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It is another stomach-turning development in the vast, unfolding scandal that is the Trump administration: President Trump s denigration of former FBI Director James Comey to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office. In a New York Times story, Trump is quoted as saying, I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. Aside from the irony of the statement itself, it is appalling that an American president should be caught boasting about obstructing justice to the representative of a power that is so expert on the topic. Such is the mindset of our Erdogannabe.
I faced great pressure because of Russia, Trump went on. That s taken off. So the president is delusional as well as dishonorable. And yet. How in God s name did the reporter gain access to a discussion in the Oval? According to the story, the memcon the memorandum of conversation was read to The New York Times by an American official. Let that sink in. This is a document of very limited distribution. According to sources I consulted, it typically would not have even been given to the director of the CIA. This was a leak of an extremely sensitive and highly classified document by a very senior person.
There are a number of explanations for why leakers leak. They may be trying to kneecap a rival. Sometimes leakers are embittered or just want to look and feel important. The nut job leak suggests something different: a real attack on the president from within his inner circle. It was designed to reveal Trump as a foolish figure and expose him to charges of obstruction. Whoever read this material over the telephone to a reporter was playing for the highest stakes. He or she was also risking not only a career, but a prison term. If the leaker is exposed, this administration would give no quarter. As someone who handled classified material during the George W. Bush administration, I can attest to the deadly seriousness of these matters. This type of a high-level leak leaves the president and his inner circle unable to trust his team. It leaves foreign officials unable to feel confident in the confidentially of the highest-level diplomatic discussions. And it points to a foreign policy establishment that is making political judgments, which involve serious dangers.
I have no doubt that Trump himself created the snake-pit atmosphere in which leaks are incessant. He raises questions about his own staff in public, presumably to keep them on their toes. He sends out representatives to provide cover putting their own credibility on the line and then undermines them (see H.R. McMaster). He is, according to press accounts, a yeller who has staff hiding in their offices. He fires people in a humiliating fashion (see Comey). He belittles proud professionals (see the whole CIA). His administration is composed of fiefdoms engaged in more or less open warfare. It is likely that some on the White House staff are only staying to collect material for the inevitable tell-all books. The moral tone of the Executive Office of the President is set by the president, and this one is morally stunted. In Trump s house of betrayal, leaks must seem the normal way of doing business. And leaks against the president probably come from officials reaching the limits of their patience with dysfunction. All true. But still: A leak of classified material to damage the president is the abrogation of a professional standard, and the arrogation of democratic authority. It can lead to a very bad place, in which national security and law enforcement officials are engaged in payback or (worse) pursuing political goals beyond their remit. This undermines the authority of the institutions they serve by confirming the view, held by a significant number of Americans, that the system is somehow rigged.
We can all imagine circumstances in which whistleblowing is justified, involving the prevention of immediate and irreparable damage to the country. But there is a proper sequencing for such actions. They should come after normal processes fail. America currently has regular-order processes involving a special counsel and congressional investigations in place. We are at the start of Trump s reckoning, not the end. Public officials should not respond to the fraying of democratic norms by further unraveling them. The proper answer to Trump s assault on institutions is to adhere to them more strongly. And the proper response of a staffer pressed beyond the limits of his or her conscience is not to leak but to resign. Michael Gerson ([email protected]), who served as President George W. Bush s assistant for policy and strategic planning, is a columnist for The Washington Post.
The United States may have escaped most digital damage from the global ransomware virus, though cyber experts fear more attacks. One possible explanation is that the malicious software ( malware ) harms older versions of Microsoft s Windows operating system, which most Americans have replaced. Perhaps many users in other countries haven t. Whatever the explanation, this is not the end of Internet threats. The unmistakable lesson of recent years is that the Internet is a double-edged sword. Despite enormous benefits, it also encourages crime, global conflict and economic disruption. The drift seems ominous. The Russians, it is widely agreed, hacked into the computers of the Democratic National Committee, raising fears that the U.S. presidential election was compromised. In Dallas, hackers turned on the city s emergency sirens for more than an hour. Cyber thieves stole $81 million from Bangladesh s central bank, though some of the money has apparently been recovered.
We are dangerously dependent on Internet-based systems. All these incidents threatened the social fabric of the victimized societies. Could whoever triggered Dallas sirens turn off the traffic lights or the local power grid? How safe are electronic financial transfers?
Ransomware validates these fears. What was stunning is how quickly it spread. One estimate had it quickly migrating to 150 countries and affecting 200,000 computers. Despite the rapid response the discovery of a so-called kill switch in the malware that deactivated the virus the basic message remains: Much health care, transportation and ordinary business might close if deprived of Internet access, whether by hostile governments or cyber criminals. This makes the Internet a weapon that can be used against us or by us. In a presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, put it this way: Our adversaries are becoming more adept at using cyberspace to threaten our interests and advance their own, and despite improving cyber defenses, nearly all information, communication networks and systems will be at risk for years. The trouble is that we are aiding and abetting our adversaries. We are addicted to the Internet and refuse to recognize how our addiction subtracts from our security. The more we connect our devices and instruments to the Internet, the more we create paths for others to use against us, either by shutting down websites or by controlling what they do. Put differently, we are incredibly inviting trouble. Our commercial interests and our national security diverge.
The latest example of this tension is the so-called Internet of things or the smart home. It involves connecting various devices and gadgets (thermostats, lights, cameras, locks, ovens) to the Internet so they can be operated or monitored remotely. This would be a major Internet expansion and moneymaker. One consulting firm, Ovum, forecasts that from 2016 to 2021, the number of smart homes worldwide will rise from 90 million to 463 million, with the largest concentrations in the United States and China. Ovum anticipates that each smart home will have nearly nine separate devices attached to the Internet and that the global total will hit 4 billion by 2021. All this increases the vulnerability of Americans and others to cyberattacks. As we ve seen, mistakes and gaps occur. Or hackers circumvent security firewalls. The growth of the Internet of things creates more avenues and opportunities for hostile nations or rogue hackers to penetrate various cyber defenses.
The Coats presentation makes this explicit: In the future, state and nonstate actors will likely use Internet of things devices to support intelligence operations … or attack targeted computer networks. Just how we can or should regulate the tension between our commercial interests and our strategic security isn t clear. But we can t even start a conversation if we don t admit that the tension is real and is getting worse all the time. Instead of candor, we compartmentalize. We lavish praise on our cyber capitalists Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and others for their accomplishments while conveniently forgetting that the same technologies also make us less safe. (Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.) If there are deficiencies with cybersecurity, we consider them separately. We embrace the Internet of things without admitting that it s also the Internet of hazards.
The technologies to promote the Internet and protect it are one and the same. We need to consider our addiction in all its aspects, even the disagreeable. But we are in denial.
Robert Samuelson is a columnist who specializes in economic affairs.
The (Medford) Mail Tribune: Richardson right to alert legislators
Secretary of State Dennis Richardson is doing what he said he would do if elected: Use the auditing function of his office to keep a sharp eye on how state agencies spend public money. This week, he issued an audit alert warning that the Oregon Health Plan may be paying health benefits to Oregonians who are no longer eligible for the federal Medicaid program. … The rapid expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act and the disastrous failure of the Cover Oregon website led to gaps in eligibility determinations with the blessing of federal officials and state health officials are now trying to catch up. But Richardson is right to raise concerns about payments on behalf of potentially ineligible recipients now, rather than waiting for his staff to finish its audit in the fall. (Editorial, May 19)
The Baltimore Sun: Imagine Obama had leaked to the Russians
Imagine for a moment that Barack Obama leaked in some unplanned and ill-considered way sensitive classified information to top Russian officials in a private Oval Office meeting. For Republicans in Congress, the only question would be when to schedule impeachment proceedings immediately or after gathering enough pitchforks and torches to storm the White House first. Everything about the manner in which President Donald Trump blithely shared classified information as first reported by The Washington Post Monday night and then how he reacted to that misstep is textbook Trump with all the hubris, the incautiousness, the amateurity and, of course, the throwing-of-underlings-under-the-bus that Americans have come to expect from their commander-in-chief. Why, we haven t seen such a damaging scenario play out in, well, days. (Editorial, May 17)
The Washington Post: Turkey can t stifle dissent while in U.S.
President Donald Trump laid out the welcome mat … for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the strongman apparently felt so much at home he thought it OK for his thugs to beat up peaceful demonstrators. That Erdogan has unfortunately been successful in stifling dissent in Turkey doesn t give him license to come to this country and attack one of its most basic, and cherished, freedoms. It must be made clear that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. … The State Department issued a relatively strong statement Wednesday saying that it was concerned by the violent incidents involving Turkish security personnel and that the United States is communicating our concern with the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms. That s a good first step, but it is not enough. Turkish personnel instigating this violence must be identified and, if possible, prosecuted or, if shielded by diplomatic immunity, made persons not welcome in this country. (Editorial, May 18)
Los Angeles Times: Cybercrime could get worse as connections spread
The particularly nasty computer program dubbed WannaCry that attacked hospitals, businesses and government agencies around the world this past weekend was like a cybercrime highlight reel… . What s different this time is that the conscience-free hackers apparently had considerable, albeit unwitting, help from the U.S. government. They used a stolen tool reportedly developed by the National Security Agency to exploit a hidden weakness in the Windows operating system and spread their ransomware to computers far and wide. … WannaCry should not have reached disastrous proportions Microsoft released a patch that could close the vulnerability in March, well before the NSA s tool was released in usable form. Yet tens of thousands of computers weren t updated, allowing the malware to spread. The problem could easily get much, much worse as more routine devices become smart, Internet-connected ones. (Editorial, May 16)