Transcript: Shelby Pierson on “Intelligence Matters”

0
208

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Shelby Pierson, a career intelligence official recently named the Intelligence Community Election Threats Executive within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Pierson details past, present and future election security threats facing the U.S., and explains how the intelligence community has partnered with other government agencies to boost visibility into foreign interference efforts. She explains how the threat landscape has broadened since 2016, and tells Morell what new vectors foreign adversaries may consider using in 2020. Pierson also offers new insights into Russia’s systematic efforts to interfere in the 2016 and 2018 midterm elections. This is the latest installment of a continuing series on “Leadership of the IC,” featuring currently-serving senior leadership within the U.S. intelligence community.   

Download, rate and subscribe here:  iTunesSpotify and Stitcher.

- Advertisement -

Excerpts

  • On whether any other country interfered in 2016 elections: “[C]ountries seek to influence each other all the time. And when it becomes particularly problematic is when it’s covert, when it’s subversive, when it’s illegal. And we do not assess that any other country influenced the United States election in 2016 on the scale of what the Russians did.”
  • On 2020 threats: “[W]e see a more complicated threat landscape. This is not just a Russia-only problem. Obviously the tenor of our bilateral relationships with countries worldwide is a factor in terms of whether or not countries look to 2020 as a moment with which they can accomplish some national objective.”
  • On protecting 2020: “What we’re trying to do now is handle this in real time. And I think that’s something that I think is not only a tall task for us but one that I’d like the American public to have confidence in, that we’re not trying to simply intellectually look back on what occurs in 2021 past inauguration. What we want to do is be able to affect this in real time and so that we have fair, safe elections from foreign interference.”

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – SHELBY PIERSON

HOST: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Shelby, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Thank you so much for having me, Mike. I’m happy to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you have an incredibly important job, which we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about I hope. But maybe the place to start is to ask you if you can walk through the kind of arc of your career to the point you can talk about it, right? So how did you get from being an entry-level officer at CIA to being the IC’s election threat executive today?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Great. I think as your listeners know, I have two decades of experience in the intelligence community. And I had the privilege of starting as an imagery analyst at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which most of your listeners would now know as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And what’s an imagery analyst just so people know? 

SHELBY PIERSON:

So an imagery analyst spends his or her time looking at satellite photography and primarily looking at military forces or other key national security items and writes reports for the all-source community to inform policymakers and military assessments.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Maybe the best historical example of that is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes, absolutely. So I had the benefit of starting off as a Iraqi ground forces analyst, which I think certainly dipped me in the lessons of tradecraft, particularly as we walked through the Iraq war together. But I also was able to be a leadership analyst and worked with some of our colleagues, like Phil Mudd and others, as to how do you utilize information and intelligence to shape policy and help inform national security trajectories for the United States.

But the lion’s share of my intelligence career as an analyst was spent in the denial and deception community, which really I think is somewhat of a lost discipline in a way, in terms of understanding how countries seek to deliberately manipulate the landscape of engagement with other nations.

And so the underpinnings of counterintelligence, and cyber, national decision making, and really getting at the most exquisite state secrets I think laid a good foundation for me in terms of not only working the Russia account as the national intelligence manager for Russia coming in in 2016 but also now working election security.

MICHAEL MORELL:

When did you start in 2016?

SHELBY PIERSON:

So I think some of my colleagues would laugh at this because I think it was about two weeks into that assignment in November that President Obama asked the intelligence community to write the assessment based upon the work of CIA and FBI that people now know as the 2017 intelligence community assessment. So.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Did you have a role in that?

SHELBY PIERSON:

No. As the NIM, we’re certainly there from a mission management perspective. But my colleagues from the National Intelligence Council and analytic leadership of FBI and CIA handled the lion’s share of the content. But from the management side, I worked closely with the team on how we disseminate that information and how do you replicate that year after year after year to create the assessments going forward. So, again, many of the planks from earlier in my career I think culminated in the creation of the ET.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And this denial and deception thing that you talk about, which is so important, denial is actions on the part of our adversaries so that we don’t know what they’re doing.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Right. Concealing it–

MICHAEL MORELL:

And deception is deceiving us.

SHELBY PIERSON:

And sort of manipulating of the situation. And it really has — and I think it’s important for people to understand — that although 2016 was a watershed moment for the intelligence community, the work in counterintelligence and information operations manipulation has gone on for many, many decades. And the intelligence community has focused on that in a variety of different mechanisms.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Shelby, before we get to your role today, I think it would be good for our listeners if we could review what happened both in 2016 and in 2018, essentially the story of what brought us to the creation of your current job, right? So if we start with 2016, can you review for us in a broad sense what the Russians did during the 2016 campaign and why?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Sure. And as I said, I’m pleased that there is a volume of information that has been declassified out of the intelligence community. And I would refer your listeners to the 2017 report that the intelligence community put out there because I think it does an excellent job of capturing our analytic line, so to speak, as to our findings.

But to summarize, the Russians not only sought to scan and look at our voting-related infrastructure but then also utilized social media and other influence vectors to try to sway voters towards one favored candidate and also, I think as folks know, captured information from the DNC and other venues and released that information, again, to particularly sway the voting populace towards one candidate or another.

So when we look at election security as a discipline, there are sort of three different vectors that were concerned about. One is potentially an adversary compromising the actual infrastructure by which Americans vote. And we assess that that threshold was not crossed in 2016.

Secondly, we look at adversaries pursuing information relative to voter databases or voter rolls, which either they could use that to affect election day activities, deleting certain content, or also using that information to better manipulate how they focus influence operations. And in fact, our campaigns do that today.

And then thirdly is using social media and other platforms with which to manipulate or exacerbate existing social divides in the country. And so, again, all three of those vectors were looked at from a Russian perspective. And then going into 2018, I think, again, we did not assess that there were any material compromises to the voting apparatus, but there certainly was considerable influence operation-type activity.

And, as you’ve seen illuminated in the press and we’ve discussed this in very broad circumstances, we also undertook some defensive measures, particularly on the part of U.S. Cyber Command, to stop malicious content from making its way to the U.S.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Let me just ask a couple of follow-up questions on that. I don’t want to make this political at all. But in terms of hurting one candidate and helping another, it was the assessment of the intelligence community that what the Russians were doing in part was designed to hurt Secretary Clinton and help–

SHELBY PIERSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

–President Trump, correct? And then I also wanted to ask you: As far as you know, did any other country in 2016 interfere in our elections?

SHELBY PIERSON:

The intelligence community assessment remains the same. And as you know, Mike, countries seek to influence each other all the time. And when it becomes particularly problematic is when it’s covert, when it’s subversive, when it’s illegal. And we do not assess that any other country influenced the United States election in 2016 on the scale of what the Russians did.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So not Ukraine? Not anybody else?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then the story, right? The story that the Ukrainians might have, so it’s absolutely clear to me, right, outside the intelligence community, that the Russians are propagating that story. Were the Russians the one to initiate it? Or did it start somewhere else?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think you know we can’t speak about our current classified assessment on this situation. But for us all roads lead back to Russia in this particular circumstance. And that’s something that we continue to monitor at this time.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So another question about 2016 and the scanning of the election infrastructure. Do you think that they were actually trying to– had they gotten in, do you think they would have tried to use that access to change the outcome of the election? Or do you think they were just probing for possible future attacks?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think that remains an open question. Certainly we know that countries like Russia and even beyond just the Russians have the capability to get into those systems. And it’s always a question as to whether or not they will make the decision to cross that threshold themselves to sort of proverbially stuff the ballot box.

I think that that remains an option on the table for them. But then also, I think this broader question of scanning and acquiring information for broader reconnaissance and intelligence purposes and, sort of, preparation of the battlefield is certainly within our assessment as well.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So why do you think they got caught? Particularly with the scanning of the infrastructure and the infiltration of the DNC and the Clinton campaign’s emails, these are sophisticated services we’re talking about here. Why do you think they were so sloppy? Were they sloppy? Why do you think they got caught?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think there’s two aspects of that. 1) I’m very proud of both the work of the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI in terms of exhausting all of our most exquisite sources that frankly shed light on this problem, that without those sources I don’t know that we would have fully put that together.

So it is really important that as much as it is an issue of getting caught, it’s also I think the push of trying to gain accesses into those decision-making processes. And I think that’s what ultimately shed light in 2016. And, Mike, as a fellow government person, I think we all can recognize that sometimes large bureaucracies do step on each other.

And I think that was also a part of the opportunity for us here, is that it wasn’t an exquisitely orchestrated operation. And as we all recognize, you get large organizations that have their respective missions and lanes in the road. And when those cross, that creates a tumult and opportunity for us to take advantage of. So I think there were opportunities that allowed us insights that might not have been gathered otherwise.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. A little bit of my sense, for what it’s worth, is that you had these various Russian services sort of all competing with each other, right, to get Putin’s attention. And perhaps they were a little sloppier than they would have been otherwise.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Doesn’t make for a perfectly orchestrated–

MICHAEL MORELL:

Exactly.

SHELBY PIERSON:

–landscape, does it?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Exactly.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let me ask a couple questions about 2018. The first is: The DNI gave you a new responsibility in 2018.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You were still doing your other job, your day job.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But he also made you the national intelligence crisis manager for the midterms.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Maybe not the most beautifully termed title, but why did he do that and what was your role?

SHELBY PIERSON:

So I think and certainly people should understand that one of the inherent benefits of Director Coats’ leadership during his tenure is that you had a person who had won ten elections himself and so I think really had a vantage point that not many of us in the intelligence community have, where he appreciates how elections run, and the value of intelligence to help ensure that elections are run safely and without interference.

And so I do think against that backdrop, in 2018 when we were getting closer to that moment, there was some, I think, speculation across the community, “What are we doing to organize ourselves again for this?” As you know, we sort of get back to business and everybody’s doing their good work within the disciplines that I’ve mentioned earlier. And yet there really wasn’t a coordinating function.

So I think at the time Director Coats said, “Shelby, the Russia community, I think you guys have a running start here. It’s unclear from our reporting if this is going to cross into any other areas. Go get the community together and make sure that we’re integrated and we’re removing obstacles if they exist and creating the most comprehensive and informative analysis and reporting possible.”

MICHAEL MORELL:

And it kind of made sense with your national–

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

–issue manager for Russia.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes. So I think he said, “Hey, go take care of this.” The NICM designation is one that already exists in sort of the administrative coffers of the ODNI as a position that can be easily relied upon and frankly one that the IC already understands. We periodically create crisis managers to handle a succinct and discrete task, and this would be very similar to that.

And so I think, again, when he saw and when we saw as an organization as the IC that this is ongoing and sort of continues, it never really stops, and doesn’t just crescendo around specific election events, I think that’s when there was consideration to say, “Hey, let’s re-look at the NICM concept and then create a more permanent position out of this.”

So I think at every moment, and it’s important, Mike, I think it’d like to point out that we didn’t want to automatically sort of run to the concept of, “We need something new.” Certainly I think there’s some speculation about, “Should we be creating a center? Why can’t this be sufficiently worked within the existing bureaucracy?”

And so I think even for my own personal leadership style, you want to be very prudent about what’s the most effective and efficient, lean way in which to address these problems. And so I think that was the continuum that you see represented here.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So the Russians played in 2018. In fact, you just said they never really stopped.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yep.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Did they play to the same degree they did in 2016? Less degree? More degree? How do you think about that?

SHELBY PIERSON:

So I think less. And part of it stems from: Did the midterms present as much of an opportunity for any of our adversaries? The midterms are sort of a lesser-profile event in some circumstances. You certainly can continue your influence operations to make sure that you have social division, which is something that the Russians want to take advantage of. But as we went into 2018, obviously there could be a variety of calculuses to why that was not necessarily as attractive of an opportunity for them as the high-profile nature of a presidential election.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And you sort of hinted at this earlier, Shelby. But the midterms have been touted by a lot of people, both sides of the aisle, as a wholesale success, right, from a defensive perspective. People have even called it the most secure election in U.S. history. So why?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think 1) there are several things. And my colleagues from DHS certainly, I think, took a leading role in terms of helping the states better execute safety and security measures on the infrastructure side. I also think that the intelligence community, particularly under the leadership of FBI, had a more robust relationship with social media firms with which to share information that could help all of us better manage the proliferation of malicious content.

And then I think thirdly, and it is important, that Cyber Command, I think, started pulling itself together to have a more active role, again, in terms of managing the information space even before it got stateside. And I think that was helpful as well.

So to me, security is never an absolute. And so for us, success is always a bit of a moving target. And I think we accomplished some goals in 2018 that had real outcomes, but that doesn’t mean that we fully accomplished I think the ever-moving bar of what “safe and secure” looks like relative to election security.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And how important do you think CYBERCOM’s activities were?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think it is important from a very tactical perspective in terms of managing specific activities. I think what we work on today — and, again, we have a very close relationship with Cyber Command, a very positive and close relationship — is: How do you utilize those activities or those insights and accesses over and over and over again to make sure that our adversaries are not only stopped but potentially deterred from even considering this in the future? And I think that that’s certainly the horizon that we look forward to in 2020 and beyond.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Shelby, one more question about 2018. And that is that the DNI in the 2019 worldwide threat testimony said that the Russians haven’t been deterred yet.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

And not only haven’t the Russians been deterred, but they’ve been joined by others. He mentioned China, he mentioned North Korea, and he mentioned Iran, and then he said, “And others.” So two questions. Did China, Iran, and North Korea try to interfere in 2018? Is that a fair conclusion from what the DNI said?

SHELBY PIERSON:

No, I don’t think from the scale and the type of what we have assessed and attributed to the Russians. I think, again, what bears noting for your listeners is that there’s a much broader backdrop of foreign influence writ large that has nothing to do with the ballot box specifically in terms of antagonizing the infrastructure.

But frankly, I think influence operations sponsored by China and Iran certainly continue day in and day out. But they’re certainly not the flashpoint that Russia was going forward. So I think what the DNI was pointing out in 2019 is that we have these much broader influence operations. Some are overt, and that’s natural and understood behavior across nations.

And then what happens that I think is the concern for us is: When does that sponsorship and element of an adversary become more murky, if not fully concealed, to the recipient of the information? And I think that’s what he was gesturing towards, that there is perhaps not wholesale interference, but you have this broader ecosystem and landscape of influence operations that are seeking to sway the populace in a direction. And that’s probably I think most of the continuum of what we saw in 2018 and 2019 and certainly what we’re concerned about going into 2020.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And is it similar though to what the Russians did vis-à-vis the elections in terms of use of social media? Or is it completely different–

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think even broader than that. Obviously both China and Iran, none of these countries are monolithic and they all have very different interests and frankly different vector points as to how best to connect with the United States. Obviously just the economic investment and engagement between the United States and China wholly makes our engagement and influence very different than that of Russia. And so I think there are very few parallels in that regard.

And then similarly with Iran, Iran has been a quite active regional player. And then to what extent certainly against the backdrop of the challenges with JCPOA and other tension points with that country makes the vectors for influence against the United States very different than that of Russia.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So your job today, right? Can you kind of walk us through how you see your role, how you see success? What does an average day look like for you? How will that change as the election gets closer? Can you kind of talk about that?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Sure. I think the role that the election threat executive plays is a very traditional space for the ODNI, where we seek to ensure integration across all of the major intelligence agencies. And yet when you look at election security, as you pointed out several minutes ago, the challenge of election security is also a little bit different because it is not only a domestic topic. It’s one that has a political context to it as well.

The context of election security I think makes it as an intelligence issue a little bit more complicated than what we do otherwise. For me, I think we want the federal space and the information available particularly to the intelligence community to be integrated.

And what I don’t want is when our customers ask us, “How many states do you think have been affected by a particular adversary?” that you don’t get four different answers. So first and foremost is being able to — and I think to the extent that we have to do a 45-day report for the president — we want to create the most integrated, comprehensive answer for our customers as to what is the state of election interference in this country.

And creating the information sharing paradigm so everyone has access to all of the compartmented information that’s available on this at one stop so that we can have a consensus document takes a lot of pushing and pulling, particularly when some of that information is not resident within the intelligence community.

So as a good example, DHS has spent tremendous amount of time and commitment with the states, and they have data that the states gather from their networks. And so one of, I think, the areas that I focus on most is information sharing even from the outside.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Outside in?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Outside in. Which, again, a state or a local institution actually might see election interference on their networks before we do in the information available to us within the intelligence community.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then the group you chair, right, from across the IC, how often do you meet? What’s the level of representation? Are the agencies taking it seriously? I’ve lived in this world. How do you think about that?

SHELBY PIERSON:

So I think that one of the also major accomplishments of the intelligence community and frankly the federal government since 2018 has been the identification of the senior executive cadre leads in each of the agencies and has recognized that, although you have counterintelligence, and cyber, and regional expertise and all of the reporting streams, and analysts, and operators that support this work, that that isn’t sufficient to expect that those communities will inherently orchestrate one another around election security.

So you really do have a cadre of officers that I work with whose sole focus is to pull on the expertise in those areas and particularly focus it on the gaps and obstacles, and questions that we have in election security specifically. And so that I think has been a major step forward. As a community of executives, we probably meet at least once a month. But I would say that if you asked any of them, our contact with one another is probably daily, if not hourly depending on the tenor of the day.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So you’ve mentioned this before, but there’s your IC group, right? And then there’s people outside the IC–

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

–right, that are focused on this. How do you relate to them? Are you part of a larger group that gets together? How do you think about that?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think what we try to do is not allow any particular administrative line to sort of determine who we do or don’t talk to. So a great example: So much of our work is by, with, and through the FBI and DHS. And DHS is a good example. They not only have an intelligence organization, but their cyber organization in CISA, they are on the front lines.

And so the CISA officers work very closely with us. They participate in all of the interagency meetings. And then similarly, within the FBI, you not only have the Foreign Influence Task Force that is our primary inroad into that organization, but we well recognize that counterintelligence, and the criminal organizations, the Department of Justice, their cyber division, all have representation and work with us as closely as an IC colleague would.

So the administrative construct is one that we try to sort of simply coexist with. And we’ve been very inclusive. So you’ll have CISA within DHS. You’ll have, as I mentioned, the organizations within the FBI, the Department of Justice, and Cyber Command as the primary sort of non-IC function areas working as closely with us as any of those representatives inside the IC.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Is there a parallel here to the terrorism problem pre-9/11, post-9/11?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yeah, I think a lot of us have talked about the lessons and things that we’re trying to push within the election security community as lessons that our counterterrorism colleagues have already learned and sort of tread through that soil. I think some of the things that you’ve already mentioned that make this a bit different is when you’re trying to counter a terrorism activity or a plan, I think there’s absolute unanimity about the esprit de corps and requirement with which to stop particularly physical harm against United States citizens and its allies.

I think when you get into election security, particularly on the influence side of the house, when you’re talking about blended content with First Amendment-protected speech, when you’re also, as you mentioned, against the backdrop of a political paradigm and you’re involving yourself in those activities, I think that makes it more complicated.

It doesn’t have the same unanimity that we have in the counterterrorism context. I think we’re trying to build those expectations now as to what are the right and left boundaries as to where we want not only the federal government but specifically the IC to operate.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. And then just one more question about the IC’s role here. It’s to focus on foreign interference–

SHELBY PIERSON:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

–right? So if one political party here is using covert methods to create propaganda against another political party, that’s not your job.

SHELBY PIERSON:

It is not.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That’s the FBI’s job.

SHELBY PIERSON:

It is the FBI’s job. And I think that for me it’s worth foot stomping in this venue that, as you know, foreign intelligence is our true north. And that’s the opportunity and insight that 2016, for example, really illuminated for us, is that we started seeing in our foreign intelligence collection reflections of our adversaries’ interest in coming stateside and interfering in our election.

And so that’s why I think it’s very important that we’re bringing that information to the domestic entities, DHS and FBI primarily, for them to better execute their missions. This is not necessarily in any way the IC changing its scope. It’s really bringing the full strength of our insights, because we see them in our unique sources and accesses, to bear against this problem.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Shelby, 2020. What do you anticipate in terms of the threat? Both the breadth of what the Russians may throw at us, potential other adversaries taking a shot at us. How do you think about the threat that we face?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think that when we look towards 2020 — and in fact our public communiqué [when] we were one year out, several weeks ago, relayed this to the American public — that we see a more complicated threat landscape. This is not just a Russia-only problem. Obviously the tenor of our bilateral relationships with countries worldwide is a factor in terms of whether or not countries look to 2020 as a moment with which they can accomplish some national objective.

And so foreign influence and foreign interference is a 24/7, 365 endeavor. And yet it is the 2020 election that is a watershed moment and we are looking to see if we can determine how and when they make those decisions. So I certainly think that we are looking at considerable foreign influence challenges.

Whether that uses social media as a platform or has other foreign influence vectors — which can include economic relationships, which can include a whole spectrum of capabilities that are outside that infrastructure challenge in terms of how those countries want to influence the American populace for a specific policy outcome.

And then I think we will probably still endure some of the infrastructure challenges that we had in 2016, but we do not have any indications at this juncture that that has specifically crossed that Rubicon into the infrastructure of ballot box, and the counting of ballots, and that part of the infrastructure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So I know you know this. But if I were the Russians, I would think about, “Okay, what have the Americans done to better defend themselves? And then how do I adjust to that, right, and come at them a different way?” Have you guys thought that through? And have you kind of gamed that out?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Absolutely. And I think, as you know, after 9/11 and part of our tradecraft is sort of the red teaming issue. I think you’ve heard people say that because we have 9,000 jurisdictions and this patchwork of different vectors and capabilities across the states that that might actually be a blessing in disguise because it makes those vectors very diverse and very difficult.

I do think that part of the way I hear your question is also recognizing that we’re part of this landscape ourselves. This is part of the division within our society that is frankly making ourselves ripe for this type of antagonism. What I think is important to also relay to your listeners is that when we look at those countries it’s also a little early to tell exactly.

But I think there is a bit of runway here as to what exactly these countries are going to try to achieve. For me, Mike, one of the challenges is that in 2016 we looked back, and wrote the 2017 report, and explained not only to our customers but the American public what occurred.

What we’re trying to do now is handle this in real time. And I think that’s something that I think is not only a tall task for us but one that I’d like the American public to have confidence in, that we’re not trying to simply intellectually look back on what occurs in 2021 past inauguration. What we want to do is be able to affect this in real time and so that we have fair, safe elections from foreign interference.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Like you did in 2018.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes, we did within some of those I think initial entrées. I think today as the threat is more complicated and we’re looking at a broader series of vectors coming at the United States, I think our requirements are even more expansive than what they were two years ago.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So one of the things that you guys along with DHS, DOJ, and FBI just released is a framework for how notifications will be made to various groups, including the public.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Can you talk about that a little bit?

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes. As you said, this has been a continuum of introspection and activity coming out of 2016. And I think one of the things that has been particularly thorny for us is the cyber community has a pretty healthy understanding of how to notify network owners and infrastructure owners when there’s a cyber compromise.

And part of that is what I think is burgeoning muscle movement within that community. And so there’s a whole existing rubric by which victims are notified of network compromises. But that doesn’t necessarily cover all of the streams of information that the intelligence community has access to, particularly on the influence side.

So, for example, if I have information that says a foreign intelligence service is particularly focusing on Mike Morell as a vector to message pieces of information that are being specifically manipulated by an adversary, that’s not something that there was an existing process by which to not only engage with you specifically or potentially people in a related constituency where we want to say, “Hey, you might be also a victim of this. You need to keep your head up and aware of this.”

Or if we want to actually share with the American people like, “Be mindful of the content that is coming out in these particular areas because we believe that there is some prospect of foreign interference here.” We really didn’t have a good mechanism other than requests for declassification which are not– those are very sort of prescriptive and very–

MICHAEL MORELL:

Takes too long.

SHELBY PIERSON:

–technical. So I think what you see in the notification framework is a mechanism by which to be inclusive of information, particularly on the influence side, that had not been shared through other channels or other means. And so even, for example, in the cyber community, I might engage with you as a very specific victim, and that’s a very important relationship between you and me as an information provider and you as a victim.

And yet we recognize that there are other constituencies that might be similarly affected. And just because I don’t have information about it shouldn’t be the reason why I don’t say, “Hey, you need to be aware of this.” So we wanted to create a decision mechanism that balanced all of the equities that you’re well familiar with.

Not just sources and methods, but also I think the challenge of the wisdom of spooking the herd so to speak. That if I go out and tell the public all the time — and I think there are strong advocates for doing that — that we’ve balanced all the equities to make sure that we’re trying to make the right decision that not only informs the public but also doesn’t disenfranchise–

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. And this is–

SHELBY PIERSON:

–their confidence.

MICHAEL MORELL:

There’s been some criticism, right, of the fact that very senior political appointees will ultimately be making a decision on public disclosures. But at the end of the day, it’s a policy decision, right? So–

SHELBY PIERSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

–they absolutely have to be involved. This is not something the IC can decide–

SHELBY PIERSON:

That’s right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

–on its own, right?

SHELBY PIERSON:

That’s right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Would you anticipate actually telling the public, “These are the themes that the Russians are pumping into our country,” getting that specific, sort of the way the French did in their election or the Ukrainians have done? Would you anticipate that or something quite different?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think that that should be a conversation on the table. I certainly welcome the full spectrum of approaches as to how far to go in information sharing. People have held up the French as a model in this area. And I do think many of our most close allies are also wrestling with this problem in terms of how and when to engage with the public.

And I do think that there are strong advocates for, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” And I think given the nature of political debate in this necessary, there is a very important conversation to be had in terms of helping the public understand these are the topics that are both near and dear to you as Americans but they’re also potential areas where you might be consuming information that is not of what it seems. And that’s important for them to best sharpen their skills in terms of identifying disinformation. And that’s important as well.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Shelby, you’ve been terrific with your time. Just two more questions. So I take away from this conversation that the IC is really focused on this issue.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Absolutely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right? As it should be. And so given that, and given what you know to be happening on the policy side, and given what CYBERCOM was able to do in 2018 and what other folks are able to do, how confident are you that the 2020 elections will be more secure than 2016?

SHELBY PIERSON:

That’s a loaded question, Mike. And I think I have confidence in all of the engines of government are working at full tilt to address all of the threats that we face going into 2020. I think that we are also working, as I said, across the U.S. government even outside the intelligence community to sew those gaps that could be also areas where we’re potentially not sharing as dynamically as possible and trying to do it much better in that area in preparation for 2020.

I do think that the esprit de corps of the cadre of leaders across the intelligence community can operate more swiftly, which I think to me time so that the bureaucracy doesn’t kick in and sort of eclipse the outcome. I think we are working more quickly together and have a peer group at the executive level that are very purposeful in terms of personally shepherding through information in a timely fashion to make sure that that is both shared with our customers and shared, frankly, with the targets as best we can and as quickly as we can. That is what gives me the confidence in 2020.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And then the last question. So you not only are smart about election security, but you’re also smart about Russia.

SHELBY PIERSON:

There are much smarter people to talk about Russia.

MICHAEL MORELL:

But you’re very good on it. So the Russians have been named and shamed by the press and the government. They’ve been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. They’ve been indicted by the special counsel. We made a major effort with CYBERCOM in 2018. And yet they’re still not deterred. What is it going to take do you think to deter Russia and then others, right, from continuing to do this in the years ahead? Or is this a new normal?

SHELBY PIERSON:

I think three things come to mind. 1) We’ve certainly made life harder for the Russians. And so let there be no mistake that although activity continues and our concern in this area continues, I don’t think we should underestimate the impact of the activities that you just mentioned.

But as you did articulate and accurately articulate, it’s not having the strategic effect that I think as a nation we want and we will continue to press in all matters of engagement with the Russians specifically, which is, “You should not try this.”

And I think, as you know, we also have a long history within the intelligence community of informing deterrence decisions, informing escalation decisions. And I think that work continues even today. So as we go into 2020, I do think that there has been no shortage of interest on the senior leadership’s part to be able to communicate most effectively with the Russians that they should not try this.

And it will I think continue at that level and need to be communicated at that level with consequences and a push from our end that those consequences are not trivial.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Shelby, as I mentioned at the beginning, you have an incredibly important job from the perspective of the future of our democracy. So thank you very much for A) doing it and B) taking the time to share this with our listeners.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Delighted to be here. And let me just impress upon your listeners: Please go out and vote. The worst thing here would be for you to lose confidence in these institutions. So please participate, vote, and seek out resources that help you do that in a manner that you’re comfortable with.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Absolutely. Thank you so much.

SHELBY PIERSON:

Thank you.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *