When news broke that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked last June, NPR correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, who was in Russia at the time, says she told her editors she didn’t think it was a big deal, that she didn't need to file a story.
“The reason I said that is that it’s not a surprise that Russia would be crawling around inside U.S. political databases and trying to get in there, and that the U.S. would be doing the same," Kelly said.
But that DNC hack would turn out to be no ordinary hacking.
"What was different last year -- that we didn’t know back in June when we first heard about the hack -- was that that information would be made public through WikiLeaks, through other platforms, that it would be used not just to inform the Kremlin and their thinking but to try to actually alter the course of the U.S. election. And that is what U.S. intelligence has concluded – Russia was trying to tip this. U.S. intelligence believes Russia was trying to tip this to Trump. That is something we haven’t seen.”
"(The intelligence agencies) stating that they have 'high confidence' that Russia interfered in the election -- that is significant because that’s a term of art in intelligence. If you say something with 'high confidence' it means they have more than one source; it means they have a direct source, they’re not relying on second-hand information. They don’t use that term of lightly."
The Russia story, Kelly said, is in some ways, just beginning to unfold, with the full picture yet to be painted. “This is going to take a while. We are in this for the long haul."
How unusual is it for all 17 U.S. spy agencies to come to a consensus -- as they did on Russian interference in the U.S. election?
That consensus comes from the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence, who is charged with coordinating and overseeing the work of all these spy agencies.
Aside from the more commonly known agencies -- CIA, FBI, NSA -- what are the other spy agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence apparatus?
There is the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department; all the branches of the military – Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines -- they all have their own intelligence branch and then they all feed into the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is providing intelligence to war fighters working closely with the CIA and others.
Some of the big departments that you wouldn’t think of as being intelligence agencies have intelligence shops inside -- the Treasury Department. They are one of those 17 spy agencies because they have an office that is looking at terror finance or sanctions -- tools that U.S. intelligence is using to disrupt or learn about nuclear activities or terror activities. The Energy Department has an intelligence shop and they’re looking at what’s known about nuclear weapons and tracking those types of things. Homeland security.
Once you start counting, you get to the 17th, which is the newest one -- the DNI, or Director of National Intelligence, which is one of the reforms put in place after 9/11 to try to bash heads together and say you guys have to share what you know. Because one of the lessons of the investigations into 9/11 was that there were dots out there that had they been connected might, might have prevented the terror attacks. The FBI had things that weren’t being shared with the CIA and vice versa. There have been reforms to get these guys to talk to each other a little bit.
Are those dots being connected now?
There absolutely are dots being connected that weren’t being connected before. You can look at for example how databases are tracking terrorists and flight lists.
At the same time it’s very much a work in progress. There are perennial complaints that the DNI is this bloated bureaucratic layer that’s been floated on top of everything but doesn’t actually have people out in the field bringing in intelligence, that it’s just micro-managing, that it needs to be trimmed down and made more lean and mean.
And there is the perpetual tension in the intelligence world. It sounds great -- that we should all be sharing information and playing together. The flip side is, if it is valuable information, that’s information you would not want your adversary to learn – whether your adversary is a nuclear proliferator, or an international crime ring, or a terror group, or a nation state, or North Korea or Iran. The more people who are read in and sharing information, the more likely that is to leak or to get out.
The investigation into Russia, the January report by U.S. Intelligence laying out some of the public evidence, came in three forms: public, classified that went to members of Congress with a certain level of clearance, and then the really top-secret version that went to a very tight circle.
Even people writing that top classified version, they aren’t able to read the whole thing. They only have access to the section they’re working on because you’re trying to restrict access and protect your sources and methods.
If I only get to read page one through three and then you read pages three through six, how could we possibly communicate?
The head of the CIA has read the whole thing. Certain are people reading it. The president has access to the whole thing, his national security advisor has access to the whole thing. And you’re hoping those dots get connected -- but it’s always a balancing act.
When should a state-sponsored cyber attack be considered a cyber war?
It is true that the rules of cyber war are still being written. What counts as incoming fire online and what is permissible in terms of retaliating and how you think about that with state-sponsored terrorism -- it is such a work in progress.
What's your next big assignment?
I'm going back to Russia to try to see it from the other side. So I'm trying to figure out who I can talk to, where I may be able to go. Trying to figure out how to operate there is a challenge. As a reporter, all journalists are aware you may well be monitored by Russian intelligence from the second you get off a plane, someone with my beat in particular. My job is talking to people at the CIA and national security agency, and so I will be traveling with a brand new clean phone and a brand new clean laptop and an alias email account because I don’t want those contacts to fall into the wrong hands.
For the full Exchange conversation, listen here.