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Trump Doesn’t Understand Cyberwar

Donald Trump at day 4 of The Republican National Convention.

Donald Trump at day 4 of The Republican National Convention. // Dennis Van Tine/AP

In late March, Donald Trump sat down with a few reporters from The New York Times for a rare, in-depth interview about his foreign policy ideas. The conversation careened from Middle East alliances to nuclear weapons to trade pacts, touching briefly on the ever-more pressing topic of cyberwar. Trump said the U.S. lagged behind other world powers, and that the “inconceivable power of cyber” should figure “very strongly in our thought process.”

At the time, I called Trump’s responses half-baked. Now, far from being cooked through, his thoughts on cybersecurity and cyberwar seem to have deflated even further. At the Republican National Convention this week, the Times’ Maggie Haberman and David Sanger checked up on the ideas of the man who’s now the Republican nominee for president. Here’s what he had to say:

David Sanger: You’ve seen several of those countries come under cyberattack, things that are short of war, clearly appear to be coming from Russia.

Donald Trump: Well, we’re under cyberattack.

Sanger: We’re under regular cyberattack. Would you use cyberweapons before you used military force?

Trump: Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present. Look, we’re under cyberattack, forget about them. And we don’t even know where it’s coming from.

Sanger: Some days we do, and some days we don’t.

Trump: Because we’re obsolete. Right now, Russia and China in particular and other places.

Sanger: Would you support the United States’ not only developing as we are but fielding cyberweapons as an alternative?

Trump: Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future.

At that point, Sanger gave up and moved on to a new line of questioning.

In March, Trump was wrong about several aspects of cyberwar. This time, he stuck to statements so anodyne that they’re nearly impossible to fact check.

Like before, Trump appears particularly worried about the difficulty of tracking down the perpetrators of cyberattacks. That’s certainly one of the things that makes cyberwar trickier than a conventional conflict: A missile might be easy to track through the sky, but a virus can come from anywhere, and skilled hackers generally cover their digital tracks assiduously.

But the U.S. is getting good at identifying attackers. Officials attributed a massive attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment to North Korea, and privately pointed fingers at China for data breaches at the Office of Personnel Management, and at Russia for attempts to get into email systems at the State Department and at the White House.

Trump also repeated his earlier claim that the United States is “obsolete” in cyberwar. It’s true state-sponsored hackers have repeatedly poked holes in the defenses of American corporations and governments. But American offensive capabilities are likely unmatched.

This year, the Defense Department launched into full-on cyberwar against the Islamic State, promising to disrupt the group’s propaganda, internal communications and basic functions like payroll. The campaign marks the first time the Pentagon has publicly announced it’s using its own cyberweapons to go after an adversary—previous attacks, like the Stuxnet worm that targeted Iranian nuclear centrifuges, were conducted in secrecy.

But as reported by The Washington Post, the operation, which would support the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrike campaign, has gotten off to a slow start, as the Pentagon hires up for the effort and stockpiles weapons to use against the group.

Of course, this is a whole lot more detail than Trump was ready or willing to take on in his interview this week. Political analysts, security experts and even the nominee’s own ghostwriter are wringing their hands over the thought of the lasting, catastrophic damage Trump could inflict with access to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The potential that he’d misuse the government’s secretive stockpile of viruses and malware is only slightly less worrisome.

If Trump is to live up to his self-proclaimed title—a “fan of the future”—he’d do well to brush up on his cyberwar talking points before the first presidential debate in September.

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