John Carlin: From CAFE welcome to Cyber Space. I’m your host, John Carlin. Every other Friday I explore issues at the intersection of tech, law, and policy with guests who’ve made an impact in the world of Cybersecurity. My guest this week is Sue Gordon. She spent nearly 40 years in government intelligence, a position in which she briefed five of the last six US presidents. From 2017 to 2019 Gordon was the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence where she advised President Trump. Today she advises companies in the areas of technology, strategy, and leadership, including Microsoft where she is a consultant on matters related to both National Security and Cybersecurity.
Before we turn to the interview I did want to quickly share some thoughts about the news that broke after we taped my conversation with Sue. On Wednesday evening Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Chris Wray announced that Iran and Russia have obtained Americans voter registration data in an effort to influence the public about the upcoming election. Ratcliffe called out Iran for sending fake emails to voters. These emails purported to be from the far right neo-fascist group known as the Proud Boys.
Speaker 3: First we have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately by Russia. This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American Democracy. To that end we have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, insight social unrest, and damage President Trump. You may have seen some reporting on this in the last 24 hours or you may have even been one of the recipients of those emails.
John Carlin: New York democratic Senator Chuck Schumer disputed DNI Ratcliffe’s claim about the target of those emails.
Speaker 4: This action I do not believe was aimed from my surmise was aimed at discrediting President Trump. I heard that the DNI said that. It was rather done to undermine confidence in our elections. Aimed at democrats, republicans, independents.
John Carlin: It does not appear that any action was undertaken that could affect the outcome of the voting that has already started across the country. So here are some of my take aways from this development. That was very interesting and unusual press conference in a couple of different ways. It was important, and I think a good step that the FBI director was intending to be transparent about activity they saw from nation states with an attempt to influence the election. And I thought the core message of the FBI director was actually although Iran and Russia are attempting to undertake these activities that people should be comforted that there is no actual impact on election result tallies and that people should exercise their right to vote.
That’s a very different message that the one that his commander and chief the president has been sending who has repeatedly called into question whether or not this can be a free or fair election. I also thought it was interesting as Senator Schumer noted that the Director of National Intelligence said that Iran was specifically trying to hurt President Trump with his action and did not hear that echoed by the FBI director or others from law enforcement. And it was actually strange and unusual for the Director of National Intelligence to be the one at the press conference. Something I’ll talk about a little bit more with Sue is several other ways that he’s behaved unusually since she’s been installed as Director of National Intelligence.
If they were trying to hurt the president it was a bit of a strange scheme because the emails were reportedly from this far right group and actually were intimidating democratic voters from voting. So if it didn’t get picked up on publicly it actually would’ve had the effect of depressing the democratic, not the republican vote. It seems more consistent with the scheme that just has the general goal of undermining confidence in the election at large and our democratic process. I think the intent from the FBI in terms of making the announcement coming on the eve of the final debate and this close to the election might be consistent with several other actions including an startling indictment which I encourage everyone listening to read that really lays out in detail the scope and scale of Russian activities not just against the United States, not just against elections here. But against the world. Including activity targeting the 2018 Olympics that was destructive in nature and really can only be described as vengeful.
It served no real purpose. It didn’t achieve a political goal [inaudible] seemed to be angered over the fact that Russian Olympic participants had been called out for steroid use and in that sense was really an attack on the world. And similarly it laid in great detail a destructive attack called NotPetya that spread out from Ukraine. Hit everything from hospitals to companies around the world costing billions of dollars. Again, an attack against the civilizations of the world and details in the indictment, if you read it, are startling in that rather than be upset that this destructive tool did not work as intended that the intelligence and military officers behind it seemed to be amused at the destruction that it caused to the world.
One with expect with that type of action unveiled to hear more about Russian activity both from the director of national intelligence and certainly from our president. And yet although every other member of the law enforcement intelligence community private sector companies like Microsoft seem to be taking action against Russian aggression that silence from the top is notable. In terms of Iran it’s not surprising that Iran would carry out cyber operations in the US as this audience has heard before, and we’ve talked about. Iran was one of the first to unleash destructive attacks in the United States. In some ways the first. In terms of attacks that they did when they were mad about controversial comments that the head of the Sand’s Casino Sheldon Adelson had made. He made some comments about turning Iran into a nuclear dust cloud, dropping a bomb in the desert there. Tueller was not amused, called for retaliatory attacks and destructive malware was unleashed in Sand Casino Operations. We also saw Iran and laid out in a public indictment that Iran had unleashed distributed Nile services acts that I want to say used command to control to target hundreds of thousands of compromised computers against a range of financial institutions over a period of years affecting hundreds of thousands of customers and costing tens of millions of dollars.
So given the connotations between the two countries, not surprising that Iran would try to do some type of attack. The details of the attack [inaudible] been not unveiled so far using a compromised Saudi insurance company insurance network and strange illusions, a Proud Boy, that is more unusual. And it shows that because effective action has not been taken against Russia for it’s efforts to influence the 2016 election again it attempted in the 2018 election as is laid out in the new justice department indictment attempted to influence to French elections, and the failure of the world to respond and deter Russia I think has led other countries like Iran to think, “Well we can play at this game too.” That said, I think Russia is still the primary threat and focus although we should be concerned about Iran as well.
In some ways a biggest worry when we think about this is less about direct attacks on our election infrastructure and our actual ability to vote on election day or to vote early, and more about the efforts of these groups to undermine confidence in the results of those elections. And so in that sense I thought the message that the FBI director was attempting to deliver was a good one, and I wish it would be echoed by his ultimate boss the commander in chief. Bottom line, we are going to see nation states attempt to interfere in this election and their success will depend, or failure will depend both on the efforts of Cybersecurity professionals to defend systems but most importantly on us I think effectively getting out messaging that shows what the foreign nations are trying to do and encourages Americans to ignore it and get about what we do which is exercising our right to vote and participate in the democracy. And now I turn to my interview with Sue Gordon.
Great to have you here with us today, Sue. Little bit going on [crosstalk] in the world.
Sue Gordon: Thanks John. [crosstalk] crazy times.
John Carlin: Yeah. I thought I’d start where any conversation about intelligence, national security, and cyber issues should start which is zoology.
Sue Gordon: Yeah.
John Carlin: I noticed you end up being one of the most, or the most senior official overseeing the intelligence apparatus the United States government, but you started by studying zoology at Duke. Tell me a little bit about that and how you ended up making a shift towards intelligence.
Sue Gordon: I chose zoology as a major because I thought I was going to be a world famous marine biologist and I played basketball so I didn’t have a chance to go out to their East Coast lab to study that. So I chose a more broad major, zoology. And it was really biomechanics which is the engineering of living systems. I’ve designed [inaudible] vocal chords and things like that. But I couldn’t decide whether I was going to get my PhD or go to law school so I thought I would get a job. I’m the daughter of a naval officer, so I believe in public service and the CIA was hiring. And so I interviewed and they hired me to be an analyst of Soviet Biological Warfare which kind of makes sense right? So I was an expert in critters, and well no. I was educated in critters and that was the topical thing. Unfortunately it took a long time to get my security clearance and the job was gone when I arrived and so they said, “Go find work within 30 days or we’ll take away your employment offer.” Always motivated by time, I found a job doing unbelievably analysis of Soviet Missile Systems.
And it’s like, “Well how do you do that?” And the answer is my zoology was the engineering of living systems and the second is you’re not stuck with the knowledge you have. So I thought I was going to start just doing a job for a few years before I figured out my real life, and I loved the work. And it turns out if you focus on the job you have, work really hard to be good, but keep your head up to know what you’re really doing and what it applies, a lot of opportunities came my way. So I just kind of moved through things. In years after the fact I can explain how zoology was the perfect major because zoology is an inductive science. You look at living systems and you say, well this is what they’re doing. It must be perfect, because that’s what evolution says, and let’s just figure out what it is. And that’s a really good analogy to intelligence. And then in cyber it’s a good discipline because the real challenge with cyber is the systemic coupling of a malware or some sort of even and understanding how it’s going to react within a system. So there’s some, it turns out I was brilliant with my major’s choice.
John Carlin: Do you think maybe that the agency was scouting your class. [inaudible] start focusing now?
Sue Gordon: No I think they thought I was too dangerous to let out of the door [inaudible]. But we could let her go out into the wild or we could give her work.
John Carlin: And you talked a little bit about basketball on the side there, but you were a pretty darn good player. Tell me a little bit more about your other credential for going into intelligence work which was basketball.
Sue Gordon: So I do believe that competitive sports particularly for women is a really good foundation for the work environment and success and there’s lots of studies on that. I just like playing sports. If you are my age and you entered college in 1976, you were basically the jock that had played a whole bunch of sports and then basketball was the one that Duke had and so I tried out and made the team. What was cool about my tenure is not my play because it turned out that I was good [inaudible] athlete but not a great basketball player. But I got to see the four years when basketball turned from kind of high school plus to the beginnings of what we see now. And the girls I played with are still record holders 40 years later.
So I got to be there when the modern game really for women really came alive. I played in the first ACC Tournament for women. I played when the NCAA included women. I was there. I never started a game except the pity game my last senior game, but I was captain for three years which I think kind of presaged a little bit about who I was which is, if you care about the outcome you contribute whatever is necessary, not necessarily what you prefer. But I just, I love sports. I’m uber competitive and it was a great foundation for being able to participate in the national security environment.
John Carlin: You know its, when I hear you describe that your leadership skills are evident, you’d become captain without starting, and then some ways it’s like rising up to be the top career official in intelligence because you came up to the analytic side- [crosstalk]
Sue Gordon: Yep.
John Carlin: -Rather than being an operator. But [crosstalk] ultimately you’re helping coordinate and drive what’s collective.
Sue Gordon: Yeah but I will say that I started as an analyst. I moved into science and technology. I got the chance to see operations through cyber and then I got a chance to lead support. And so what’s really good about the career I was graced with, and I think this helped me in my last job, is you learn that everyone sees risks differently. And the ability to chart a course understanding all the elements of risk, not just the element that you prefer, I think is, turns out to be a pretty useful way to participate in the policy and discussions.
John Carlin: And what types of, and a little bit more, I think that’s a great point about having a different, the different way that people perceive risks and trying to combine those different viewpoints. Let me ask you a little bit though. You talked about being a, playing basketball at a time of transition for women in the sport and the way that the sport was treated and the recognition that it got. But you also joined the intelligence community.
Sue Gordon: Yeah.
John Carlin: And the CIA specifically at a time when there weren’t that many [crosstalk] women. Tell me a little bit about that trajectory of going. What it was like then and what you’ve seen over the years in terms of how it’s changed.
Sue Gordon: Yeah so it’s only in retrospect that I noticed how few women were around when I started. I started in the Office of Scientific and Weapons Research and that was about an 800 person office. It was an amazing collection of talent, but about 800 people. And I think there were only two or three professional women when I entered.
John Carlin: And hold, you said only in retrospect. So when you were there at the time you just, you were so [crosstalk] [inaudible] that you didn’t notice?
Sue Gordon: Yeah plus I think I just was so focused on being good plus I had to catch up a lot right? I was a zoo major so I had to learn about, a lot about a lot of different things from communications to telemetry to the craft of intelligence. So I think early on I was so focused on just being good that I didn’t really notice it. I mean I’ve got some funny stories and funny, stupid things that were said to me along the way. But they didn’t really matter and the CIA is a pretty egalitarian place. It’s like playing pick up basketball with guys, right? If you play pickup basketball with guys. If you don’t do something with the ball you’re not going to get it again. And at the CIA if you don’t do something with the position you have, you’re not going to succeed. But the upside of that is, there’s an allowance for people to achieve. And so I kind of lucked into an organization that suited my personality which was I drove hard, I did things, and the organization instead of fighting it off was like, “Oh, you can do things.” And then they will give you more things to do.
I will say that there weren’t many, listen there were enough women who were amazing, who were inspirational. They were not women who had families and husbands and kids and all the other demands of society. So that’s probably one of the differences. And one of the things I tried to be was very open about the whole of my life. That I was married, that I had kids, that I would take them to their games. I in fact left for eight years to finish raising my kids which no one modeled in the ’80’s. And I then tried to model later as more and more women worked through the organization.
John Carlin: I know you’ve told me this story before, but when you were pregnant with your first child in fact [crosstalk] you refused to turn in your badge, which apparently was the customary practice for- [crosstalk]
Sue Gordon: Yeah.
John Carlin: -expecting women.
Sue Gordon: Because women don’t come back, right?
John Carlin: So tell me how did that go down? How’d you work it out that [inaudible]? Were you one of the first women then to take that leave at least at the agency and come back?
Sue Gordon: Well as you say there weren’t many and there weren’t many in my demographic group. And there weren’t many in my demographic group that were having children at the time so it was still pretty new. How it went down was, the system wasn’t prepared to know what to do about someone who didn’t turn in their badge, so I came back so it didn’t become an issue. Far funnier was three years, four years later when I had my second child. Now we’re moving along with family benefits. And one of the things they had was leave sharing. And spouses could give leave to their other spouse to cover things like childbirth and medical issues. It was like a precursor to medical leave then. And so I applied for it because one of the real hidden horrors of the years you give birth is you take your leave to zero. And it’s really hard to recover from that.
So I get pregnant second time, no worries, I apply for leave sharing, and I get a letter that denies it because I was senior in grade to my husband. And the lawyers ruled that under gifts to superiors he [crosstalk] couldn’t give me- [crosstalk]
John Carlin: Really?
Sue Gordon: -His leave. I know. I had to, it’s fantastic. And I wrote a [crosstalk] letter back that said-
John Carlin: But the issue is that you’re going to be you were going to treat your husband more favorably because of the leave, but otherwise [inaudible] [crosstalk].
Sue Gordon: I mean what? No Mother’s Day gifts? No Christmas gifts? I one, I think there’s only one time that a woman got into it alone. But two, he could not have more influence over me, but who cares? But anyways, so we’ve come along. We’ve come along.
John Carlin: No I think it’s important [inaudible] second time to go through it too because it’s not just an issue of historical record. It’s, you and I have talked about it, I mean in terms of hiring today and why certain career checks particularly in cyber end up being male dominated, it’s not always intentional. It’s failures to really think through what, the language they are using when you post a job.
Sue Gordon: Right.
John Carlin: The leave schedules that they are putting on.
Sue Gordon: Right.
John Carlin: The customs that have developed. With no real reason.
Sue Gordon: When I was in my, the really in the teeth of my mid career where you’re really making your bones was the year I had, were the years I was having children. And my choice was I cheated time. So I would be there when I took my kids to school, I’d work. My husband and I would trade off who dropped off and who picked up, but I would be home when my children came home from school so we could do homework and sing a song and read a book and put them to bed. And then I would go back into the office, so for a whole bunch of years I would go back in and work from 10 to two. Or 10 to three. And then come back so my children didn’t know that I wasn’t there which was my choice. But I did kind of, that was unsustainable. And the day came where I had to leave. How did I not have a boss that was seeing that? And how did I not have someone say, “Hey Sue you’re making some really crazy choices here. Let’s see if we can’t figure out how you can do one days worth of work today rather than three days worth of work a day.”
And so when I came back I tried to be that boss who was still probably way too demanding, but tried to see my women and men as whole creatures, right? In a whole humans, that needed to be able to do all the things.
John Carlin: And so you went and luckily you got through that period and then you end up briefing five of the last six presidents and I’ll be curious how President George H.W. Bush ended up not being on the list. But I wanted to get a sense a little bit what your, when you’re briefing the different presidents how did they vary in style? How would you describe their different approaches to being briefed?
Sue Gordon: Oh golly. I, each is different as they are. So I actually did brief 41 when he was Reagan’s vice president. And he was in the room where I briefed on the Soviet Civil Space Program. And so I was a pop briefing on my area of expertise. Reagan was like a dad, right? He was just very thoughtful, he was thinking about it he would ask his colleagues, “What do you think?” or “Why did they do that?” And the person he turned to was George H.W. and he was like the sage reasoned voice for Reagan and I think that’s the record of him. As you move through them, so Reagan was interested, respectful, curious, surprised, thought it was cool. He was a fun person. He was just a fun person to brief. As you move through it, the ones that really strike me then are President Obama. So he was a thinker, right? When you briefed him you were giving him information for him to process, put together, consider. He was a comfortable person to brief for an analyst because he was thinking analytically, right? And he wasn’t just consuming it. And he was putting it in place.
And so I don’t know that I would consider him a fun brief, but he was a comfortable person to brief. And then President Trump is, I say this all the time, one of the ways that he’s similar to the other presidents is that they’re all different. He’s much more of a romp in terms of you better come with your socks up, you better come with information good enough to play with, not just the information you wanted to impart, but how that information plays in non predictive ways. I think President Trump was a hard person to just run and expert at because his questions weren’t neat. And weren’t particularly predictive and in the stodgy world of intelligence he would ask questions of an intelligence officer that intelligence officers are taught you don’t answer. So you have a president who doesn’t obey the rules you have a very rule based coulter and there were times that I think that was difficult.
John Carlin: Can you give an example? Not from a briefing, but an example of the type of rule that intelligence active briefings trained to follow that- [crosstalk]?
Sue Gordon: Yeah what do you think I should do about that? Right? So you’re briefing the president and I say this without [inaudible], right? This is you’re briefing someone who is an outsider. Hasn’t been trained in all the arcanity of the various rules and the limitations of all the various branches. He’s sitting, in front of him are sitting people talking about important things. My experience was especially early on he didn’t distinguish between what the delineation of the responsibilities were. So, let me think if I can think of an example. Yeah usually it was kind of like, well what do you think we should do about that? Do you think we should do A or B or C? Or I think that’s not true. Or I think they’re cheating us or I think they’re whatever. And it would be pushing off of what we had presented but it wouldn’t be, let’s talk more about the intelligence. It would be more about the situation. And who’s responsibility is it to figure out how to be successful in that setting? I think it’s on the intelligence community because what we want more than anything else is for information or the clarity, wisdom, and insight that we pray we’re bringing can be heard.
And if you’ve got someone who’s going off in different directions who’s asking things of you that are not what you’re prepared to answer, you still have to figure out how you give him information that you believe he needs to hear.
John Carlin: And you’ve talked before about how one particularly difficult topic was trying to brief Russian interference in the 2016 election and then ensuing investigations into that activity, some of which are now public. Both the Russian attempts on the 2018 election that resulted in a public criminal indictment and really just earlier there was the indictment of Russian officers for attacking everything from the Olympics to unleashing a cyber worm of unprecedented destruction that had things ranging from hospitals to electric grids, it’s still called NotPetra. And that that was particularly contentious for President Trump. And so how did he differ from others in terms of not listening to the intelligence community on different subjects or trying to change your findings if at all?
Sue Gordon: Let’s see so I think history will show that the outcome bureaucratically systemically of the Russian interference and the intelligence community’s assessment became in the [inaudible], my sense is they became in the president’s mind an indictment of his legitimacy. And in fact with actions that followed with his political opponents, it became a question in his mind or it became synonymous with people who would say that his presidency was illegitimate. Whether that was collusion or whether it was people who would suggest that things that we didn’t find which where vote changing. And so any time that we raised it, he heard that we were re raising the issue of the legitimacy or this was my sense. And we’ve had conversation after conversation saying, “Mr. President, that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying what the Russians are doing. We’re talking about the Russian intent.” But it just became conflated such that it was a hard topic for him to hear. And then because this president is more situational, more transactional, more economic, more leverage, more deal making, then you have him wanting to use or suppress information based on what he was trying to accomplish on other venues.
So I think I can see why it was so fraught. It was never my experience that we pulled any punches in our assessments. I think history, we can talk about this. I think the things that have been done between 2016 and 2020 as a federal government and then with the private sector with state and locals to better secure our elections is remarkable work. And none of the things that happened with the president have altered that success. That said, given that it was a topic that was always contentious, you always worry that over time people will just start making decisions about not bringing things forward. But during my time there I never saw a change in assessment, never saw us pull a punch. But I can see a long term deleterious effect if it continued.
John Carlin: And what do you think of if you saw the most recent reporting that said that there was a review of Russia house information by the general council and the director of the CIA before information went to the president. And I have two thoughts about that. So one was along the lines that you were just discussing in terms of thinking about what the reaction would be and deciding what you want to brief or not brief. But the second was, you have this very unusual situation now that’s really been consistent through the four years, but what happens if the president is not re elected continues to hold this view about intelligence as provided about Russia, could that end up jeopardizing sources and methods and what’s your responsibility if you’re concerned about that when they are still the sitting commander and chief? And I could see either of those reasons being reasons why you’d want to carefully review what was briefed. But what’s your take?
Sue Gordon: Yeah so, that’s a great question. The first is intelligence is weird in that it’s always fractional. It’s almost always imperfect. It is infrequent that you get intelligence that is so complete that by itself it answers a question. And so you’ll get intelligence that you believe is credible, but is not corroborated. You’ll get intelligence that’s credible but from an incredible source and so you’re always trying to put it together. The challenge that we had with election specific intelligence is that you don’t want to do the opponents work for them, right? So you’re always trying to decide how much confidence do you have in the information and in 2020 and probably for the last five years nothing stays in channel, right?
More and more people are deciding that they’re going to reveal it for their own purpose. And so one, you get more and more tight about being certain in your assessment because you know that it is going to be used and potentially misused. So I applaud that, I would expect that’s what people are doing getting more tight about how certain they are. Just in saying that, you know the problem that arises. Because intelligence is sometimes best when it is a fractional warning that allows you to consider other things. Just Gina is about [inaudible] intelligence officer that I know. I have no sense that she would do anything other than what she believed was appropriate for not only her responsibility but the craft. But I do think that this is a particularly difficult administration for whom to both be relevant and be independent. And so I think there are absolutely deleterious possibilities of either exposing too much, AKA declassify a whole bunch of stuff. Or holding too much. Both of which actions are tools you have, but you better make sure you’re applying it with the right understanding of the consequence.
John Carlin: Do you think the current director of national intelligence is making the right decision declassifying documents right before an election?
Sue Gordon: With the caveat that I am not sitting in his shoes seeing what he’s seeing, I probably would not, for three reasons that are probably different from his. Number one is all that information has been seen. You don’t have to declassify things and the American people don’t have to see it in order for it to have been overseen. We are a representative republic. We have oversight committees who have the ability to see things while they’re still classified. So number one this notion of transparency only being telling the American people is a little bit misplaced. Two, there are times when you do need to make information available to the people who are being directly threatened. In some cases particularly in elections, it is the citizenry one. But then you have to ask yourself whether the information itself can be consumed by the people you’re releasing it to. And then three, so back to this are you doing good or harm. And then the third thing is, why now?
All of that would have been considered by the Durham investigation. The Durham investigation is going on. As far as I know there’s no other investigation the intelligence community. If there’s been wrongdoing in community, for goodness sake pursue it. But jumping the shark and putting out information without context or with an implied context, is not something that I believe I would have done. With the caveat that I’m not sitting in his chair seeing the things he sees.
John Carlin: Let’s talk about why you’re not in that chair? Why did you resign from government last year?
Sue Gordon: Because it was clear that the president was not interested in me even being the acting Director of National Intelligence when Dan resigned. And even though that there was a statue that said that the Principal Deputy Director upon the vacancy would become the DNI. It became clear that he did not want that to happen. And if you’re the third officer, third child of a naval officer and your boss who appointed you to a position says he no longer wants you there, you give a cheery aye aye and you step aside. So that’s one just Sue Gordon moral code. But there were two other reasons that I resigned because there were people that wanted me to force him to fire me. One was, I was the steward of the intelligence community but the strength of the intelligence community was in the women and men. And it would’ve been disingenuous to say, “You’re only going to be good in intelligence if Sue Gordon is in this position.” So number one is because it would’ve been difficult if the president was forced to have someone he didn’t want, I wanted to send the message to my community that it was going to be okay that they would carry it forward. And if you look at my resignation letter I really wrote my resignation letter for the women and men in the IC to say, “You guys were the strength, just keep being the strength. It’ll be okay.”
And then the third thing is, my God I did not want to give one more front for the battle between the intelligence community and the president to go on. I guess I could’ve burned down the house, but I was going to lose in the end so it felt to me that both from a personal perspective and from a responsibility to my community that that was the right thing to do. But it hurt John. Right Dan was a political appointee into the position when I lost mine. It was the end of a 40 year love affair. I mean I think I’m getting over my PTSD but that was a hard day.
John Carlin: Just what I was going to, I imagine so and you wrote and got a lot of attention in the media a short note accompanying it saying that, “Mr. President I offer this letter as an act of respect and patriotism not preference. You should have your team. Godspeed, Sue.” And that did get attention and what was your thinking? Did you think the media covered that right? Did you mean for it to get attention?
Sue Gordon: Well first things first why would, I wrote that handwritten note to the president. There was one copy and I left it with him. Why did the white house release that? You do know that I didn’t release it. I didn’t pen out a second copy and say, “Here’s what I just said.” So you know what I was doing with it? I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t want me to serve. And so I’d written my resignation. I was going to deliver that. I was actually in the car with the resignation and I ran upstairs and penned out that note because one I thought it would be rude if I didn’t get a chance to see him to just hand him a typewritten letter. And second I was trying to say, “Mr. President, you don’t have to do this.” Right? I’m doing it because that seems to be what people want. But my preference would have been to continue to serve. That’s all. There were probably some other side benefits to it but really I was just saying, “Don’t do this if you don’t want to.”
John Carlin: Having a 40 year professional and then they move towards the current Director of National Intelligence, a former congressman, Congressman Ratcliffe who was critiqued during his confirmation hearing for not having extensive experience in the intelligence community. In addition to being critiqued for having oversold what little experience he did have as a US attorney. And that was stuck in my head because I know the case is one I worked on in the department. And so he has corrected that he was not the lead prosecutor on a terrorism case. He said he was doing a very different function. But in that role just recently now in addition to the declassification he said something that I also think is unprecedented in that he is actively weighing in on New York Post stories about what looks to be linked or perhaps linked to Russian intelligence and debunking it. Tell me a little bit what do you think of what he’s saying about that issue and how would you approach it as an intel professional?
Sue Gordon: So if I had been his deputy, I think the first question is what misconception did he believe it was important to correct? And let’s say he decides that the things that needed to be corrected was the growing suggestion that the laptop or the emails were part of a disinformation campaign. I think we talked about whether he could, whether he was going to make it better or worse. Because again it’s all about outcome for the American people. It isn’t really about anything else than that. So I think first thing is, are you going to make it better or worse? If you believed that there were things being ascribed to the intelligence community that weren’t true and he felt that he needed to correct it, I would’ve said, “Well then stick to the statement of an intelligence statement which would be something like we have no evidence of if that were true.” And if that were true and it would make it better than worse then I think that was a totally legitimate intelligence thing to say. To say it wasn’t Russian disinformation that isn’t an intelligence statement.
Because any intelligence professional knows that it’s all about whether you have evidence or not, and intelligence understands that there are things that are outside your kin that could be true so you tend to talk about whether you have evidence. And then the last thing I would have counseled is, don’t get sucked into a conversation of candidates or positions or US citizens because that isn’t your responsibility. And if you go into that you have tacitly called into question the independence of intelligence. And if you’ll allow me to digress just for a second, and this is something I’ve talked to President Trump about. A president is actually well served when periodically they are seen as having disagreement with the [inaudible] intelligence community. Because it’s intelligence and policy.
We give you the intelligence you get to choose your policy and there’s no law that says your policy has to be right. But if you can’t allow that periodic disagreement people start believing that intelligence isn’t true in the sense of true to the craft, true to the data, true to the intelligence. And then that has a deleterious effect. So the reason I would probably counseled Director Ratcliffe to steer clear of weighing in with the personalities or the factions or the positions would’ve been, any time that you do that you call into question the objectivity of intelligence and the nation is well served by believing that intelligence is independent. So I probably would have counseled him a bit differently.
John Carlin: So you’re I think touching on when you talk about the way intelligence is perceived and the role of the intelligence community, one of the things we confronted during our time together, and I know I’ve talked with subsequently is, when it comes in particular to the challenges that are coming from our transformation to a digitally reliant society where so much of the talent and the technology is in private hands, and where our adversaries are starting to target the private sector in a way really unheard of, at least in our [crosstalk] time as the country where it’s been more usually target to government against government. The trust between public and the private sector to combat that threat becomes important in a way, it’s always important but important in a new way that’s vital to doing the essential mission of protecting the country.
You are now in the public sector and it seems like you’ve made a rather seamless transition and I know you’re working with Microsoft among others. And I’m wondering when it comes to that divide, trust in ways in which you could improve information sharing, what have you learned being on the other side of the table? Has it changed your perspective at all? What are your observations?
Sue Gordon: One perception that hasn’t changed is that the private sector really wants to help. They do. They have their own value proposition. They have their own stories about times that they’ve either been disadvantaged or harmed but my experience when I was in and my experience now that I’m out is lots of patriots who are trying to throw their lots in to address what are now obvious national security threats that are being worked through either their holdings or their actions are affecting it. So what is the same is that I’ve always believed that there is great interest in patriotism. What I’ve also learned is the government is really hard to work with.
It is really hard to find a decision maker who can either take the services being offered or imagine how you could use the information. And the government still is way too, I’m going to say ethnocentric in terms of, “Here’s what we need to have happen.” Rather than recognizing some of the things that the private sector needs. So I’ll give you an example. Sensitive technology used to be created by the government and we had technology control regimes to be able to protect that technology. Now sensitive technologies are being produced by the private sector all the time, and we’re trying to protect them after the fact. But those actions cannot be ones that impede our private sector’s ability to either operate globally or more importantly be global technological leaders.
And so the rigidity of the government in terms of how you protect, how you affect, is sometimes antithetical to what the companies need to be in order to be able to be successful and put us, make us secure in a different front. So, but way more good news in terms of sharing than we’ve ever seen. A lot of it around elections. I think there’s good news on the social media front in terms of these companies who five years ago didn’t think they were responsible for anything and now we’re trying to really tackle the issue of authenticity which is very vexing. So I think there’s a lot of good news front, but it’s going to take a lot of effort on the government side to take advantage of it and to come up with regulatory engovernous regimes that are not so restrictive that our companies have a choice of either participating with the US or participating globally because that’s a bad choice.
John Carlin: You mentioned in particular the election and social media companies. We have a little election coming up. Did you work on the recent Microsoft reports outlining what they’re seeing?
Sue Gordon: I did not, but I know the groups that did. I think that’s a really exciting turn of events. That now there’s starting to emerge a norm that is so universal that can be applied not only by governments but by companies in terms of seeing behaviors that are not only antithetical to national security, but antithetical to their business stand. So I think what’s happening with the private sector in terms of not only seeing but using legitimate mechanisms to stop misbehavior is a really exciting trend even if some of the authenticity pieces with Twitter or Facebook are not perfect. They are evidence that you just can’t use whatever you want to pursue whatever interest you have and you have a much, you’re at the beginning of a much more cohesive defense of trusted communications and truth than I think we’ve seen in the past five years. So I think it’s a really great trend.
John Carlin: And how would you describe this building off that report a little bit? It talked about a tax coming from Russia, from individuals operating from China and from individuals operating from Iran. How would you assess those three countries as we head into our election? What can they do?
Sue Gordon: Yeah so I always worry about Russia. One because their doctrine is to undermine democracy and I’ve always believed that that’s about the worst thing you could do to us, the greatest threat to America is making us not believe in ourselves. You have a nation that has had that as doctrine forever and now they have these cool new digital tools that allow region speed and blooming and no cost that allows them to affect that and they are a very accomplished intelligence service, so I think the elections are particularly fertile ground for them and they are particularly capable. China of course is an incredibly concerning adversary and competitor. We’ve done a really good job, and I think this is something the administration has done very well at is exposing that threat. Whether it’s intellectual property, whether it is the power of investing here. But make no mistake that China is a significant power, a significant economic power with interest that it wants to achieve at the expense of the US. They’re a bit more economic perhaps than Russia’s.
But their capabilities are growing hand over fist and quantity has it’s own quality. Just in terms of the resources they can apply. Not as much about undermining us, more about using us to be able to achieve their aim. So a little bit different. Iran and North Korea and a whole host of others, there are tens who have figured out this is just pretty fertile ground to shape our beliefs, shape our politics, shape our politicians, shape our laws, shape our policies. But as you start going down from the big global powers you start seeing them effecting their regional interest through the same medium. But they’re still regional interests. That yes it has some local issues. Yes they can cause you mischief.
So the thing I would just encourage is, for the longest time and then John this is where you and I started. Where cyber was this cool technical thing. Now it’s grown up where it’s just the way interests are affected and so really focusing on intent and what’s trying to be done rather than just the modalities [inaudible] with a key. And if you get then like the Microsoft and others who are doing a better and better job protecting from activities I think you have a prospect of shaping a better future than we’ve had over the last five years. But make no mistake, lots of foreign actors affecting their interests through our public square.
John Carlin: And you raised there the not doing their job for them, I think you said in terms of [crosstalk] undermining the American, longstanding American confidence in what is said and what certain governments difference including the intelligence community are doing.
Sue yeah we’re seeing this explosion in emerging new technology including both artificial intelligence and how that, will that replace the analysts? Can it be exploited by the analysts? What’s the best way to think about artificial intelligence and machine learning? Number one. And then number two another subject we’ve talked a lot about in terms of emerging technology is changing the way that the president and other officials are briefed because for years it’s been paper based and oral. Should they be seeing things that look more like a YouTube video because that’s the way people understand? Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on both.
Sue Gordon: So I am an advocate, almost zealot about the need to embrace, advance, and employ artificial intelligence against the discipline of intelligence and within the intelligence community. And I think we need to completely double down. It’s like my grandma always said, “How do you make a rhubarb pie? You double the amount of sugar you need and then you add a little bit more. I would say in AI we need to double the resources against it and then add a little bit more because it will be so critical to be able to see what’s happening with the same clarity that we used to be able to see when our answer was tossing a satellite up in the sky and seeing beyond the horizon physically. [inaudible] all the threats are two and three information you have to be able to use the world’s information to have a clearer picture.
I can see the potential of data technology, so artificial intelligence being able to reveal patterns of discontiguous events that give you a little bit of advantage to know what’s happening in a world where divining intent is impossible, data has the potential to allow you to infer intent by seeing more actions. So 100% has got to be critical to intelligence and intelligence has to be better at it than anyone else. And what’s cool about that is if that’s going to happen, you’re going to have to assure the security of the algorithms and you’re going to have to assure the integrity of the data and those two things are important from national security respective and beyond that.
So over the moon, endless, quit being babies. Your brain enabled by technology will take us places that will be so much fun for you. So just got to do it. Will it change how you brief? It will change everything because you will have the potential to make decisions at a speed that’s more relevant than humans can do right now. In other words, it’s not going to take over decisions for humans, but right now the world is deciding the things we do because we can’t get humans to decide at a rate that’s equivalent. So I think it will absolutely change how you present information. But it won’t obviate the need for human judgment in it’s interpretation.
John Carlin: And you’ve made a comment, “Data is the new black.” What’d you mean by that?
Sue Gordon: You know we focus so much on software but we’re not really focusing on the rules around data. Everything from have we thought about what data we need in order to be able to make the decisions we need to and go and producing the kind of data that will answer the questions that we have? To when we collect data ensuring that it’s collected in a way that can be used. If you’re in the intelligence community if you’re anywhere we all know that there are data sitting in warehouses that are just not in a format that they can be acted on. To how data can work with each other. To how we have data integrity. So every future goes through the use of data. But we aren’t looking at data at it’s inception with the idea of how it’s going to be used.
And Facebook is a great example. Or all the social media companies that are just producing data hand over fist with no ethic around it whatsoever. So it’s interesting, but it can’t, it’s not actually, it was never produced in a way that imagined it’s use. It just [inaudible] organically flowed and that created some problems. So thinking about the data, having a structure around it, ensuring it’s integrity, imagining it’s use, will allow us to advance at rates that we can’t right now.
John Carlin: And you’ve said talking about data and the ways in which it’s collected and used by social media companies, there’s been much discussion about Tik Tok and the unprecedented use of an executive order and we’ll see what the story remains to be written as it goes [crosstalk] through the courts. [crosstalk]
Sue Gordon: Yeah who knows right?
John Carlin: And we’ll see what will ultimately happen, but [inaudible] do you think that’s more of a parenting problem than a security thing? I’ll tell you I’ve not allowed my daughter to use Tik Tok and she asks me every single day, “Has somebody bought Tik Tok yet so that I, so that it’s safe? Can I use it now? Can I use it now?” But you’ve said I think maybe that we shouldn’t be so worried about Tik Tok vs all the other social media.
Sue Gordon: Tik Tok is a great example and the security concern about Tik Tok is not the technology itself, and we’ll get to the parenting issue, it’s really about the concern that all that data, particularly the personally identifying information that people willingly give to anyone in order to download a video or to buy a pair of shoes could be directed, used, stolen, use your word by someone who has less than good purposes. And the concern with Tik Tok is being in Chinese company there are Chinese laws that say that companies, Chinese companies must participate with intelligence services when asked.
Does that mean that they would have to provide all the US citizen data if they were asked? Then I think that’s concerning because in a data world what protects us is that we are a nation of laws, In a data world if there aren’t those laws you’re going to be able to do a lot of interesting things with that data. And we know China stole the OPM data what was that now five, seven years ago right? We know that they’ve taken data out of hospitals and have a huge effort against patient information to be able to understand diseases and how those work. And so one of the worries is if you don’t protect data, if it doesn’t have a pedigree, if you can’t ensure that it doesn’t get misused by either bad actors or bad purposes, those who aren’t constrained by law can do some really interesting things in order to prepare for future action. So lot around data security, data ethics, data integrity.
John Carlin: I want to thank you today Sue and I think our listeners can understand why in your 40 years we were lucky to have your service in the intelligence community and why it’s so important to continue a tradition of non partisan intelligence analysis and why it’s important. Not just because we need to rely on the information but because that says something about who we are as a country. That we have officials who without regard to who it might please or displease try to tell the truth as best as they can analyze it. So thank you.
Sue Gordon: John thanks so much. Really important what you’re doing. I think what you’re doing is making the digital environment understandable because what’s being affected through it is at once as old as time and at the exact same time presaging a new world and so these conversations I’m totally hooked on your podcasts, and I hope I don’t lose any listeners for you.
John Carlin: Cyber Space is presented by CAFE. Your host is John Carlin. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, Nat Weiner, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. The music is by Breakmaster Cylinder. Today’s episode was brought to you in collaboration with Brooklyn Law School’s BLIP Clinic. Special thanks to Amanda Kadish, Isablella Agusto, Jordan Khorshad, and Lexa Pantalubdus.