Why in the World Don’t Governments Listen?
Maybe I’m ignorant, or stupid, or naive, or all three.
I go on Twitter and see that “We’re Being Hacked” is trending. It was an op-ed published in The New York Times by former Homeland Security Adviser to Donald Trump, Thomas P. Bossert, detailing the recent hacks on the US government and American corporations. Bossert outlines how last week, the cybersecurity firm FireEye was hacked, and its clients, including the United States government, were at risk of being compromised. He points to the evidence which experts could usually conclude with a high degree of certainty who the culprit is, and this time he says it was likely the Russian intelligence agency, the SVR. In his words, “The magnitude of this ongoing attack is hard to overstate.”
The United States is home to some of the best intelligence and cybersecurity organizations in the world, but that doesn’t make the US immune to the world-class cyber experts and hackers that other countries equally employ.
What was surprising to me about this article was how surprised everyone else seemed to be at Bossert’s revelations that not only is the United States currently being hacked, but things that would help to prevent such attacks, like the National Defense Authorization Act, is “caught up in partisan wrangling.” Cyber experts, defense scholars, and journalists have been warning about the vulnerabilities of the United States’ infrastructure and system for years, and the warning have seemingly fallen on deaf ears. That is not to say that the government or intelligence community does not take these things seriously and does not work hard to prevent them, but the biggest problem is that the US government tends to be reactionary rather than proactive.
One of the best and most alarming accounts of infrastructure vulnerability that I have read was in a book titled, Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers by Andy Greenberg. In it, he details similar scenarios between the United States and Ukraine’s power grids. The modern, digitally connected nature of the US grid is both a blessing and a curse. Because Ukraine has experience with blackouts and cyberattacks, they are always prepared to have trucks drive out to substations to manually reset the grids, which has worked even in the event of a cyberattack. Because the United States is so digitally connected, they might struggle in a similar scenario. Greenberg talked to a former high-level officer at the NSA, an expert on the subject and he said, “Taking down the American grid would be harder than Ukraine. Keeping it down might be easier.”
Then, Sandberg offered an account of US Congress attempting to be proactive in June of 2017. 18 Democratic Senators and Independent Bernie Sanders wrote and signed a letter directed to President Donald Trump highlighting a recent report of the vulnerabilities of the US power grid. They were asking Trump to have the Department of Energy conduct an analysis of Russia’s capabilities to disrupt America’s power grid while looking into any previous attempts that the Kremlin might have made to interfere.
The letter stated, “We are deeply concerned that your administration has not backed up a verbal commitment prioritizing cybersecurity of energy networks and fighting cyber aggression with any meaningful action.” The White House seemingly never responded directly, and the only response that I could find came three years later in May of 2020 when Donald Trump issued an executive order and declared a national emergency on “Securing the United States Bulk-Power System.”
Bossert, too, issued a warning to the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration saying that they must work together and be on alert, assuming that “any government data or email could be falsified.”
So why don’t governments listen to the experts?
Maybe it is the inherent flaws in a democracy that Socrates warned about in his Ship of Fools metaphor. He asked the question, who would you rather have in charge of the ship if you are going out on a journey, random people with no experience on the sea or those highly educated in sea-faring expeditions? Ideally, in a democratic government, you would have experts in many different realms of policy — those highly educated in directing the ship — so they can advise on the decision-making process, but that isn’t always the case. Either the experts in government aren’t listened to, or the more likely scenario is that the experts aren’t in government at all. Case in point, the Covid-19 response.
There’s the ever-present debate that at any given time, there are always more qualified people in society to run a government than those actually in government. They either have no desire to work in government, don’t have the resources to run for office, or feel like they can make a bigger difference in the private sector without the government red-tape. Of course, not everything would be solved if we lived in this “utopia” of experts running a country, but at the very least, there might be some semblance of common sense in listening to the warnings. Things that have been discussed for years would not come as surprises.