What to Expect from Congress’ Cyber Strategy Brain Trust 

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., walks through the Capitol with Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., walks through the Capitol with Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The Cyberspace Solarium Commission aims to have policy recommendations ready to plug into the next defense authorization bill, Co-Chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher said.

Foreign adversaries are increasingly turning to cyberattacks to disrupt the U.S. economy, steal trade secrets and undermine the political process, and Congress is teaming with government and industry experts to fight back.   

Lawmakers in May stood up the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a 16-person panel charged with reviewing U.S. cyber strategy and recommending policy changes to improve the country’s response to digital threats. The group, whose members include lawmakers, high-ranking national security officials and a smattering of industry experts, is expected to release its findings around the end of the year.

Nextgov recently sat down with the commission’s co-chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., to discuss gaps in U.S. cyber policy, the high turnover among national security officials and what we can expect from the commission’s report.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: The commission had a pretty broad purview. What were some of the areas where you guys focused your attention?

Gallagher: There's really three buckets of recommendations emerging broadly. One is on the policy itself. We're trying to figure out whether they've hit the mark, whether we need to go further, whether we can change a few things here. I do think it's fair to say the more aggressive approach and the devolution of authorities down to the lower levels have been a positive development, in my opinion at least. The second bucket is sort of this question of process, whether the interagency currently has a coherent process in cyberspace, where are there insufficient authorities, where are there overlapping authorities, where is there just confusion. Then the third and perhaps the most important bucket is when it comes to personnel. Our success will ultimately depend on human beings—whether you can convince the best and the brightest to work with the federal government.

Lawmakers wanted the commission to focus on three aspects of cyber strategy: persistent engagement, deterrence and international norms. Among those areas, where do you see the biggest deficits in U.S. policy?

I think we've made enormous progress on persistent engagement. Whether we can deter cyber actors, particularly non-state cyber actors, is an open question. And that's not just deterrence by punishment, [but also] deterrence by denial. Developing cyber resilience such that, should our enemies attack us, we know that they can't completely shut down the grid or completely take DOD offline. So you harden the attack surface or reduce the attack surface, and that in turn enhances deterrence. I'd say we have a long way to go to on establishing norms in cyberspace. It's kind of like the Wild West right now.

What would those international norms look like? Would they go beyond basic rules of engagement, attack ‘X’ justifies response ‘Y’?

The commission spent three hours [on Nov. 12] debating this very subject, so I'm just speaking for myself here: Certainly at the lowest level, it's giving the State Department the necessary resources to engage effectively with allies and partners and conduct confidence-building measures in cyberspace, whether it's sort of cyber tabletop exercises ... or just enhancing our partnership. Then it also involves bigger things. Declaring rules for the road for cyber, are going to allow certain allies an extensive level of access to our intelligence that we do with our Five Eyes allies. The most aggressive aspect of the norms-based approach would be an actual sort of international agreement regarding the rules of the road in cyberspace. I tend to think we're pretty far away from that right now, but that doesn't mean it's something we shouldn't aspire to over the long term. One thing I think would help ... would be to enhance our attribution capabilities. If we can't do the basic ... identifying bad actors in cyberspace, how are we going to hold them accountable via some massive multilateral agreement?

Circling back to deterrence, so far the government’s relied mostly on counterattacks and sanctions to confront cyber adversaries, at least publicly. Is that enough? 

You need to have all instruments of national power focused on deterring an adversary. I think the mistake people make when they talk about cyber deterrence is thinking we're trying to deter cyber [attacks] ... but really what we're trying to deter is an adversary. That requires you to convince them of one of two things: One, that if they do the bad thing, they will be punished in a way that will outweigh potential gains, or two ... that they simply won't be able to achieve what they're trying to achieve because we've erected enough defenses that stand in the way of them achieving their goal.

How do all the high-level vacancies and leadership turnover in the national security apparatus affect the country's ability to execute a cohesive cyber strategy?

I've been continuously surprised for the last few years at the number of vacancies. I've heard some people defend it as a good way to starve the bureaucracy. I think the exact opposite is true. If the president doesn't put people in politically appointed positions to carry out his agenda, then career bureaucrats and status-quo minded people in the national security establishment are actually going to have more power. We all need to focus urgently on getting these positions filled so that we can all start rowing our oars in the direction of actually implementing the national security strategy and national defense strategy. Which, by the way, everyone seems to agree are great documents, even my Democratic colleagues.

In August, you said "defensive measures ... will only get us so far" on the Huawei 5G issue. Is the U.S. doing enough to fight these foreign espionage threats?

As it relates to Huawei and beyond, I don't think we've yet made the persuasive public case in a way that resonates with the Brits, the Canadians, the Germans and all of our NATO partners as to why these companies are a threat. We've made the case to ourselves … but we still have not ... connected the dots between Huawei, ZTE, Chinese Communist Party [and a] bad future. Then the second area is … we're [also] just trying to get complete visibility into our own supply chains. Even if you don't buy directly from Huawei or ZTE, you may have tech in your supply chain that goes all the way back to Beijing and may be vulnerable. I think we have a lot of work to do internally in terms of understanding our own defense industrial base and our supply chain vulnerabilities. Then the third and final thing ... it's going to cost [other countries] a lot of money to rip up Huawei, ZTE tech they have on their infrastructure and certainly it's going to cost them more money to go with a non-Huawei or ZTE alternative for 5G. And so it may require some sort of joint contribution from free world countries to subsidize this. 

Beyond those three buckets of recommendations, what should we expect to see in the commission’s report?

Hopefully, you'll see a report that is written in plain English, not interagency doublespeak, that also has practical recommendations that we could bring to life via legislation right away. We're trying to write something that is ready for action and won't just collect dust on the shelf for years to come. Our goal is ... to inject [recommendations] into the [National Defense Authorization Act] process next year, which would probably be the best vehicle for bringing some of these ideas to life. That's a tight timeline—particularly in a 2020 cycle where everything could get sucked into the presidential election vortex—but that's what we're shooting for.