OPINION: Trump's approach to intelligence agencies is crippling the response to the likely Russian hack

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Editor's note: Douglas London is a former chief of operations at the CIA's Information Operations Center, a role related to cyber security. He is currently an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service's Center for Security Studies and a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute. Follow him @douglaslondon5. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) — It would be a tragedy if the US response to the recently revealed hacking of at least half a dozen government agencies and hundreds of private companies amounts to nothing more than passing indignation.

Despite billions of dollars spent on cyber defense, the US government failed to detect Russian hackers suspected of breaching agencies like the Department of Homeland Security for the better part of 2020. Indeed, at the end of the day, the answer as to why the US suffered what The New York Times described as "among the most massive intelligence failures of modern times," is not technical, but rather, human.

One need only look as far back at the 9/11 Commission report to find eerily familiar cautions and evidence of dismissed advice. At the risk of oversimplifying, an important dimension of what undermined our defense in the years prior to September 11, 2001, was a misinformed public, an obstructed intelligence community and overreliance on collecting what's known as technical intelligence -- information that isn't reliant on a human source (and which analysts too often think is more reliable).

The 9/11 Commission recognized these risks in calling for a cabinet-level Director of National Intelligence to foster and leverage the strength of an integrated, well-coordinated intelligence community and facilitate greater transparency with the public.

Defense against cyberattacks, like that from any threat, begins with leadership and a well-informed public. The 9/11 report found that greater transparency galvanizes the type of public awareness required to support the investment and sacrifices necessary to support an effective national defense -- which can range from blood and treasure to intrusions into our civil liberties.

But rather than rallying the nation, empowering the intelligence community and leveraging national tools of power, President Donald Trump contradicted his own Cabinet, even his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to downplay and deflect blame from Russia for the very malign behavior from which we have been threatened.

Instead of leading the intelligence community response and keeping Americans informed, his DNI, John Ratcliffe, was conspicuously absent from public view. In fact, federal agencies, corporate America and the public have gotten greater insight, direction and coordination from Microsoft than from the government and its various cyber task forces.

As a long-serving CIA operations officer, former chief of station and manager at one time overseeing the employment of cyber tools, I think it's fair to say that the digital landscape is perhaps as difficult to navigate as any military or intelligence battlefield we have ever encountered.

But today's problem is not that the Russians are that good, but that we failed to leverage our considerable capabilities and advantages. Under President Trump, intelligence community assessments and warnings about Russia's actions, including political meddling and cyberattacks, were at best watered down, if not obstructed or withheld.

The investigation being led by John Durham at the behest of former attorney general William Barr and the President's wholesale purge of inspectors general and his replacement of intelligence community leaders willing to speak truth to power has left an intelligence community reluctant to provoke a vindictive commander in chief who, along with allies and advisers, characterizes divergent opinions as deep state attacks.

Individual agencies have proceeded cautiously and spoken with greater equivocation due to the lack of advocacy and stewardship needed from Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell and then DNI Ratcliffe, instead in many cases defending the President's false narratives and complying with his mercurial dictates.

This politically toxic environment and the absence of severe consequences for nefarious actors has itself encouraged our adversaries to exercise less restraint, especially when it comes to cyber weapons. And while the damage can be no less destructive than that wrought from ballistic missiles, nuclear arms, or terrorist attacks, cyberattacks are easier to develop without detection.

Moreover, they are likely to occur without immediate understanding of intent or attribution. An attack against our power grid could be the prelude to a military strike, but by whom?

The reality is that our intelligence community cannot rely on technical capabilities like seismic indicators, environmental signatures, satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles for early warning or in recognizing the intent and attribution of a well-orchestrated cyberattack.

Cyber actors operate beyond the observation of our sophisticated technology and increasingly bold and consequential attacks are likely as technology evolves. One critical requirement for our strategy to deter and defend ourselves from cyberattack is therefore greater reliance on human intelligence, pursuing foreign agents who could address the questions beyond our technology's ability to answer.

There's no substitute for the value of a well-placed agent to detect and protect us from that which our billions invested in technology cannot. Foreign agents who are carefully cultivated, recruited and clandestinely handled provide insights and context which can't be seen, measured or overheard regarding the plans, capabilities and intentions of our adversaries.

Agents represent the most reliable and cost-efficient counterintelligence means to understand the intent of foreign leaders and identify the moles and technical operations they have directed against us. Often only a spy operating from within the inner sanctum can tell you if, when and why an adversary will attack.

According to media accounts, however, President Trump is no fan of espionage, especially that against authoritarian leaders he feels friendly toward, such as Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The President has expressed opposition to the use of intelligence from foreign spies and doubts about their credibility.

A former senior intelligence official told CNN that Trump "believes they're people who are selling out their country." Standing shoulder to shoulder in Helsinki, Finland in 2018, Trump openly sided with Putin against his own intelligence community concerning Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In 2019, the President publicly opposed CIA's use of agents to spy on Kim.

Beyond positioning ourselves to recognize and preempt cyberattacks, clear boundaries should be established to deter them. But thresholds are often established through actions, precedent and predictability; three areas where President Trump's foreign and national security policies have been egregiously flawed.

Our state adversaries have increasingly raised the stakes in cyber as they have across other battlefields because the American response has been muted, inconsistent and decidedly restrained. Consequences must exist to make the risk an adversary assumes in attacking us unworthy of the gain.

America needs to better understand the cyber threat landscape and clearly demarcate our threshold for response. Instead of focusing exclusively on our technical defense, America can leverage its extraordinary advantages and likewise concentrate on targeting the vulnerabilities of those who might seek to do us harm.

The 9/11 Commission cautioned that averting future catastrophes requires a well-informed public, integrating strategic intelligence from all sources into joint operational planning and unity of effort, all enabled by a president leading an information sharing revolution that could speak truth to power: everything the Trump administration failed to do.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Trump's approach to intelligence agencies is crippling the response to the likely Russian hack."