WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing entitled, “United States Cybersecurity Policy and Threats,” pressed witnesses on the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s counter-ISIS efforts in cyberspace, highlighting the need for improvements in counteracting ISIS propaganda and recruitment through the Internet and social media platforms.
Senator Ernst also voiced concerns over Russia’s emergence as a leader in the Middle East. The Iowa Senator raised particular questions about the implications of Iraq’s information sharing with Russia, Iran and Syria, as well as the potential consequences related to U.S. operations in Iraq.
Witnesses on the panel included Mr. James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence; Mr. Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense; and Admiral Michael S. Rogers, Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, Director of the National Security Agency and Chief of Central Security Services.
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SEN. ERNST: Thank you gentlemen for joining us today. Admiral Rogers, I’ll start with you, sir. Two of the President’s nine lines of effort in defeating ISIL are first exposing ISIS’s true nature and second, disrupting the foreign fighter flow. And over the weekend the New York Times reported that 30,000 recruits joined ISIS over the past year and that’s double the previous recruitment year. Earlier this month in reference to ISIS recruiting, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism said that ISIS’s recruiting trend is still upward and this information came as no surprise to her. The Ambassador also said the upward trend was primarily due to Internet and social media. So, sir, do you believe the Administration’s efforts have so far succeeded on these two lines of effort in cyberspace or social media? Just please: simple yes or no.
ADMIRAL ROGERS: No.
SEN. ERNST: Okay, in light of that, with the record recruiting numbers for ISIS, how would you then assess the effectiveness of the US government’s counter ISIS effort in cyberspace? So what specifically is your assessment of the State Department’s “Think Again, Turn Away” program in support of efforts to disrupt ISIS online recruiting effort?
ADMIRAL ROGERS: Senator I’m not in a position to comment on State Department, the specifics of their program, I, honestly, am just not knowledgeable about it. I will say this broadly to get to, I think, your broader point. I have always believed that we must contest ISIL in the information domain every bit as aggressively as we are contesting them on the battlefield. That the information dynamic is an essential component of their vision, their strategy, and ultimately their success. And we have got to be willing to attempt to fight them in that domain just like we are on the battlefield. And we clearly are not there yet.
SEN. ERNST: I agree. I think we are failing in this effort and some of the programs that we have seen obviously are not working. So, are there areas in which you could recommend how the US government better partner with various NGOs or private entities to more effectively counter the ISIS propaganda?
ADMIRAL ROGERS: Again, the contesting the propaganda piece, much broader than Cyber Command’s mission. I will say from a technical and operational perspective, we, broadly within the DOD, the Cyber Command, Strategic Command, and Centcom are looking at within our authorities within our capabilities, what’s in the realm of the possible in terms of what can we do to help contest them in this domain.
SEN. ERNST: Okay, we have a larger problem coming forward too, in regards to ISIS and ISIL in the Middle East. We seem to see the emergence of a trifecta between Syria, Iran, and Russia. And now it seems that Iraq has begun information sharing with Russia, with Iran, with Syria. Director Clapper, can you speak to that and the broader implications of Russia emerging as a leader in the Middle East while we seem to be frittering away our opportunity with ISIL?
MR. CLAPPER: Well that’s certainly their objective. I think they have several objectives here. One of which that I think protect their base, their presence in Syria, ergo their build up in the Northwest part of Syria. Clearly, they want to prop up Assad and, I think, a belated motivation for them is fighting ISIL. As far as the joint intelligence arrangement is concerned, I can’t go into detail here in this forum, but I will say they are, each of the parties entering in to this are a little bit suspicious of just what is entailed here. So we’ll just have to see how robust a capability that actually provides.
SEN. ERNST: Okay, I appreciate that. And Secretary Work, do you have any thoughts on the emergence of Russia with the intelligence sharing, how that might impact the operations we have ongoing in Iraq against ISIS?
MR. WORK: I think we were caught by surprise that Iraq entered in to this agreement with Syria and Iran and Russia. Obviously we are not going to share intelligence with either Syria or Russia or Iran. So we are in the process of working to try to find out exactly what Iraq has said. Certainly we are not going to provide any classified information or information that would help those actors on the battlefield. Really what we’re trying to do is de-conflict and that is the primary purpose of the discussion between President Obama and President Putin yesterday is if you are going to act on this battlefield, we have to de-conflict. The other thing we have made clear is they would like to do a military first followed by a political transition, we believe those two things have to go in parallel and that has been our consistent message. This is early days, we are still in the midst of discussing what exactly this means so I do not have any definitive answers for you at this point, Senator.
SEN. ERNST: Well, I am very concerned that we have abdicated our role in the Middle East as, and in so many other areas as has been pointed out earlier. Grave concern to all of us and I think we need to be working much more diligently on this. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
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