defense Department in the fiscal 2018 version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
We’ve also dramatically increased information sharing with innovators, developers, and network defenders. America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies have an unparalleled ability to discover weaknesses in digital products and software.
But while the last administrations almost always held on to this administration [information], in this White House I'm proud to report that we’ve significantly improved how much we share with the private sector and the speed with which we share it. Today, nearly a third of the threat indicators we share with businesses aren’t available from any other source, and will continue on that track.
A main criticism of the Homeland Security Department’s cyber threat indicator sharing program is that it has focused on quantity over quality, bombarding recipients with information that doesn’t apply to them or that they don’t have enough context to use effectively. The department is working on improving that now.
The department has also done better at sharing information with industry than at convincing industry to share information with government. Three years after Congress passed a bill that gave companies legal protection to share cyber threat information with the government, only six organizations have signed up to do so.
And finally, our administration is putting the finishing touches on our National Cyber Strategy. This strategy will make clear that the United States will bring every element of our national power to bear to protect the integrity and security of the American digital domain. (Applause.)
It will be interesting to parse this wording when the strategy comes out. The government has warned for years that it will use all elements of power to respond to adversary cyber strikes, including indictments, sanctions, diplomatic actions, naming and shaming bad cyber actors and, on the far end, retaliatory cyber strikes and military action.
The problem is that U.S. retaliatory actions have mostly been insufficient to change adversary behavior and the U.S. has often been hesitant to ramp up cyber conflict because, as the world’s most connected nation, we’re also the most vulnerable.
Our actions have already made our adversaries’ actions more costly. And as we continue to reinforce our cyber defenses, we will deter them as never before. But as you well know, we can't prevent every assault or attack in the digital sphere. The sheer size and magnitude of the danger, combined with the rapid evolution, means that some attempts will simply slip through the cracks.
The administration imposed sanctions on some Russian actors, for example, in the NotPetya malware attack. The administration pushed back, however, against Congressional efforts to ramp up Russian sanctions for interfering in the 2016 elections before finally imposing a broad slate of sanctions in April.
Be assured, our government will continue to ensure the resilience of our digital infrastructure so that when these breaches may occur, we can get back on our feet fast, chart a path forward, learn from our vulnerability, and prevent the next attack.
But when it comes to stopping our cyber adversaries, resilience, though, isn’t enough. We also must be prepared to respond. And in this White House, I'm proud to report, we are.
Our administration has taken action to elevate the United States Cyber Command to a "combatant command,” putting it on the same level as the commands that oversee our military operations around the world. Gone are the days when America allows our adversaries to cyberattack us with impunity. Our goal remains: American security will be as dominant in the digital world as we are in the physical world. (Applause.)
The elevation of Cyber Command was already in process during the end of the Obama administration.
Many critics scoffed at Pence’s bold language about holding cyber adversaries accountable given President Donald Trump’s hesitancy to blame Russia for its digital assault on the 2016 election. Here, for example, was the response of Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America think thank:
Making American security “as dominant in the digital world as we are in the physical world” is an exceptionally tall order. The potential attack surface in cyberspace is simply far broader and more complex than in the physical world and it’s largely controlled by the private sector rather than government. The U.S. is also at a disadvantage in cyberspace because we are far more dependent on the internet than less developed nations-- and so more vulnerable.
But for all that we’ve done, and for all that we’re doing, there’s still much more work ahead. And what bring us all here today is the recognition that we cannot do it alone. Strengthening American cybersecurity does not belong solely to our national government in Washington, D.C. The greatest progress happens from the bottom up, not from the top down. And so beyond our government-wide approach, we need you. We need you to continue to partner with us for a nationwide approach, for together we can protect America's digital domain. (Applause.)
You know, it’s been said “cybersecurity is a team sport.” It requires seamless collaboration between the federal government, state and local leaders, but also innovators, entrepreneurs, academic experts. In a word, it requires all of you in this room and all of those that you represent all across the nation.
We’ve already taken important steps, I'm pleased to report, to improve our partnerships at every level. And, in addition to this conference today, where you've heard much about those efforts, I'm particularly excited with the new initiative that Secretary Nielsen announced this morning: the National Risk Management Center.
The goal of the new center is to orchestrate a series of long-range cybersecurity initiatives with the help of the private sector. Two early initiatives will focus on creating a registry of the nation’s most important digital assets and developing a strategy to help protect industry from supply chain cybersecurity threats.
This new center will be the gateway for American companies who want to work with the federal government more closely to strengthen our shared cybersecurity. And let me take this moment to thank all of you who have already expressed your intention to join this critical initiative.
Just a few weeks ago, in the Situation Room, I personally met with the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, also known as NSTAC, which brings together key industry leaders to develop recommendations on cyber policy.
I learned then, and will learn more in just a few short weeks, that NSTAC will soon launch a cybersecurity "moonshot" initiative to focus our national energies and skills on digital dominance. Those leaders that day informed me that America won the race to the moon. And, under this administration, in partnership with all of you, America will lead the way to cybersecurity and strength. (Applause.)
The NSTAC plans to deliver the moonshot plan to Trump in November. Some experts,including former Trump Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, have expressed skepticism about the moonshot project, calling the 1969 Apollo mission a poor analogy for cybersecurity.
Unlike the race to the moon, which was completed in a few years, developing a sustainable level of cybersecurity will be a never-ending project necessitating numerous shifts in focus and strategy, they say.
Now, the examples that I mentioned today are all essential to the security and prosperity of the American people. But as we gather today, the American people also deserve to know that our democracy is secure as well. So before I close, let me speak to our administration’s unprecedented action to safeguard the integrity of our elections.
While other nations certainly possess the capability, the fact is Russia meddled in our 2016 elections. That is the unambiguous judgment of our intelligence community, and, as the President said, we accept the intelligence community’s conclusion.
As several reporters and critics have pointed out, both Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen got a lot of press for saying this Tuesday, but both have long affirmed Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. The sticking point has been the intelligence community’s position that the meddling was aimed at helping Trump and undermining his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, rather than merely sowing chaos.
Russia’s goal was to sow discord and division and to weaken the American people’s faith in our democracy. And while no actual votes were changed, any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed. (Applause.)
The official intelligence community position is that there’s no evidence vote tallies were penetrated by Russian hackers. That’s not proof positive that Russian hackers didn’t change votes undetected.
The intelligence community did not take an official position on whether individuals might have chosen to change their votes based on false information promulgated as part of the Russian influence campaign on social media and elsewhere.
The United States of America will not tolerate any foreign interference in our elections from any nation state -- not from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, or anyone else. As President Trump said, “We’re not going to have it.”
To that end, over the past year, President Trump has directed our administration to create, as well, a whole-of-government approach to strengthen election security. As recently as last week, the President convened a National Security Council meeting for updates on the progress that we've made.
This was the first National Security Council meeting Trump convened on the topic, roughly 20 months after taking office.
As the President has said, we’ve taken a "firm stance,” and we’ve backed it up with “strong action.”
The FBI has formed the Foreign Influence Task Force to identify secret foreign attempts to infiltrate our society and undermine our democracy.
The Department of Homeland Security has launched the Election Information Sharing Analysis Center. This project, which all 50 states and more than 900 counties have already joined, will help prevent attacks before they happen, identify them when they’re underway, and stop them before they can do any lasting damage.
The launching of the election ISAC resulted directly from Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnsons’ January, 2017, decision to declare election systems “critical infrastructure.”
Working with the Congress, we’ve also made $380 million available to states to help them ensure the security of their election systems, including upgrading voting machines and the most up-to-date and secure technology.
Senate Republicans balked Wednesday at a Democratic effort to add an additional $250 million on top of that $380 million.
Homeland Security official Chris Krebs has said that the initial $380 million is insufficient to replace all outdated and vulnerable voting machines, but also faulted state officials for not stating sufficiently clearly how much money they need and what they'll do with it.
We’re deploying new sensors to monitor election networks and identify potential intrusions at the state and local level. Thirty-seven states have opted into this program, but before this November, we intend to expand a further twenty-two states and counties, as they request.
Our administration has also launched a “National Cyber Situational Awareness Room” that offers states a virtual connection between DHS and election offices on Election Day itself. In my home state of Indiana, as well as Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia, this system was used in the May 8th primary, and we’re working hard to expand this project for other states so that it's ready before the midterm elections in November.
We’ve also been working to help state and local governments rapidly respond to cyberattacks. Less than two weeks ago, Finney County, Kansas, reached out to DHS for help after a malware attack forced them to shut down not just their election network, but the entire county’s network. Federal officials worked earnestly, hand-in-hand, with county officials to identify and ultimately eliminate this dangerous intrusion. This action was a model of the collaboration that we need to ensure the security of our elections, and we commend the state, and local, and federal officials that made it happen. (Applause.)
Now, make no mistake about it: Our administration recognizes that elections are administered and conducted at the state and local level. This administration has already been a champion of federalism and respected the purview and the authority of our state and local officials. Yet it concerns us that many states still don’t have concrete plans to upgrade their voting systems, and 14 states are struggling to replace outdated voting machines that lack paper trails before the next presidential election.
And so today, not just as Vice President, but as a former governor, I want to urge, with great respect, every state to take renewed action. Take advantage of the assistance offered by our administration. Do everything in your power to strengthen and protect your election systems. You owe your constituents that, and the American people expect nothing less. (Applause.)
This echoes pleas from Homeland Security officials who have struggled to win the trust of state and county election officials. In some cases, the states and localities that have turned down Homeland Security’s help in vetting their election security have purchased similar services from private sector companies. In other cases, however, they remain vulnerable.
This is a time for vigilance and resolve, and I can assure you our administration will continue to take strong action. We have already done more than any administration in American history to preserve the integrity of the ballot box, and we’ve just begun.
We will continue to work tirelessly to prevent foreign nations and malign actors from hacking into our election infrastructure with the potential of changing votes or election outcomes. As the President has said, we will “repel…any efforts to interfere in our elections.”
When anyone violates our laws, we will bring them to justice and utilize every element of our national power to respond, because our democracy demands and deserves the most vigorous defense we can give it. (Applause.)
And I want to assure you, we will do this in a manner that respects the God-given liberties enshrined in our Constitution, including the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.
We will never stifle voices in a free society, but we can expose malign and fraudulent voices when they seek to undermine confidence in our democracy, and this we will do. Our administration will always make efforts to shed light on foreign attempts to interfere or sow malign influence in our elections in our society.
Our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, probably said it best when he said, “Give the people the facts, and the Republic will be saved.” When the American people have the facts, they always uphold our most cherished institutions and values. And this is just as true today as it has ever been in our nation’s long and storied history.
So thank you again for being here and being a part of this important and historic gathering. You do the nation a great credit by participating in today’s discussion, and more important, by following through on the discussion with a greater partnership and collaboration in cybersecurity.
The truth is, cybersecurity is unlike any challenge we’ve ever faced. It is a work that’s never done. It is a process that is continuous. And so must our collaboration be.
Technologies are shifting by the minute, from the Internet of Things to 5G to artificial intelligence to quantum computing, and each advance is accompanied not only by new opportunities, but new challenges. And just as the threats are evolving, our defenses, too, must evolve. The only way to be strong and secure is if we stand strong and secure together on behalf of the American people. (Applause.)
Cybersecurity, then, is a shared responsibility. And I believe that cybersecurity is a civic duty. You’ve already distinguished yourselves as leaders and patriots in this cause long before this conference today by your efforts on behalf of the American people. And the President and I need you to continue to be advocates in your industry and among your peers for greater cybersecurity collaboration. The American people deserve nothing less.
Keep talking with your peers about how they need to enlist in this fight. Tell them that they have an obligation to identify the weaknesses in their own networks and platforms, because the weakest link creates the greatest vulnerability.
Tell them we need them to buy American when it comes to digital products and services, not just to support American jobs and innovation, but to support American security. Tell them they need to share their insights, ideas, and innovations that will strengthen our collective security.
And above all else, tell them what you’ve heard here today at this conference. Tell them we need to work together on an increasing basis, not just with our national government, but with state and local governments, to ensure the continued security and prosperity of our nation.
The American people are counting on all of us. They deserve to know that their homes are free from prying eyes, their personal information is safe and secure, that their bank accounts can’t be robbed, that the lights will turn on when they flip the switch in the morning, and the American people deserve to know that our democracy cannot be corrupted, and that our nation is stronger and more secure, even in the midst of a technological revolution than it’s ever been before. This, we can do together.
So thank you for the opportunity to address you today, to wrap up what I trust has been a meaningful and productive dialogue. But I hope you will not feel that you’ve come here today and done your part by this attendance. I hope you leave here today with a burden on your heart to do more.
The truth is, as the Old Book says, we should “not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” So don’t grow weary. Don’t grow weary in standing up for the security of the American people in the cyber domain.
Biblical invocations aren’t terribly common in cybersecurity, but there are a few previous examples. Oracle Chief Security Officer Mary Ann Davidson used the Genesis story in a 2014 RSA Security Conference slide deck, for example, to explain that “users will always click on the apple.”
With the trust of the American people, with the patriotism and collaboration of all of you gathered here who work together with us on this vital issue, with the leadership of President Donald Trump, and, I know, with the support and the prayers of the American people, we will defend our nation. We will defend our nation on this cyber frontier. And I know, as Americans have always done, we will do it together.
Thank you very much. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)