Former intel chiefs fear future election hacks

Shutterstock image (by fotogestoeber): virus infection spreading out in a network. 

As investigations continue into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential elections, former top intelligence officials said they worry it's only the beginning of a long, insidious fight.

"We've entered a new era of conflict and influence where states and non-state actors are figuring out new strategies and means to asymmetrically influence the United States," said Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism, during an Aspen Institute panel on intelligence community and White House relations.

"They're realizing just like the terrorists did, that they can have strategic impact with fairly minimal barriers to entry. One of the ways to do that is to undermine faith and confidence in our democracy and elements of it," he said. Information warfare, pervasive cyber manipulation and cyber tools are the weapons in the new era, according to Zarate.

Russian "hybrid warfare," that contains all of those elements, should be a focus of national security, he said.

The 2016 incursions, according to Zarate, are not isolated episodes or anecdotes. They are part of a longer stream of threats. "I'm incredibly worried about what happened in 2016. I'm also worried about what's going to come and what is likely happening now, because these actors learn from each other and these tools are available on the dark web. That is a real threat to the country," he warned.

"I would say to the president that we have midterm elections coming up in two years," said John McLaughlin, former acting and deputy director, at the CIA who spoke on the same panel. "The clock's running."

The ongoing investigations into the interference would help define how to prevent it, McLaughlin said. "The premium right now ought to be on finding out how to prevent the kind of interference we saw in 2016."

Michael Hayden, former CIA and National Security Agency director, took a slightly different tack, laying some of the blame for the Russian interference on the toxic political environment in the U.S.

"I would offer the view that covert influence cannot create fractures within a society," he said. "Covert influence takes advantage of, and leverage, fractures in a society. The Russian knew us at least as well as we knew ourselves. If you really want to do something to make this less likely to succeed ... quit demonizing and de-legitimizing political opposition within the United States."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • FCW Perspectives
    human machine interface

    Your agency isn’t ready for AI

    To truly take advantage, government must retool both its data and its infrastructure.

  • Cybersecurity
    secure network (bluebay/

    Federal CISO floats potential for new supply chain regs

    The federal government's top IT security chief and canvassed industry for feedback on how to shape new rules of the road for federal acquisition and procurement.

  • People
    DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, shown here at her Nov. 8, 2017, confirmation hearing. DHS Photo by Jetta Disco

    DHS chief Nielsen resigns

    Kirstjen Nielsen, the first Homeland Security secretary with a background in cybersecurity, is being replaced on an acting basis by the Customs and Border Protection chief. Her last day is April 10.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.