Toward the end of the first 2016 presidential debate Sept. 26, moderator and “Dateline NBC” anchor Lester Holt announced the final segment discussion of the night: “Securing America.”
But instead of leading off with questions about nuclear proliferation, homeland defense or America’s role in international security, Holt asked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about threats of a different, digital nature.
“Our institutions are under cyber attack and our secrets are being stolen,” Holt said. “So my question is, who’s behind it? And how do we fight it?”
Clinton answered first, calling cybersecurity and cyber warfare “one of the biggest challenges facing the next president,” noting that the country is faced with two types of cyber attack threats: individuals and groups, often with monetary motives, and state-sponsored cyber attacks, with political and security targets.
In July a hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — attributed to Russian operatives — resulted in the WikiLeaks release of nearly 20,000 DNC emails, just before the Democratic National Convention. The breach and the timing of the release of the emails suggested Russia was aiming to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
“There’s no doubt now that Russia has used cyber attacks against all kinds of organizations in our country, and I am deeply concerned about this,” Clinton said during the debate. “We need to make it very clear — whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or anybody else — the United States has much greater [cyber] capacity. And we are not going to sit idly by and permit [countries] to go after our information, our private-sector information or our public-sector information.”
Trump responded by agreeing that cybersecurity was a top issue for the U.S. (“We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not,” he said) but also questioned whether Russia was to blame.
“I don’t think anybody knows [if] it was Russia that broke into the DNC,” he said. “She’s saying ‘Russia, Russia, Russia …’ maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could be lots of other people. It could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Cybersecurity has become a priority in Washington, D.C. recently, with the passage of the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, the launch of a Cybersecurity National Action Plan (CNAP) in February by the Obama administration, and the early September appointment of the first Federal Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).