When the U.S. intelligence community found evidence of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, it had to make a critical decision about when and how to share the report with Congress and the American public.

According to John Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it also presented an opportunity to confront Russia.

In his keynote address at the Fordham-FBI 2018 International Conference on Cyber Security on Jan. 10, Brennan, FCRH ’77, who served as CIA director from 2013 to January 2017, said he told a top Russian intelligence leader in 2016 that Russian meddling in the nation’s election would “backfire” because all Americans would be “outraged” by the country’s actions.

“Clearly there are some Americans who say, ‘Let’s not worry about that,’ which is very, very unfortunate,” he said, after noting that “it’s incontrovertible that the Russians did try to interfere” in the election.

“It’s not just the Russians that pose a challenge in that context as far as our future elections and election processes,” he said. “We’re vulnerable to other attempts—whether they be domestic or foreign.”

Speaking to a room of prominent cybersecurity experts and law enforcement professionals, Brennan called for a statutory provision that would require directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the CIA to disclose any critical cybersecurity threats ahead of U.S. elections.

“I think it will take away some of that uncertainty and discretion,” he said.

A disturbing trend

Brennan sees the increasing collaboration that exists between foreign intelligence services and hacking organizations, or non-state actors, as a developing threat to the United States. In his remarks, he mentioned the recent arrests of hackers who teamed up with Russian intelligence officers for the 2014 cyberattack on Yahoo!.

He called the alliance a “disturbing, frustrating trend” for U.S. intelligence administrators who are trying to track down malign actors in the cyber environment.

“[Foreign intelligence organizations] are leveraging that capability outside in order to augment what they already have,” said Brennan. “[What’s] even more important for them [is]to attenuate the forensic trail and the connection between what they do, and who, actually, is carrying it out—as opposed to who is directing it.”

For Brennan, who currently serves as a distinguished fellow for global security at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, striking a balance between privacy and security continues to present major challenges for the FBI and other intelligence units that are trying to curb cybercrimes.

As the world’s dependence on automation, artificial intelligence, and digital currency grows rapidly, he stressed that there needs to be unprecedented partnerships between private and public-sector entities, as well as top professionals and futurists in science, technology, and other disciplines in the United States.

“There really needs to be a better sense of exactly how the government is going to fill its responsibility to keep its citizens safe and secure and carry out the rule of law in this environment where, in some respects, it’s like the Wild Wild West,” he said.

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