First 100 Days: Overhaul America’s Cyber Infrastructure
November 14, 2016

The First 100 Days interview series features Pacific Council experts addressing the top foreign policy issues facing the incoming Trump administration.

In this interview, Dr. Abraham Wagner discusses cybersecurity, cyberwarfare, and international and domestic surveillance. Dr. Wagner is a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute for War & Peace Studies and a professor at the Columbia University School of International & Public Affairs.

Pacific Council: What should the next administration’s top foreign policy priorities be during the first 100 days?

Dr. Abraham Wagner: I’m currently working on a team with eight experts on a new national policy on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare. What we have now is simply not adequate in a number of ways.

President-elect Trump also has a long list of things that are reasonably important. But it depends on how you define foreign policy. In the national security area, he has stressed that he wants to come up with a better plan for dealing with some of the problems that the military and Department of Defense have. We’re in pretty good shape with manpower, but [Trump has] pointed out the fact that we’ve got a lot of equipment issues, where parts aren’t working effectively. We’ve got an aging bomber force and all sorts of other shortages since the end of major operations in Iraq.

He’s not a national security guy, which is okay. He’s going to have to bring aboard a national security team. He spent his life as a manager and the hope is that he’ll let these people do their jobs and they’ll come up with a different path for the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and some of the other procurement mechanisms than we’ve had in the past. 

When he gets together a national security team he will have a reasonably coherent plan of what he’d like to do.

In terms of actual policy, he hasn’t been entirely descriptive yet about what he wants to do about ISIL and Syria and a bunch of the things that we face. My guess is that when he gets together a national security team he will have a reasonably coherent plan of what he’d like to do. That should be at the top of his list. 

I think he has a reasonably high priority of personally reworking a lot of the relationships with both potential adversaries and allies. He’s been getting some pretty good reactions from foreign leaders. They want to sit down with him, and he just has to go through the process of meeting these people and seeing where they can work together. You’ve heard throughout the campaign that he’s going to get up in the middle of the night and decide to nuke Canada or North Korea: that’s complete nonsense. He has a high priority on sitting down with potential adversaries like Vladimir Putin, who sent a telegram after the election. He’s going to sit down very soon with Bibi Netanyahu from Israel. He’s met him before and he’s invited him to come over very soon and try to sort out with him what the United States should be doing effectively in hot spots like the Middle East. I think that’s a high priority and he may do reasonably well at it. 

PC: What are the major cyber issues emerging from the growing deployment of the Internet of Things? What will be the next administration’s approach to dealing with these issues?

Wagner: We have to recognize it as a major national problem and build an analytical infrastructure and a management infrastructure similar to what we did during the days of the Cold War, when we were dealing with strategic conflicts. We need an ongoing analytic process directed from the White House where you have teams inside and outside the government studying cyber issues. 

What did we do in the Cold War? We started in the mid-1950s building serious organizations like the RAND Corporation, the Institute for Defense Analyses, CNA, the Mitre Corporation, and some of the national labs that worked on strategic problems on an ongoing basis, and they had a major interface with not only the White House, but with the Defense Department and the intelligence community. We don’t have that now [for cyber]. 

The next president should conduct a top-level White House review of what the problems are... and build an analytic infrastructure that understands the problems.

Instead, we’ve got some random meddling and a Presidential Policy Directive 21 that says cyber is an important problem but there’s nothing in that directive that even mentions the Department of Defense. We’ve got two major agencies of the U.S. government that are capable of dealing with cyber threats and cyber issues: one is DARPA, where I was, and the other is the National Security Agency. To proceed with just two presidential directives -- 20 and 21, and then 41 after that, which I don’t even count -- and not even mention the agencies that are capable of executing a program, is nuts. 

What we’re recommending is that the next president conduct a top-level White House review of what the problems are – from cyberwarfare to cyberespionage and the issues of state attacks and the Internet of Things – and build an analytic infrastructure that understands the problems. Then you can assign missions, roles, and responsibilities to organizations of the government capable of executing a program. 

When I sat on the panel for Bill Clinton’s Presidential Policy Directive 63, we studied it for a year. At the end of the year, we came up with a bunch of recommendations and we had a price tag of about $1.45 billion. You need to assign the responsibility for solving these problems to organizations that have the technical expertise and can execute a program. If the current price tag for executing a reasonable program is about $2.5 billion, you’ve got to go and hire technical experts and program offices that understand this stuff and spend a couple billion dollars effectively on solutions. You’ve got to resolve the management, the legal, and the operational issues of actually coming up with solutions. 

We’ve got a series of about six to eight position and transition papers that we’re preparing for the Trump administration that lay out a path for actually dealing with some of these problems. It’s not a real partisan issue. It’s not that Trump had one solution and Clinton had another; it’s been pretty nonpartisan. One of the problems Trump has is that he has got very few people right now, but that will expand.

One of his immediate challenges is he’s got to get a staff. There are 4,125 presidential appointments that have to get made. That’s a lot. I’ve done three transition teams. They’re a little behind the power curve, but they’ll get people aboard. There are two parts of the transition: one is the personnel stuff. You’ve got to go find good people that are willing to take these slots, and that’ll come along. It’s going to be a tough road for him because a lot of the people didn’t want to talk to him until the day after the election. And the other part is the policy side. He has got to flesh out – other than just stump speech stuff – what he really intends to do in a whole series of areas. It will happen. Hopefully he will bring aboard more of the experts who have not been willing to come aboard until now. 

PC: How should the Trump administration approach domestic and international surveillance?

Wagner: There’s a dynamic tension going on where it’s not simply what the president can do. You’ve got a real battle going on between the civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that have some absolutely fabulous people working for them – probably the best are the EFF people – and you’ve got a number of statutes you’re dealing with like Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act that are hung up in the federal courts. So you’ve got a conflict going on within the legal community and the courts over a whole series of programs that the president himself has very limited control over. What you’re going to have to do is come up with a solution that the courts are going to allow to happen. 

I worked with Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11 when we put a bunch of this together, but those days are over. You’ve got the House and Senate committees, the federal courts, and a massive number of lawyers that are all arguing over what kinds of programs we can implement, both for law enforcement and for national foreign intelligence purposes, to help solve these problems. It’s going to be a tough road where Trump has very, very little control. 

The Wild West days we had post-9/11, those are gone.

They’re going to have to work not only with the Congress but in terms of what the courts are going to actually let happen. Right now they’re never going to renew the 2008 FISA Amendments Act and they’re never going to renew parts of the Patriot Act. There’s an argument going on now over whether the Supreme Court will overturn Smith v. Maryland, which allows the government to deal with metadata. There are going to be a very, very serious set of major challenges for the Trump administration. It’s something he has limited control over. It’s going to be a while before he and the guys around him come up to speed on what the limitations really are. 

The Wild West days we had post-9/11, those are gone. There’s been so much that’s been dumped and released either by Snowden or WikiLeaks that you can’t get away with anything anymore. And you can’t even outsource it to the Brits anymore because they’ve been clobbered. So he’s got a very difficult road here in terms of getting the kinds of data that they really need. If they want to turn up the gain on some of the surveillance programs because they’re looking for terrorists and other sorts of threats, it’s going to be difficult.

Where he’s got the most wiggle room -- and the area where he can make the most progress -- is basically looking at open sources: stuff that’s getting posted on Twitter and Facebook and all of these things by people who are potential radicals and terrorists, but it’s going to be a tough road for him. Hopefully he’ll get some good advice. We’ve got a team that’s been working on that part of it for a year. 

PC: During the campaign president-elect Trump called for strengthening America’s defenses against cyberattacks, saying that as president he would create a joint law enforcement task force to handle both cybersecurity as well as offensive cyberwarfare. How will the task force better protect the United States against foreign and domestic attacks?

Wagner: It’s not a bad idea. One of the great successes of the military and intelligence community from the 1970s on is something called Fusion Centers, where they took intelligence people and military people and put them together so they could share data and actually do effective operations. One of the things that we’ve done post-9/11 is we’ve set up these Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), where we’ve taken state, federal, and local law enforcement guys, given them the right clearances, and put them together to try and look at these threats. Usually we call these agencies "stovepipes." NSA is doing one thing, the CIA is doing another, and so on. 

The idea of essentially creating joint forces that have the skills is a damn good idea. How it’s actually going to get implemented is another thing. When you’re on the campaign trail and you throw that stuff out, that’s a throw-away line – but it’s a reasonable idea. He’s going to get some suggestions from me and a bunch of others and hopefully that’ll work out. It’s been successful in the past, and there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be successful here.

Everybody agrees in the government on both sides that one of the biggest problems we’ve got now is these "stovepipes," these independent agencies all with their own special clearances that don’t like each other. We’ve got to sort of break some of that down. It’s a model that’s worked fairly well in the past, and it gets these guys together and if you look at the last 10 to 15 years since we set up the JTTF outside New York, for example, it has been an enormous success looking for extremists.

I’ll give Trump some credit for at least getting on board with a half-way reasonable idea. He’s just got to implement it and get it to work. I think it’s doable. Overcoming the pressures that he’s got from the civil liberties guys and the courts and various members of Congress on the surveillance stuff is really going to be hard because he can’t just order that stuff. He’s just bound 18 ways to Sunday.

Read more interviews in the First 100 Days series. 

Have your own take on the foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. president? Let us know on Twitter @PacCouncil or send us your thoughts directly at

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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