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Over the past two-and-a-half years, you’ve probably heard a lot about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — but that is just one of several ways Russia is trying to undermine the US, CNN’s Jim Sciutto writes in his new book The Shadow War.
“We’re already in a war without realizing it,” Sciutto said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher. “And certainly the public’s not aware of it, and our leaders are not speaking of it in those terms … you’re getting attacked on other fronts [besides election interference] and losing ground on other fronts.”
Sciutto’s book compares the efforts of two nations that are adversarial to US interests, Russia and China. He calls their efforts a shadow war, in part, because the “battlefields” where conflict is occurring aren’t necessarily visible to the naked eye.
”You’ve got space weapons, with military intent,” he said. “You’ve got an arms race under the waves, again with military intent. And as in any sort of asymmetric battlefield, these are the spaces where Russia, and China too, calculate that they can compete with us. They can’t build 12 aircraft carriers tomorrow, but they’ve got very good submarines. And then you have the broader cyber issue.
“Some [American intelligence officials] make the argument to me that AI is already in play, in some ways,” Sciutto added. “Because in cyberspace, of course the decisions are made in microseconds that human beings can’t complicate. So already those tools are operating somewhat independently from human control, to some degree, at least in the moment.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Jim.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who thinks the world should make shadow love, not shadow war, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Jim Sciutto, the chief national security correspondent for CNN and co-anchor of its daily CNN Newsroom. He’s also the author of recently released book The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America, which is quite pertinent right now. Jim, welcome to Recode Decode.
Jim Sciutto: Thanks so much for having me.
Well, you know, you told me Poppy, your co-host, Poppy Harlow, she’s your publicist.
She’s a great partner and I’m lucky to have her.
She said, “You have to have him on or else!” I don’t know what the or else part was, but I would be happy because it’s a great recommendation because this is a topic that I talk about a lot. You cover national security and obviously cybersecurity is an important part of it. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Ash Carter, a bunch of other people talk about the topic.
He’s in the book.
He’s in the book. Exactly, that’s what I was talking about. So let’s talk a little bit, I want to get to the book in a second, but talk about your background, how you got to what you’re doing, including covering national security and anchoring CNN, which is sort of in the middle of … It itself has become a topic in this administration.
Yes, a target.
Just the other day, he did it again with AT&T. The stock went up, though, which means uh-oh. Anyway…
So I started my reporting career as a foreign correspondent. I always wanted to be overseas and sort of chase the stories.
Why? What did you do in high school that made you want to do this?
Well, I’ll tell you. The origin story, and it’s interesting because we, having just passed the 30th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square … I was a freshman in college, the end of my freshman year in May 1989. I had a sister, I have three sisters, but another sister was interested in China, she was living over there at the time, and my parents and another sister went to visit her.
And they found themselves in Beijing in late May 1989, taking family pictures inside the pro-democracy protest there. They left the day that martial law was declared and then in the succeeding days, they of course read about, and saw on television, the horrible events that took place afterwards.
Mm-hmm, which was very critical to happen on television, too.
Absolutely. And those images, they were heartbreaking for them because they’d met many of these young students and it was such an exhilarating time to be there. In fact, I found these the other day. My mom saved all these newspapers from around the region reporting the news of the events of the early morning, June 4th, 1989. So I choose my major, and a lot of folks looking at American political history this or that and I said, you know what, I’m gonna study China, because there’s something going on over there and I wanna know about it. That turned out to be my major. And after college, I went out to Asia …
Study China meaning learn Chinese, or what was the …
Well, study Chinese history and politics and culture. And then after college, I decided I wanted to go live there. I did a Fulbright Scholarship that took me out there, and then I ended up staying out there as a reporter traveling around the region, this was in the early ’90s, mid ’90s. And it just gave me a bug on the country, the region, the culture, but also a bug for getting paid to travel the world and bring back stories.
Mm-hmm. So foreign correspondent, right.
Do you speak Chinese?
I do. Kinda lousy when I’m not in the country, but when I returned recently and I did a stint in government, that I dove right right back into it and I was decent, I was pretty decent.
Early to that.
And so you wanted to be a foreign correspondent, you didn’t want to go into diplomacy or the state department. I wanted to be in the state department, you know that? I went to the Foreign Service School in Georgetown.
Well you, okay. So when …
I wanted to be a spy, Jim.
We all wanted to sorta be a spy.
No. I wanted to be a spy. I wanted to be Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, I wanted to be an analyst that analyzed scenario building.
I could see you doing … Well I’ll tell you …
It’s what I do now. Do you know I’m a spy right now? It’s the longest con in history, but go ahead.
I would believe it.
Think about it.
When I was in college I did think about foreign service but I looked at the folks who took the foreign service exam and felt like I couldn’t pull it off. I just didn’t feel like I knew enough and I was intimidated by it. Later in my career, the only other path that I considered following, besides journalism, was government in some way. And that would come up years later when I was offered this job as chief of staff to the ambassador of China, this is just in 2011, and I took that job and I explored that for a couple years and I’m glad I did, and I learned a lot. But I still think my nature is a journalist so I came back to the fold.
So you’re doing foreign correspondent … what got you into national security?
So I went over to London for ABC, after 9/11 basically. 9/11 happened, I went to cover the attacks at the Pentagon, I was based in Washington at the time, but immediately afterwards I raised my hand I said, “I wanna go cover, I wanna cover the aftermath of this. I wanna go to Afghanistan, and I wanna go cover the region.” And I did. I went there in early 2002 and ended up staying and I was based in London but staying covering the region for a decade to follow. I went to Iraq a dozen times, went to Afghanistan a dozen times, Iran a dozen times, all over there, Israel, Palestine, you name it.
And that, covering the wars, covering the intelligence behind the wars, covering the terror attacks that followed, and efforts to prevent terror attacks, that got me into the national security space. And I sort of never gave it up, it was just interesting to me and substantive, and a little bit exciting.
And so what brought you to CNN, then? You were at the major networks, and then of course lots of people moved back and forth between them.
So I did more than a decade with ABC, principally overseas.
Came back to Washington in 2010-11, was really bored to be back.
At home, covering Washington. I didn’t have that excitement of hopping on a plane every couple of weeks to go somewhere new or exotic. And I went to the White House Correspondents dinner in 2011.
I’m so sorry.
And I found myself … Although that was back when they still told jokes, so you know …
I hate that thing. Oh no, I never liked that thing, it was all too close with their sources. It always made me nervous.
And a little too many celebrities to look at, they got down there. But I went there and I got lucky because sitting next to me was the new ambassador to China, Gary Locke. Just appointed, and he was about to be sent over, and we got to talking about China, we talked the whole dinner about China. And then that followed with a lunch and then another dinner, and he came to offer me a job as his chief of staff.
He said, “Listen, I’ve been looking for someone, not a typical candidate for this job, someone a little outside the box, who can give me a different perspective of these things, how would you like to go?” And the first question I asked was to my wife. We had two young kids, and she said, “I’m game.” And she’s a journalist as well, she still works for ABC news, so she was excited by it and the prospect of taking our kids over there to absorb the place and learn something. So once I had her approval, I said yes, I’ll take a risk and dive in.
And how was that stint?
So, on the good side, I learned a lot, I was right in the middle of this country and this relationship with this country that I’d studied for a number of years. I had a high level security clearance, so reading the intelligence. I was in the room for many tense high-level meetings and in the midst of difficult decisions between the US and China. I was literally a fly on the wall, right?
So how was that different to being a journalist, how bad are we at doing our job?
Well it’s funny, I think that we have the impression that the folks on the inside know everything.
Oh, I don’t have that impression.
Well, or that they have access to knowing so much, they have access to the intelligence and surveillance satellites and intercepted communications and all this kind of stuff.
Oh I think it’s a goat rodeo, but go ahead. Because I’ve been on the inside of internet companies, so that’s why …
Fair enough. You know.
No, I just assume it’s the same in government and everywhere else.
And I learned that lesson. I think that at the end of the day, you realize just like in companies, it’s imperfect people with imperfect information, making imperfect decisions. Often doing their darnedest, right? But you know, there’s no all-knowing anyone in these circumstances, so I certainly learned that. And I’m not questioning motivations, because I met a lot of dedicated Americans who really love their country and they’re fighting hard to do the best they can. But they make mistakes too, and a lot of them.
The other frustration was that journalism, as you know, is a very self-driving business. You take the initiative, it’s your product, you’re developing a product every day. And government is a top-down kind of structure, it’s like a military organization, chain of command, and that’s slow and frustrating and a little confining, so I did it for a couple years, learned a lot and said, “You know what, I’m a journalist, I’m going back.”
Right. And so you go back to CNN?
How did that happen?
Well, I kept relationships while I was there, but oftentimes …
But an anchor, that’s a big job.
Well, first they took me back as a national security …
You look like an anchor.
Oh thank you so much. There’s a lot of work went into this.
It may not be a compliment, but go ahead.
First, I came back as national security correspondent, the anchoring came later. But they knew that I had the chops for it because I’d spent a lot of time on the ground in these countries. And I think that kind of on-the-ground experience is often lacking in Washington. One, yes, you can operate under any circumstances and make it happen, but two, I’d been to Iran. If we’re talking about Iran, I’ d been there, I’d been inside the government plans, I’d been inside the wars, you know, I wasn’t dealing with theoretical knowledge of this stuff, I was dealing with first-hand knowledge, so that helped.
I don’t know if you found in your career, I do often find in a career, that your best opportunities, I don’t wanna say they come out of the blue, but I was lucky at that point that I wanted to come back, that there was a position, and they were looking for someone like me, and I went for it.
No. No, I do, I do think it’s important to have on-the-ground things, some of the times, everyone’s like, “That’s your opinion,” I’m like, “No I covered it for years, I really am right.” I mean, I’m actually accurate as opposed to, you just are sayin’ it and stuff like this. So it’s an interesting thing, it’s really important to have operational experience, no matter what you’re doing.
So you do the show everyday, and it’s a daily show that you have to, like, be clever for two hours a day, essentially.
People always insult anchors, but you have to be quick and facile, a lot.
It must be exhausting.
Poppy and I, we blow up the playbook every day, ‘cause news breaks, particularly during doing our hours, we do 9-11. You’d have committee hearings, etc.
Yes. They do. Trump tweets something, always. There’s always a tweet.
Exactly. And I think the day, when I was at ABC and you had the old-school evening news broadcast, very scripted. You knew what they were gonna say. Cable news in this era, when you have a lot of live interviews with newsmakers, you have news breaking during your hour, very little of it is scripted.
We do our homework. Poppy and I work hard, we know the issues before we go in. But you’re reacting in the moment and you gotta do it with some intelligence and knowledge and respect and that can be challenging, but it’s fun.
When you think about the impact … just previously, ‘cause I was telling you about the corrosive effects of cable sometimes and it’s true, how do you look at that? I would say the evening ones are more … You’re more news-driven, essentially.
Mm-hmm, we are. And that means reactive, it does.
But news-driven versus opinion-driven, if that makes sense.
There’s actual news happening, there’s a shooting or something. You know, this week there’s been like 10 things, right? So, talk about that concept of what’s happening now. Because you’d worked at broadcast and this is not that.
You’re right. People ask me a lot, do we have an editorial line at CNN, am I encouraged to follow an editorial line? And the answer is no, we’re encouraged to follow the news. Our bosses care about getting it right, whenever we’re accused of fake news or making stuff up, or making sources up, and you know where that criticism comes from, I say guys, you don’t know how vetted our reporting is. Particularly in this era, the stories I do, particularly when it’s sensitive stuff, never been more vetted than anything I’ve worked on in my life. What are the sources, multiple sources, let’s make sure the language is precise, let’s go back to them, I want more clarity on this or that.
The level of vetting in editorial, not control but editorial standards, higher than I’ve ever experienced in the business. So, one, we gotta get it right. Two, we do our best to avoid an editorial slant. I think the bigger challenge is, and one reason I wrote a book, is that you don’t often get the opportunity to connect the dots and provide context.
Right. Right. It’s the next …
It’s the next thing.
It’s the hot take, it’s the twitchy culture, it’s Twitter, twitchy culture really.
Exactly. So, that’s one thing I think we could do better, we could do better for people. And when I talk to my sort of unscientific focus group of friends and family, I think that’s what people are clamoring for, it’s like okay, I know it’s happening but I’m hearing it from 27 different angles, tell me why I care, how this fits into the bigger picture, why is this different, how should I prioritize? And that’s something that we try to do every day.
Why can’t it be like that on cable? This is why I do a podcast, because it’s long in substance, you’re bringing substantive to discussion, even our short ones are substantive.
Yes. We do. I mean listen, we do, we try. Of course, you could be doing that and then, heck, something else happens, right? Some guy walks out of the committee, it is reactive.
Right, that’s what I mean. It’s reactive, reactive, reactive.
I try to look at it from my career, just as a journalist, that you’re a voice over time, and you just do your best to add value over time.
Right. Right. How do you operate under the pressure of being called things? CNN is the one that’s most targeted, again this week he just targeted y’all. What do you do in those … and sometimes, some of your evening anchors really get a little emotional. You don’t, it’s really interesting, you don’t have a lot of opinion, it doesn’t feel like it, you don’t shade it as much. Whatever it is, I think they shade more on Fox News, but they shade a lot on CNN and MSNBC, they definitely shade.
I think just with primetime broadcast, a little bit different, it’s just not my style. I try to play it as much …
But you still suffer from the consequences.
I do. So, big picture, we do our best to ignore it, because the only direction, like I said, I get from my boss is just get it right and work hard. Frankly, it encourages the mission of journalism, when you’re under attack with purpose, because the fake news attacks are with purpose.
Oh no. On purpose, yes. You’re being used for an end.
So that, and Trump even said it, in the famous Leslie Stahl interview he said, I attack you because when you have critical information, I can then undermine the source. I mean, Trump said it in so many words. So that makes you know even more so what your role is, expose wrongdoing, shine light on issues that don’t have light shone on them. And that’s, on the positive side, mission affirming, so that’s one thing.
Two, ignore the BS. I just ignore it, ya know, because I, at the end of the day, I actually think that his attacks have less impact over time, I think people are getting more numb to them, to some degree. There is the very serious side to it, is that some people do listen, and there’s a reason why we have armed guards at CNN today. And there’s a reason why you have guards at Trump events guarding the press pen, because some people do listen to those attacks.
There’s a reason why, when Poppy and I were on the air in September and CNN had received the bomb, that guy was listening. So, it’s important, but our reaction is to just put the nose down and move forward.
Do you think journalists should pull back a little bit? Some people think … No, don’t.
Right. Not pull back on …
Forget about it.
Forget about it. All right so, getting into substance. In the next section we’re gonna talk about, how you decided to do this book and what you’re thinking about it. When did you write this book?
I wrote it on planes, trains, and in coffee shops. I didn’t take time off, I wrote it between January of last year and July, 80,000 words, and I just said I’m gonna write 10,000 words a month, 2,500 words a week.
What was the impetus for writing it, what were you trying to do?
The impetus was that I spent years covering these countries — China and Russia — on multiple fronts of what I would perceive as this shadow war. And it struck me that folks weren’t connecting the dots on this, not just members of the public, journalists, the way we write about these stories, but also our leaders weren’t connecting the dots on what, when you look at the full picture, is a strategy.
It’s a strategy by both Russia and China to undermine the US on multiple fronts and the fact is, both of them are very explicit in that strategy, they write about it. And I wrote it, my motivation was, as a concerned American. That I spent all these years in these places, and I feel that my country is being undermined in a way that is worrisome. I want my kids to experience a world as free as the one I grew up in, or a country as prosperous as the one I grew up in, and you have two countries that are intent on undermining that.
Now let’s be clear, these two countries have always been trying to undermine the United States, right?
But one of the things I find interesting, is, look, Russia lost the Cold War, lost it cold, like completely lost it. China, same thing, was never able to make the kind of incursions that they had hoped. But they’ve used technology to do so.
You know what I mean? But first talk about the history of their attempts, the non-shadow war, because it went on and on, and largely they lost to our economic vitality, the freedom/democracy just worked better for a lot more people, and a lot more people lived better.
Well that’s going back to the Cold War. So the Cold War ends in ’91, the Soviet Union collapses, and at the same time … I’m not entirely equating Russia and China, but there are parallels to the development of this.
No, they’re different.
At the same time, China is liberalizing its economy.
Economically, making enormous strides. And in both cases, the US …
And meanwhile, Russia’s not and is just sort of … Except they have oil, right?
But in the ’90s, remember, we had this impression that things were different. End of history, Russia and China want to play by our rules now. And if we engage them and bring them into the international fold, not only are we going to make friends with them, but they’re going to liberalize at home and modernize, democratize, all this kind of stuff, even in the face of years of contradictory evidence and information.
That delusion persisted. And the folks I interview in this book, who were serving in high positions during this time, are self-critical in their analysis. They say that we could not give up this delusion … this … “mirroring” is a word that comes up a lot.
Explain what that means, mirroring.
It means thinking that they want what we want. Thinking that they’re a mirror image of our interests and our motivations. But they’re not. First of all, they have a different view of …
I want you to differentiate between them, too.
Between Russia and China?
I will. Russia … and again, there’s some generalizing going on here, but the way folks will describe it: Russia’s a zero-sum gameplayer. They see it as an advantage, any way they pull us down: politically, election interference, militarily, etc. China really wants to supplant us. Right?
Yes. That’s right.
As the dominant power in the world. So you’ve got Russia playing spoiler, China playing genuine competitor.
Russia can’t dominate.
They can’t. As folks often say, they’ve got an economy about the size of one US state. China’s got an economy that’s going to surpass us at some point. Those are the …
A spoiler and a supplanter. That’s a good way to put it.
And one of the consistent themes of the book, though, is that the constant missed signals, the constant misreading … And another point I make — and again, it’s not a political book because there’s a lot of blame to go around, Democratic and Republican administrations — but each president comes in and says, “I can get this right.” George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eye, “I see a guy could work with.” Things go pear-shaped afterwards. Obama, “reset button.” Things go pear-shaped. Of course, Donald Trump is still in that space. He’s like, “I can get this right.” But it hasn’t worked out so well.
Yeah. Well, acquiescence seems to be his strategy.
I would have been fascinated by a Hillary Clinton presidency with Putin. That would have been one ugly fight.
There’s a reason Putin did not want her to be president.
Of course not. She had his number. The women know.
Classic. They always do.
The women always know a creep. So we went up to the Cold War. We basically won the Cold War. We were doing very well economically, even though China was growing, too. But in general, we’re still the dominant country of the world, essentially. Talk about how each of them then started to make different … that you describe in your book.
To make different decisions?
Right. Russia, discord …
Russia, discord. And particularly with Putin’s rise, because Putin had a very adversarial relationship or view of the US, and even paranoid to some degree. There’s a fair amount of paranoia that infects his view of … everything is designed to kind of take him down.
Yeah, we never noticed that in his photographs, with his horses and shit. What a fucked-up person that guy is.
The topless horseback rider.
Honestly, that’s all I need to know, is that picture. But go ahead.
Exactly. So Putin was a change for Russia. And I’m not saying Yeltsin was a hero or anything, but there was definitely a change in aggressiveness at that point.
And they love him in Russia, by the way. That’s something that people don’t realize. They love Putin, and they’re not being forced to love him.
You’re right. And I make that point, for both Russia and China, that neither is anything close to a democracy, but they both have domestic politics. But Putin and Xi are good at appealing to those domestic politics of, “Now is our time. Don’t let America keep us under their thumb. We’re pushing back. This is our time to regain our place in the world.”
Right. So Russia, discord. This is through … they use social media, they use technology, hacking, everything.
So, talk about those.
My sense is, Americans are aware of maybe one of the fronts, or two of the fronts? They think about it. Election interference. Okay, no question. We’re talking about that. We’re having a national conversation. Do they know that Russia has deployed weapons in space? They’re up there right now. Kamikaze satellites can take out our satellites. There are directed-energy weapons in space.
Is that what they’re called? Kamikaze …
That’s what the Space Command calls them.
Right, right. And they’re designed to hurt our communication systems?
They’re designed to take them out. And not just communications: surveillance satellites, nuclear early-warning satellites, GPS, on which a whole host of military technologies depend. Smart bombs aren’t smart. Drones don’t fly. Etc.
I’m assuming we have the same weapons up there?
Well, no. Not deployed. We have those capabilities, but we haven’t deployed them to the degree that China and Russia had. And that’s a decision that has to be made: Is that the best deterrent? Or does that lead to a space arms race? That’s part of the calculation that has to be made today.
Space Force! But go ahead.
Space Force, exactly. So, they do that because they know we’re dependent on it. It’s classic asymmetric warfare. And in the event of war, they take that away from us. And it’s also civilian technologies, as you know better than me, depending on space assets. GPS timestamps keep the financial markets going. That’s space.
Under the waves, you have a new submarine arms race that’s been underway for years. Russia deploying faster, quieter submarines. Why does that matter? With a submarine that’s faster and quieter, it can pop up off our coastline in the event of war and rain down nuclear warheads, without warning. And they show off that capability. You’ve seen stories about Russian subs popping up off the coast of Florida. US submarine commanders — and I spent time on a US sub under the Arctic where they’re training to track Russian subs — will grant that they can’t track them as well as they used to. And that’s a military change, a technology change, with intent, by Russia.
So you’ve got the information ops kind of stuff, election interference. You’ve got space weapons, with military intent. You’ve got an arms race under the waves, again with military intent. And as in any sort of asymmetric battlefield, these are the spaces where Russia, and China too, calculate that they can compete with us. They can’t build 12 aircraft carriers tomorrow …
… but they’ve got very good submarines. And then you have the broader cyber issue, which I know you’ve covered extensively.
Disinformation, but also going after critical infrastructure.
They already have the ability to go after water treatment, power grids, etc. So coming back to why I wrote this book, I’ve been covering each of these fronts and I’m not hearing folks — certainly in the White House, but elsewhere — talking about how those fronts fit together. And it is an explicit strategy. And although Russia and China are very different countries, in a thousand different ways, they’ve struck on a similar strategy for undermining the US.
All right. So that’s Russia. China?
So China, active in those same fronts. It’s got space weapons. Its innovation is what US Space Command calls a “kidnapper satellite.” It’s got a grappling arm that can snatch satellites out of orbit, Moonraker-style. They’re up there, they’re active.
So they’re stealing them?
They haven’t done it yet. But in the event of a war, they can. And they’ve tested this capability right up to geostationary, so right up to 20,000 miles. To be able to do that, you’ve got to have fantastic maneuverability, situational awareness, etc. They’ve demonstrated that capability. So, China’s in space.
China is also under the waves. They don’t do nuclear subs as much as diesel-electric. Diesel-electric is quieter. There was a Chinese sub that popped up in the midst of a US carrier group, without warning, a number of months ago, that scared the bejeezus out of US naval commanders because they didn’t know it was coming.
It just popped up?
And when you can pop up in the middle of them, of course, you could have already launched the torpedoes and they’re dead. So they’re there. China also does election interference.
So China hasn’t been known for this, right?
They’ve been known for space, obviously.
They’ve been known for space. They famously blew up a satellite in space about 10 years ago. But submarine warfare … China’s …
The accident? You mean the space … blew up …
Well, they shot a missile to take out a satellite in space.
And whenever a country does it — by the way, the U.S. has done this more than once… we always say, “Well, this satellite is in a degrading orbit, and it threatens people in South America,” whatever.
No, they’re just testing the ability …
It’s a missile test. It’s a missile test, yeah.
Of course. Whenever there’s an accident I’m like, “That wasn’t an accident.”
It’s covering up something else, or they were trying to do it.
Exactly. China’s missiles are designed to destroy US aircraft carriers. And they’ve had enormous success. If you ever hear anti-access/area denial, that’s a whole … They create kind of a web of fire that keeps US carriers off the coast.
China, by the way, does election interference too. Australia has had particular experience with this. But when China is reducing soybean purchases from Iowa, amidst this trade war, that is trying to maximize pain on Iowa farmers, with political effect in the US, it’s basically election interference. And China has also done probing attacks, like Russia has, of election systems. So they all operate …
But not as much disinformational?
Not Russian-troll-farm level stuff. They have the capability of doing it.
Of course they do.
They haven’t done it. Of course, the other aspect that China has had enormous success — I have a whole chapter on this — is just straight-up stealing state secrets, national security intellectual property and private sector intellectual property. And I tell the story of just a single spy, Stephen Su, who over the course of four years stole hundreds of gigabytes of data on the F-35, the F-22, and the C-17. And today, Russia is flying three jets that look a heck of a lot like the F-35.
Sorry, China is. F-35, the F-22, and the C-17, because he was so successful, over four years. He was caught by the FBI, but only four years in. And I interviewed the former head of counterintelligence for the FBI, Bob Anderson, who says, “We’re aware of about 10 percent of what China’s doing.” 10 percent.
Of what they’re stealing. They’re also, to give them credit, doing a lot of their own technology and spreading it all over the world. And so becoming … just the way they’re buying up mining, rare earth minerals, everything else. They’re also deploying their technology in places … facial surveillance, they’re giving them to other countries to try to become the dominant technology force in the world, the way the US has been. Huawei is a good example of this.
I think it’s easy to say they steal everything. They don’t just steal everything. They actually are innovating their way into dominance.
I’ve actually been to Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen, and credit where credit’s due. They do a good job stealing and that is expressly to catch up to the US, but China is ahead of the game, you know this better than me …
In artificial intelligence.
… in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, this kind of thing. They’re damn good at what they do. Of course it helps to cheat too, along the way.
Right. Well, it’s not that we don’t cheat. But it’s an interesting question, “Who’s going to dominate the next phase?” is something that’s interesting, that’s been debated. And of course Silicon Valley people are saying, “Let us stay large so that we can compete against China.” It’s never Russia. It’s never Russia. They’re just irritating. Russia’s just irritating. It’s China that, “We need to be big in order to fight China.”
My answer’s always, “Do we really want to get in an arms race with China over facial recognition?” for example. Do we? Or will there be two internets? There’ll be two systems.
That’s what’s going to happen. There’s going to be their system and our system. And then it will be a global race to compete on who dominates in other countries. Is it a western democracy system or is it a Chinese technology-dominated system?
We make a lot of things in China. Should we be making our phones in China? I’ve never thought we should.
Well, it’s an enormous opening for bad behavior, isn’t it? Rick Ledgett, former deputy director of the NSA, on this he makes the point that China has laws that require their technology companies to work with their security services, beyond the fact that … Listen, there’s no real firewall between the industries there. You’ve got the straight-up state-owned enterprises and the other ones, but they still have a tight relationship, and directors on the board, whatever.
So they’ve got to do it. They’ve got to do it. And that’s a problem. And that’s why when you look, for instance, we spoke about Huawei …
This is going to deploy 5G. But go ahead.
You understand why US security services are concerned about it. I remember that moment during Hill testimony when all the intelligence chiefs were there and they were asked about ZTE: Would they use a ZTE phone? And they all said, “No,” because they’re concerned about a back door in a ZTE phone. You look at the Russia thing, too. Why does no government agency use Kaspersky Labs now, right? Because they were worried about … what was a good technology product … do you trust that to screen your computer? Probably not.
So what do you as an American? I don’t agree with Donald Trump on much, but I’ve got to say, I don’t think we should be using Huawei. I’m kind of like, “Yeah, Huawei’s a problem,” from a national security point of view. I’m not sure that’s why he’s doing it.
How can we be working with them? Because obviously China is going to be a technological leader, and so there has to be global cooperation between technology … Obviously, Apple makes a lot of things in China. Obviously, Google does. Google’s trying to go in there. How do we work with them and at the same time, protect our national security interests?
It’s a question. Just beginning with Trump’s addressing this issue … Credit where credit is due. He’s confronting China on what is a genuine issue, not just trade misbehavior but national security, a true national security threat. So, can you work together on these essential technologies when you have enterprises that abide by government rules, and a country that has calculated that its survival — well, the leadership of that country has calculated that its survival is dependent on control of its own people?
Which, a lot of the funding … I was just at an event where a China expert was telling me about how much money they spend on internal … The reason they’re so into facial recognition and AI combined is because they need to control this population. Not just the abuses, the marginalized people, they’re doing it … the spying they’re doing on different groups.
Right. The Uighurs, for instance.
The Uighurs. The whole population is under surveillance.
Absolutely. They have perfected using technology as a means of repression.
They have to.
Well they’ve calculated that because …
And they have to, to control the country.
Well, exactly. Because they’ve calculated, essentially — that’s a bigger conversation, I guess — it’s a crisis of legitimacy because they’ve calculated that they can’t keep this population of 1.4 billion in check without having that kind of control. And that’s a sad fact.
Well, when you see the numbers, the estimates on how much they spend on internal surveillance, that’s all it says to me is it’s …
They’re worried about dissent.
They can’t have dissent.
No. I remember when I went to the Huawei headquarters, and this is a number of years ago, I remember walking through — I’m sure they wouldn’t let us do this again — but walking through the quarters, and any door that was open, I felt like there were about a thousand people in there at a terminal. And that’s Huawei, it’s a company that makes a lot of products, that kind of thing.
But Bob Anderson, again, former head of counterintel at the FBI, in the chapter on stealing the state secrets, he talks about how China does a great job of just enlisting its intellectual and technological firepower in the service of the government. You’ve got the people who are expressly working for the security agencies; but he says they have, he called it a “national service program” for highly capable technological students to do the work of hacking for the government. So the whole system is built on preserving that power, and using the technology to do so, enlisting people in the service of the government.
And then of course there’s AI, in terms of weapons that are done this way. They’re becoming dominant in AI.
Again, not Russia, China.
And when I ask the folks … a lot of this, again, part of the motivation for writing this book is, whenever I would ask senior intelligence officials, “Okay, give me your top five threats,” right? “What keeps you up at night?” They would always have Russia and China at the top of the list. And some would put Russia ahead of China, but most of them put China ahead of Russia.
But then when I say, “Okay, so give me the next fields of battle,” and of course they’ll say space. But they all say AI, as well. We’re already there, in some respects, but that’s a next field of competition.
And, meaning what? How so?
AI is a powerful weapon.
And obviously Kai-Fu Lee has written about this.
Absolutely. And some make the argument to me that AI is already in play, in some ways. Because in cyberspace, of course the decisions are made in microseconds that human beings can’t complicate. So already those tools are operating somewhat independently from human control, to some degree, at least in the moment. Also, when you speak of drone technology, the systems that manage those swarms of drones, that kind of thing, will have some artificial intelligence and …
Yeah, fair enough. So …
Yep. I think the issue is that right now, we will debate the ethics of it. We will debate the diversity in it, and they won’t, at all. They don’t.
Well, that’s true. No, that’s true.
And that’s why we’ll be hindered.
That’s the argument is that we shouldn’t … The argument is still well yes, let’s not debate it, let’s just go full steam ahead, which I think is wrong because look where it’s gotten us with social media.
So what are the biggest threats right now from each of these countries, and what does defeat look like to them? What’s their goal?
So both of them speak in terms of permanent conflict, that this is over time. That there’s no signing ceremony on the Missouri in this. Well, because it’s happening over time, insidiously. And again, with them calculating what is our threshold that they can operate under without sparking a decisive response, right? So it just goes on forever. Just eating away at American advantages, that kind of thing.
So for China, though, the ambition is that, to supplant the US economically and militarily, will we know it? I mean, you’re sort of like the frog in the boiling water. The temperature keeps going up. Will we not recognize it until, “Wait a second. We’re no longer the world power.”
You know, it’s not going to happen in a day. It’ll happen over the course of many days and years. So they may achieve victory without us realizing it. And that’s, again, part of the reason I write the book is that we’re already in a war without realizing it, right? And certainly the public’s not aware of it, and our leaders are not speaking of it in those terms.
Well, they’re a little more, with the election interference with the …
Yeah, for sure, but without realizing that at the same time, you’re getting attacked on other fronts and losing ground on other fronts.
Right. So what is the US doing? What is the US doing to this? We’re not just sitting here?
No, we’re not. I mean, first it started with recognition, and speaking in terms of a shadow war, though they don’t use that exact term, is something that US military commanders do. It’s something that folks in Cyber Command do, etc. Making piecemeal decisions of consequence, but without a clearly articulated vision. And I’ll give you an example.
I mean, again, we talked about this, the Trump administration enabling some offensive cyber weapons in response to intrusive attacks by Russia and China. You know, in other words, meet them out on the battlefield here. So you’ve had that happen. The US has not made a decision exactly how to respond to threats in space, although we are starting to send satellites into space that have greater maneuverability so they could get out of the way.
So they’re kamikaze, they’ve got grapplers, what are we going to do?
Just shoot them.
You could, I mean, a couple of things you’re talking about. Sending satellites up with some shielding so that they could resist the effects of directed energy weapons. The former head of Space Command, he talks about sending satellites up with the equivalent of carrier escorts, right? So other satellites that could help push off, even lay depth charges in space terms to, you know. So you’re talking in those terms, they haven’t made the decision on offense, but they are making decisions on defense in space. In terms of tying it together and responding with a contiguous national strategy, it hasn’t been articulated yet. And one point …
Why, in any of these administrations?
We don’t have leadership.
Is it just this administration, or is it previous?
Previous administrations didn’t recognize it sufficiently. They were at least willing to identify Russia as a threat, particularly. You can give this administration credit for identifying China as a greater threat, you know, the trade space, stolen state secrets, etc. But you need a whole-of-government response, which requires focus from the very top, articulation of a strategy from the very top.
In this administration focusing on China, but still will not identify Russia as the threat that it is. You can’t have that leadership. And don’t take my word for it. The sub commanders want the leadership, the space commanders want the leadership, the folks in the NSA want the leadership.
There is only partisanship. They can’t make basic decisions together. Do you imagine the political climate changing so that happens? Or is Russia, has it worked? They’ve created dissent and discord.
You have to depoliticize this threat. And this threat has been supremely politicized by the president.
Russia has, and China has too, I assume?
Well, they have for sure. You know, Jim Clapper makes a great point in comparison. He says …
Explain who he is.
Jim Clapper, former director of national intelligence, to speak to him, and again he’s been politicized as well.
Yes, he has.
But he’s served 50 years in intelligence and served Democrats and Republicans. He says that America does not do future threats well. He imagines this scenario where George Tenet in August of 2001 says, “We’re getting a lot of chatter about terrorists targeting aviation in the US, I’m going to require all Americans to take their shoes off and not carry liquids on planes and go through an extra level of screening.” And he said, “Americans would have said, ‘no way.’” 9/11 happens, you get woken up.
The trouble is, you can argue the US did have it’s sort of Pearl Harbor, with the election interference in 2016, or should have, because that was a consequential attack on our most sacred institution. But it had been politicized by one side, by Trump. So that you can’t identify it in a unified way and therefore respond to it.
So what happens?
Well, without getting together and thinking about a national strategy to respond, and taking actual steps, they’re going to continue to win, right? I have a final chapter where I lay out what smart people say are a series of steps that need to be taken.
All right, talk about the steps, and then talk about what winning would be for them.
Okay. A good more than half a dozen of them. One, know the enemy. So get over this delusion that they want what we want. And then that’s happening now.
You’ve got to defend our institutions better. That’s simple, sounds simple. Can you do it when you have a president who’s had only one cabinet-level meeting on election security? And you can’t bring it up in his presence, according to the chief of staff, because he doesn’t want to talk about it? No. You got to get over that hurdle. You have to set clear red lines about where the US will not allow Russia and China to attack, whether it’s invade a country in Europe, create territory in the South China Sea, mess with our elections, deploy space satellites. We have to set what the red lines are.
Well, Jim, “he said he didn’t do it.”
There you go.
“I asked him, and Putin said he didn’t do it.”
Can I tell you what that Helsinki moment means for the folks who are on the front lines of this? That was one that in a thousand, well not a thousand …
Dozens of interviews for this book identified it as a worst moment.
Worst. I thought it was, like, are you kidding me?
The worst. And again, it’s not a political point.
I was thinking of all the people that do the work, I mean, it was sort of like, are you kidding me?
Felt undermined and embarrassed by it. So that can’t happen. So you set the red lines, but you also have to raise …
You know what? I hope someone else went and, “Just ignore him.”
That’s what I’m hoping. I’m assuming that’s what happened. Even a Pence would go on and go, “Hmm.”
The question becomes, who does Russia listen to? Does it listen to them? Or does it listen to the president?
No, not that, but the people who are working for us. “Just ignore him.”
They get those messages all the time. But Russia doesn’t ignore the president’s comments, you know, and neither does China.
No, but like, “Don’t do what he said.”
I hear you.
You know what I mean?
I think there’s a lot of “don’t do what he said” going on.
There is, there is.
Well, you saw that, and just some of the Mueller report, and don’t do what he said.
Exactly. Or you know, the taking memos off his desk, right?
Which is terrible, which is terrible.
You know, this kind of thing. So that does happen. But just on that point for a moment, Russia and China looked at the signals coming from the top when they calculate how far they can push back.
Right, that’s right.
So it does have consequence.
No, you’re constantly having to clean up a mess.
Raising the cost to a point that it changes behavior. Our favorite response is to slap sanctions on this and that, and has that … You know, Russia’s still in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. China is still on these man-made islands in the South China Sea. Clearly, the response to 2016 interference didn’t work, because they tried again in 2018, and they’ll try again in 2020.
Raise the costs with consequence. And in the book there’s a discussion of a few ways to go about it. And I mean, there are of course the idea of sector-based sanctions, right? Go after Russian oil. That has enormous economic consequences. But what about information ops of your own?
Oh, we’re doing that.
Well we are, but to what degree? Ash Carter brings up the idea of, what if you expose Putin for the thief that he is to his own people? Expose his financial …
They don’t care.
Maybe, maybe. What if you expose…
They’d clap for him.
Here’s something that Carter brought up as well. What if you expose all the Russian boys that are dying in Syria? Russia lies about the Russian regulars.
Well it did work in Afghanistan. Yeah, that one might work.
There you go. So, some of them can be clever. You know, these are the discussions that …
I don’t know, that’s a country that feels so bad about him, so manifestly insecure as a country, you know, if countries could be people. It’s literally the most insecure country on the planet. And so they have to feel good about themselves. And so believe almost anything. I’ve been there many times and I always think this country is … We’re crazy, but they’re crazier. But you know what I mean? Like, you can’t say that …
No, I do.
You know, it’s like, wow, that’s really inaccurate. And I think at some level, even though we make fun of ourselves, I think even … most Trump supporters do get the joke. You know what I mean? They aren’t diehards in the way that you think they are.
I hear you.
You know what I mean? And there, I’ve found it to be fascinating in terms of how they feel about Putin. But getting back to … Go ahead, sorry. So go ahead.
So set red lines.
Set red lines. Reagan made it costly. To me, I think one of the reasons the Cold War, whatever you think of Reagan, he made it so costly. Then we put them into economic turmoil.
And we just outspent them.
At cost to us, but a greater cost to them.
So that’s the thing, you have to raise the cost to make a difference and change the behavior. We clearly haven’t struck on that.
What was his thing? What was his thing, the space thing?
Just saying that was enough.
The Strategic Defense Initiative, yeah.
Just saying that was like … To me, I was like, everyone was sort of, “intelligence,” and I’m like, “No, no, that will drive them crazy.”
Absolutely. So you have that. I mean, there were other, you know, strengthen alliances. This is the thing, we’re in a space where NATO has never been, not never, but it’s been a long time since NATO was as relevant as it is today, right?
Because you need that unity to stand up to Russia. And when you have public discussion, from the president, questioning the usefulness of the unit, that makes a difference, and Russia takes those signals. So alliances matter more, not less, today. That’s of issue. The other area that there is frequent agreement on is, you need treaties for space and cyber. We don’t have treaties for them.
We do not.
And you need to set, you know, we … Listen, we have negotiated treaties without enemies before. We did it during the Cold War. We got a red phone, right? So to reduce the chances of nuclear conflagration, you need something similar for space and for cyber. Difficult to sit across the table from these people. But there is mutual interest in establishing some sort of parameters around this, because everybody would suffer from a space conflict. Listen, you blow up some satellites in space, that you can’t use those orbits for years afterwards. So everybody pays. You’ve got to find a way to avoid that kind of scenario.
Right, right, so mutually assured destruction. Which of the two countries do you think is most reasonable? I would think China because of their economic interest. They love their economic interest.
The general view you get is that Russia is maybe the more aggressive short-term threat, but China is the much longer term, more capable existential threat over time. Just bigger economy, bigger population, greater capability, greater knowledge.
Also capability of working with them, correct?
You have things at stake. You have things at stake.
You do, and I make the point, people frequently make the point, that during the Cold War we had a couple billion dollars a year of trade with the Soviet Union. Basically nothing. We’ve got $600 billion a year now. So there are mutual interests in maintaining a relationship. And actually, in the midst of this trade war we’re seeing …
So what’s the impact of this trade war now?
Well, it could be pretty darn bad, right?
Well, for both of us. I mean, I always say to people, “Okay, you want to stop buying stuff from China. Look around your living room. How much stuff is made in China? Are you willing to pay two or three times as much for your flat screen TV, or your furniture?” It’s actually, you know, most Americans can’t afford that. You may be, but that’s a consequence of cutting off that kind of trading relationship.
You could say the same about Mexico, I suppose, in a lot of circumstances. So you have the potential here of exacting punishment from both sides of it. Another one is … You mentioned rare earths earlier, right? The US stopped mining the stuff. China is now using that as a cudgel against us, saying “we’ll stop exporting that to you” or …
Mercury. Yeah, my brother is an anesthesiologist. He’s always talking about mercury.
Yeah, there you go.
There’s a couple of things he talks about, anesthesia stuff, that he’s an anesthesiologist and he’s like, “We cannot get this anymore because China bought up all of it.” Or something, it was really interesting. I was like, “What?”
Yeah, isn’t that incredible?
I know, he’s like, “No, this is really bad. This is a bad, bad thing for my job.” And he’s a doctor.
Okay, so what’s the answer to this? What should we do? All these things you’ve talked about, what’s the critically most important thing we need to watch out for? And what would, besides Trump educating himself on some of this stuff, what is … Does it have to be from Trump, or can it be from other leaders?
Well, it could be from, I mean Congress can … You speak about it in these terms, we haven’t heard it. Military leaders, our intelligence officials are speaking about it, but they need the resources and they need to mobilize us, right? Because we have to be involved.
I will say that there is a public element to this as well. I spent a lot of time in Estonia on this because I love Estonia. But here’s a little tiny country of 3 million people who’s been beaten up by Russia repeatedly, and yet they’ve stood up. They’ve stood up and the president of Estonia, who I interview, they talk a lot about cyber hygiene. I know you’ve talked about it on your broadcast that, you know, we’re only as good as our weakest link, any system, in terms of these kinds of attacks, particularly the blunt force kind of stuff. I tell the story in here about how John Podesta lost his emails …
Oh man, that was too easy.
And you know, the fake Gmail.
I could have hacked John Podesta.
I know! The fake Gmail thing …
Everyone’s like, John Podesta probably like had a password 1-2-3-4 would be my guess.
Well, he may have, but you know, the story too is he sent it to his IT person, or his assistant did, IT person recognized it as an illegitimate at Gmail password reset but autocorrected it in the email back to “legitimate.” They click on the link and the rest is history.
You know, we all have to be smarter about how we handle this kind of stuff because you know, you could get into any institution …
By an easy spearphishing email.
Totally. So our only response is “every man for himself?”
Yes. Well, not every man, it’s just …
Or else we’re going to have submarines or kamikaze…
We’re all on it. We’re all in on this.
Jimmy, shh. You scare the shit out of me now.
But there’s a way forward. I’m an optimist.
Kamikaze, geez, now I want to …
We just have to get on top of it.
Now I’m going to have to call Elon Musk up and figure out what we need to do.
Is Elon sending up something like that? Isn’t he?
He may be.
No he’s not, you haven’t met Elon. As we privatize space, that’s really interesting because in this country, privatization of space is what’s happening, which is bad, because then you don’t have big strategic initiatives the way they have in these other countries.
Right, in terms of competition. And again, so I don’t want people not to sleep at night. You know, I do want people to think about this, because I’m concerned about it as an American. There are smart people and good Americans thinking about this and taking steps, but until we demand more from our leaders on a strategy for responding to this, and if we aren’t willing to do more ourselves, then we’re going to be the frog in the boiling water, right? That over time, you know you lost this.
Jim, you’re bumming me out, Jim. We’re never going to win, are we?
Well, we can stop losing, and we’re losing now.
We can stop losing. Thank you, Jim, for that. You should run for office on that.
Yeah, exactly. That’s quite a bumper sticker.
“I’m for not losing any more. Yeah, we’re going to not lose so much that you’re going to be sick of not losing.”
Exactly, exactly. That’s not the greatest hashtag.
Listen, I will say one thing on the positive point, because it is more than just not losing. I’m convinced of this — and I don’t mean to wave the flag too much, but I believe it — we have much more to offer the world and Russia and China, our systems do. And this is to some degree a clash of ideas. What kind of world do you want to live in?
I think we get them with the sneakers and the McDonald’s, but I thought we ruined them.
And the jeans.
I thought they’d be like, “Oh well.”
I know, we should have.
But they didn’t. It worked on France.
We had more to offer. Now let’s be frank. People are not clamoring for a CCP.
That’s the thing.
The Chinese Communist Party. They’re not clamoring for Putin’s, you know, regime.
On the other hand, they’re not clamoring for doing anything about that. The fact that people don’t care about it. I was literally at a party yesterday, and it was talking about the stolen election in Georgia, which I think, I do believe Brian Kemp played games there, and who knows if Russia was involved and stuff like that, and things like that, and literally an intelligent person at the party was like, “Oh! Who cares?”
And I almost decked this man. I was like, “Who cares?” Like, “You can’t prove it.” I’m like, “Oh my God, that you’re starting from not caring is really a problem, like that you …”
I do too. I do too, and I think that people do get tired of it, when Trump keeps tweeting about it and everybody gets exhausted. It’s meant to be exhausting and that’s how you win.
It is, exactly. Over time you numb people.
Yes, exactly. Anyway, Jim, this is a fascinating book. I urge you all to read it. It’s Jim Sciutto, he’s from CNN, but he’s more than that. He’s more than an anchorman. He’s the author of a recently released book called The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America.” We shall not let them defeat us. On the beaches or in the cyberspace. Anyway, thank you, Jim, for coming on the show.
Thanks so much.
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