In this episode of Intelligence Matters, in partnership with the Hayden Center, host Michael Morell talks with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff about the politicization of intelligence and the need to "reset" the committee. Schiff details his support of a thorough review to investigate the Solar Winds hack and urges the intelligence community to address the challenge posed by the rise of China.
- Resetting the House Intelligence Committee: "I would like to get back to some level of comity — I realize it's going to take time. Within the Democratic caucus, there is continuing anger, among other emotions, over the fact that even after the failed insurrection, so many of our Republican colleagues were back on the House floor trying to overturn the results of the election and propagating the same falsehoods that led to that attack on the Capitol. Most of the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee are among that group, but nonetheless, the work of the committee has to get done. I've been talking to Republican members about trying to reset. This is an untold story of the House Intel Committee. Even over the last four years where it was so acrimonious on our committee. We nonetheless got the intelligence authorization acts done every year."
- Reviewing the Solar Winds hack: "We've been aware of the problem. It's not like it's a surprise, but we haven't obviously done what needed to be done to guard against it. . . Senator Warner has proposed something like an entity and review after a plane crash to determine what went wrong. I like that concept very much. There is an independent analysis and corrective action taken. We're also going to have to decide what part of the supply chain do we need to bring in house. We need to look at the whole other aspect of supply chain problems in supplies that we obtain from overseas."
- Russia waning, China rising: "The danger from Russia, a declining power, is the danger that you face from a wounded animal that is dangerous because it's wounded and desperate. Russia very much sees the world in a zero-sum game with the United States. But China is on the rise and is already formidable."
"Intelligence Matters" transcript: Congressman Adam Schiff
Producer: Paulina Smolinski
MICHAEL MORELL: Congressman, it's great that you could join us for this joint Hayden Center and CBS News Intelligence Matters podcast episode.
I want to spend most of the evening looking forward rather than looking back. I do want to ask a couple of questions about the last four years. We were chatting earlier, and you used the word difficult. They were a difficult 4 years for both the intelligence community and for the House Intelligence Committee. But I'm wondering, with regard to the intelligence community, if difficult equated to damage. Was there real damage done to the IC? If so, what was that? How do we fix it?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: Thank you, Michael, for inviting me and and thanks for the question. Was there damage? I think the answer is yes. It was multifaceted damage. Probably the most serious damage was to the reputation of the community for essentially nonpartisan analysis. The workforce continued doing their job in a professional way. But at some of the very highest levels of the IC, including in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, you had appointed officials who were unquestionably politicizing the intelligence. I think they cultivated an environment at some of the agencies where the workforce had real concerns about whether an objective analysis would be welcome at the highest levels or whether it would be career ending.
Often when intelligence was shared publicly, it was done so in a way to suit the narrative that the former president wished to tell rather than a straight recitation of the facts. I think that was deeply damaging to the reputation of the intelligence community, to the functioning of the community. I think it also injured some of our relationships with our overseas partners who had profound concerns whether information they shared would be protected, whether information they shared would be politicized. There was a one point early in the last administration where some of our overseas partners were accused of spying on the then president of the United States. That does damage to our relationships. Now, as you know, Michael, those relationships are really strong. They have survived those trials. But we have work to do to rebuild the community. The understanding that the agencies need to speak truth to power, whether that's power in the executive or power in the Congress.
I would often communicate to my intelligence colleagues, I want you to tell me exactly what your best analysis is, whether you think I want to hear it, or I don't. I'm counting on you to do that. I know with the appointments that the Biden administration has made that kind of independence will be restored. It will help improve morale within the workforce. There's also been damage to the relationship between the intelligence committees on the Hill and the community. I look forward to working to restore that. I want to resurrect something I was doing prior to the last four years, which is doing some town halls within the IC. I enjoyed going over to the agency and doing a town hall with the workforce where they got to ask me questions about what it's like testifying in Congress and what the members are thinking. I remember one of the analysts asking me 'what keeps me up at night.' I do think the damage that's been done can all be repaired. I think given the caliber of people the Biden administration is bringing in at the very top, it can be repaired in short order.
MICHAEL MORELL: There's one piece that I'm worried about long term, which is because of the actions and words of Donald Trump for four years, there are many Americans who supported him who now see the IC as part of this 'deep state.' Who see the IC not as a defender of America, but as an organization trying to undermine it. How do we deal with that perception that's out there among some of our fellow citizens?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: That's going to be harder to overcome. It's not a problem confined to the IC, that kind of falsehood or myth has been propagated about the law enforcement community, about the State Department. It used to take the form of complaints that any administration might have about the bureaucracy.
But this deep state myth is deeply damaging. I'm sure you recognize it, Michael. It's what we used to hear in other countries in the Third World, countries that were really prone to conspiracy theories. I once went to Pakistan and there was this conspiracy theory that I was John Negroponte, and I was there on a mission to try to change the judgments of the Pakistan Supreme Court in dealing with Musharraf. I thought, 'my God, I'm glad we don't have those kind of crazy conspiracies at home.' Well, now we do. I'm not sure there's a shortcut to that problem as long as Donald Trump is on the political scene. Given the fealty that Kevin McCarthy has now pledged to him. And Mitch McConnell, after that stirring speech he gave on the Senate floor about Trump's responsibility for the insurrection, pledged his support for Donald Trump should Donald Trump become the nominee. I don't see a quick end to that problem, particularly.
MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned the new leadership in the IC. We have Avril Haines as the DNI. We have David Cohen back as deputy director CIA. Bill Burns yesterday had his confirmation hearing, and it appears almost certainty that he will be confirmed by the Senate. Would love to know your thoughts about these folks.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: I think they're all superb choices. I would love to see Mike Morrell having joined their company or join their company in the future. As you know, these are really quality people. I had a chance to speak with all of them. I think they will put as priority number one, restoring that independence to the intelligence community.
I also like the decades of experience that Bill Burns brings in diplomacy. That's an interesting background to bring to the CIA. There are times where there's a tendency to think, particularly if you've grown up within the IC, that the IC is the answer to every problem. There are also a lot of people in the IC who recognize all too well, it is not the answer to every problem. They have to tell presidents of the United States, you can't rely on the IC to do everything. But I think that he will bring a very broad perspective of 'here's the State Department's role. Here's the Defense Department's role. Here's USAID role. Here's the intelligence community role. And here's how we need to make sure all of these parts of the government are working together in pursuit of US policy interests.'
I'm very excited about the experience he brings. I think David and Avril have such a background within the agency, but also with with respect to terrorism, finance, and cyber issues. A lot of the real challenging issues of the day. I have a lot of confidence in this group and can't wait for them all to be be seated. Judging from the love fest with Bill Burns, that will happen soon.
MICHAEL MORELL: Any idea when we might see a worldwide threat hearing?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: That's one thing I brought up with each of these designees. The desire is to go back to doing those on a quarterly basis, they all committed to doing that. I would imagine fairly soon. That was a good indication, frankly, the cancellation of those open worldwide threats hearings was a pretty solid indication that the then leadership of the IC, whether it was Grenell or Ratcliffe, were not willing to speak truth to power.
To his credit, Dan Coats, when he was DNI, he spoke forthrightly publicly. What he said publicly was consistent with what he said privately, forcing him out of his position. That's the responsibility you take on in leadership of these agencies. If a president doesn't want that then I think you're better off leaving the administration. I hope to have those worldwide threat hearings back on schedule shortly.
MICHAEL MORELL: You've said repeatedly that you want to get partisanship out of the committee. How do you think you're doing in making progress on that?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: I certainly hope so. I've already discussed this with a couple of my Republican colleagues on the committee, including the ranking member Nunes. I would like to get back to some level of comity, I realize it's going to take time. Within the Democratic caucus, there is continuing anger, among other emotions, over the fact that even after the failed insurrection, so many of our Republican colleagues were back on the House floor trying to overturn the results of the election and propagating the same falsehoods that led to that attack on the Capitol.
Most of the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee are among that group, but nonetheless, the work of the committee has to get done. I've been talking to Republican members about trying to reset. This is an untold story of the House Intel Committee. Even over the last four years where it was so acrimonious on our committee. We nonetheless got the intelligence authorization acts done every year. We were able to compartmentalize. I have urged in the past and I will urge again, even in those areas where we disagree, whether it was the Russian investigation, Ukraine investigation, investigation we're undertaking now into politicization of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, let's at least keep those differences within civil limits. That's my hope. I'm going to do my part. My colleagues on the other side of the aisle will have to decide whether they're interested in that. I can't do it for both sides, so I hope they'll take me up on it.
MICHAEL MORELL: Given the importance of China, given that everybody agrees this is the challenge at the moment, could that be something that people can rally around and agree on?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: Without a doubt. In the last two years of Devin Nunes chairmanship, they did focus on China. In the first two years of my chairmanship, I did a focus on China. We produced a very well-received report on China and how the Intelligence Committee really needed to reposition itself to deal with the challenge of China.
We, for understandable reasons, have devoted so much within the IC to dealing with the counterterrorism threat. At the same time have really not sufficiently addressed the rise of China and the extraordinary challenge and threat China poses in practically every field of domain, on the seas, on land, in space, in the cyber realm.
Indeed, the very first hearing I had two years ago as chairman of the Intel Committee was on authoritarianism and how China was exporting its digital totalitarian model with its ubiquitous CTV camera, its Orwellian named Safe Cities Initiative, its use of big data analytics. This was every bit as much of a threat to democracy globally as anything the Russians were doing.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to start with the report that your committee put out, which I thought was terrific and which was bipartisan. It was quite critical of the IC. It said, 'the IC requires a significant and immediate re-prioritization and realignment of resources to meet the threat from Beijing.' The report had over 100 recommendations. How did the IC react to that? Have they made any progress? And what do you consider to be the most important of those recommendations?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: I think the IC reacted very responsibly and respectfully, and it is receptive to the recommendations that we made. It was interesting in the executive summary that the most redacted part of the summary was part of our recommendations, which I took it to mean they thought those were areas where they needed improvement. It wasn't meant to be a criticism as much as it was meant to be constructive and to recognize the reality of the changing world circumstances. The terrorism threat has not gone away. We're just going to have to be more efficient in how we address it, because the threat from China is so elevated and they are a very worthy rival in so many ways.
In terms of prioritizing the recommendations. We need to make sure we have the personnel that understand the China problem set of that, that have the linguistic skills. It is not sufficient to simply have China expertise in a mission focused on China. It needs to really be diffused throughout the IC so that when you're looking at particular problem sets, there are people within those parts of the agencies with expertise about China.
One of the other big challenges we have, this is not a criticism but a reflection of Chinese technological sophistication, is the operating environment within China has become so difficult. Not just in China, it's become more difficult everywhere. Add to that the extraordinary and tragic success of Chinese espionage in terms of stealing data from U.S. agencies and private sector entities. The Chinese ability to assimilate that data, to try to identify who works in the IC and who doesn't work in the IC. The problem of digital dust in an increasingly digital world. It just goes to underscore the breadth and depth of the challenges.
That requires a whole of government and a whole of IC effort to meet that challenge. We are up to it. But it will require changing the direction of that big aircraft carrier that we call the IC.
MICHAEL MORELL: Would you say that China is the biggest national security challenge that you've seen in your lifetime?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: I'm old enough to remember the Soviet Union, so I don't know that I would say in my lifetime. I would say that the danger from Russia, a declining power, is the danger that you face from a wounded animal that is dangerous because it's wounded and desperate. Russia very much sees the world in a zero-sum game with the United States. But China is on the rise and is already formidable. It used to be not that long ago that the way Americans view China was they're good at copying our technology. They're good at copying our innovation. They're good at stealing our intellectual property. They're not so good at developing their own. We pointed to our education system as a part of the reason why China was producing individuals that were more inclined to groupthink than innovation. That was probably an inaccurate stereotype in the past. It's certainly not an apt description in the present. China is a real innovator in every field of domain.
It's clear that while China historically was focused inward, they are increasingly focused in an outward direction. They're increasingly self-confident and increasingly willing to challenge the United States and regional powers in the South China Sea and elsewhere. I think that over time, China will only continue to eclipse the threat we face from other places. That's not to obviously diminish the threat posed by Iran and North Korea, but there's no other country that poses such an across the board challenge as China is.
MICHAEL MORELL: The second issue I wanted to ask you about is your committees doing a deep dive on the coronavirus pandemic. On global health, climate change, how do you think about the IC role in those kinds of issues? How do you think about the IC responsibilities versus the responsibilities of other government agencies?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: Those are exactly the right questions. We've been having an internal debate about this, a debate at times between the parties on the committee and debate, sometimes within our party as well. For years we have tried to prioritize what were called soft threats. It's been a struggle. When it comes to climate change, we have created a center to focus on that issue. It's one of the areas where every year in the Intelligence Authorization Act, we have a fight over climate.
The reality is the climate is having an effect in sea lanes in the Arctic, opening up new possibilities for the Chinese navy, for the Russian Navy, resource scarcity in Yemen creates additional massive national security threats for United States. The fact that some of our naval bases are underwater and not in a good way is a national security issue and an intel issue. There's no question that climate is having an impact on our security and that keeping an eye to those impacts and where they will aggravate dangers to the country is an IC responsibility. If anything brought home or should have brought home the the need to pay attention to some of these non-traditional threats is the pandemic. With the pandemic we continue to have an internal debate as part of the deep dive we're doing on what's the IC role? How do we make sure there's collaboration between the intelligence community and the public health community and other parts of the US government and international organizations to deal with pandemic threats? The IC has an important role to play. That role can be in early detection of potential pandemics when host governments may not be interested in transparency or are affirmatively trying to hide the magnitude of a problem. To allude to public reporting, there is reporting on how crowded hospitals in the Wuhan were, what the parking lots looked like. If you have good enough AI, analysts, and tipping, you can look for the signs of potential health crises and pandemics. You can look for how governments are responding and how a problem may be mitigated.
There is definitely an intelligence committee lane here. But at the same time, we have to be careful that agencies that we need to work with on the global stage aren't going to view with suspicion our health agencies, with the false impression that they are now intelligence agencies. Referring to public reporting for example about the search for bin Laden, there is public reporting that a vaccination program may have played a role. If there is an intermingling between health issues and intelligence issues, it can end up degrading an important health care effort. So we are in this deep dive trying to figure out how is the IC resourced to focus on this problem set. We have half a million Americans dead. Had that been the result of a terrorist attack, you can imagine the analysis that we would be undergoing to to figure out 'why wasn't the IC better able to thwart this?' I think it's appropriate to do the same analysis while recognizing the IC is only one part of the tripwire. We need to make good use of open source information because some of the best early information on the pandemic was open source information. What we hope to do is look at the National Medical Unit within DOD that has a seminal role in pandemic ascertainment. It is very small and it's in DOD. That may have made sense when when health threats like a pandemic were viewed through a defense prism. Does it still make sense? Those are the issues that we're looking at and the questions we're trying to answer.
MICHAEL MORELL: I agree 100 percent with you on open source. We have to get people in the IC to believe that just because something's not stamped top secret or secret, that it's somehow not as important. I think that's a cultural issue we have to get over.
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: You're absolutely right. It's the flip side of the problem we were talking about earlier about what a difficult operating environment China is now because of all the private data that they have stolen and their sophistication in terms of technology. There are also now tremendous amounts of open source information. If we know how to look for it, if we know how to find the needles and in the huge haystack, one of the things that we're trying to determine there is 'how is opensource treated within the intelligence community? Is there a center of excellence or do we have a lot of jack of all trades and master of none?'
MICHAEL MORELL: The third issue I wanted to raise was Solar Winds, the devastating hack. Nobody's talked about it this way. But to what extent did the IC miss this. At some point, the Russians, if it was the Russians, were planning this at some point. They began preparations. They carried out those preparations. They carried out the attack. Shouldn't CIA, NSA, others have seen that? How do you think about that question?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: First of all, there's only so much that we can do with our cyber capability to ascertain what our foreign adversaries are doing. So if we're always going to count on the IC to see what our adversaries are doing and stop it before they succeed, we're going to have a lot of failures and costly failures. We are going to have to up our game in terms of looking at what the Russians and other bad actors are doing and how they're doing it to try to guard against things like Solar Winds. But that's only one piece of the puzzle. We're going to have to be much better at defense. Here, I think the IC was aware there was a real vulnerability when it came to the supply chain, but not enough was done within the IC and outside the IC. Not enough has been done in the private sector to shore up and secure the supply chain. As we see with Solar Winds, when a supply chain vendor who supplies product that's important to a lot of operating systems sends something that they've authenticated but encrypted, it's a really difficult problem set.
We've been aware of the problem. It's not like it's a surprise, but we haven't obviously done what needed to be done to guard against it. We're going to have to and we have to figure out 'what does this mean in terms of how actively involved the IC needs to be in the work of the vendors? What kind of disclosure requirements do we need to make of the private sector?' At Microsoft's COO's testimony recently, they're being transparent. But the information was that there are other companies that have decided not to because it's not good for business to admit that you've been successfully hacked in any way. Senator Warner has proposed something like an entity and review after a plane crash to determine what went wrong. I like that concept very much. There is an independent analysis and and corrective action taken. We're also going to have to decide what part of the supply chain do we need to bring in house. We need to look at the whole other aspect of supply chain problems in supplies that we obtain from overseas. So big problem? Yes. It's a big failure in terms of the intelligence community, the private sector, the fact we had to learn about this from the private sector is also deeply embarrassing to the intelligence community. We have a lot of work to do.
MICHAEL MORELL: The last specific issue I wanted to ask you about is domestic terrorism. You have been the victim of domestic terrorism. How do you think about the IC's role in domestic terrorism, if any, given Fourth Amendment concerns?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: Now that you raise the Fourth Amendment issue, let me make one other observation about Solar Winds. If public reporting is accurate that the Russians took advantage of utilizing U.S. facilities to mount part of its cyber-attack, knowing that the authorities we can use domestically are much more limited than the authorities we can use internationally. We have to figure out that problem, too.
In terms of the domestic terrorism threat and the IC role, clearly there is an intelligence community role when there is a foreign component of domestic bad actors. There is also an intelligence community role through the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI in terms of sharing the information that it obtains with law enforcement authorities. Making sure that it's done in a timely way, that the intelligence is shared in a form where it will be paid attention to. On the basis of the public testimony thus far, we can see there are real issues and discrepancies about what was the quality state of the intelligence, how much of it was shared, if it was shared, was it shared in a format where it was sounding the alarm or was it shared in the format of 'we can find a document we sent to you, so you should have paid attention to it.'
We are doing an investigation in our committee working in concert with other committees to determine how much of this was a failure to gather the right intelligence? How much was it a failure to share that intelligence? How much of it was a failure to act on that intelligence? I won't be surprised if there's responsibility to be attributed at every stage of the process. But the intelligence community does, consistent with our domestic authorities and constitutional requirements, have a role. It is not the paramount role, but it is an important one.
MICHAEL MORELL: On the whole idea of the IC and technology. There's three things we have to get right. One is we have to collect and understand where our adversaries are with regard to technological advancements. Two is we have to use technology to do a better job ourselves in the IC. Three, we have to protect ourselves against the technology that our adversaries are using against us. I think you would agree that we need to be on the cutting edge and stay there. How far do we have to go to get there? Are we moving fast enough? Do we have to think about new approaches to the government working with the private sector?
CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: I think we are on the cutting edge. I don't think we're playing catch up in that respect. Now, there are other countries like China that are ahead in certain areas. Frankly, I think we still maintain the technological advantage. But the delta is narrowing. China is making rapid gains. If we don't make a renewed investment in research and development, I'm speaking not just of the IC, but as a nation, then we will be eclipsed.
That will have catastrophic repercussions for us and for the free world. We are in a battle of ideas, not communism versus capitalism, as much as it is authoritarianism versus democracy. We can't keep kicking immigrants out of our country who get advanced degrees from Cal Tech in STEM fields. That's economic and national security suicide. We can't keep under investing in science and technology and research and development either in the public or private sector. In the private sector, this chase for quarterly profits in which companies aren't incentivized to invest in the long term, in their research and development. We've seen a real and precipitous decline in the corporate investment in R&D. It is catastrophic.
One of the profound issues we need to grapple with, exemplified by Huawei and ZTE, is how does the United States compete with China when China is willing to put billions in a state-run enterprise. China is willing to essentially be a loss leader, underprice the global market, drive competition out of the market, and then enjoy a monopoly on a technology that is a critical technology like 5G. It's very hard in pushing back against Huawei to compete against something with nothing. We've had these conversations with our European partners and others about the security risks that are present in a technology like Huawei's 5G. Their response is what's your alternative? I do think that it's going to force us to grapple with a big question that we haven't had to since we felt challenged by the Japanese model in the 90s. Do we need to explore a different kind of public-private partnership to compete in certain critical technologies to make sure that we always have an American alternative? Are those conversations happening? I think they're still at a very nascent stage and they need to happen much quicker.