CNN's Jim Sciutto on who will win the "Shadow War" — Russia, China or the U.S.?

CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto on his new book and the hidden superpower war of our time

Published June 6, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

CNN’s chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, lays out a compelling, alarming case in his new book, “The Shadow War: Inside Russia's and China's Secret Operations to Defeat America.” I chatted with Sciutto this week on “Salon Talks” this week, which also marked the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese government used the military to crush a student protest, leaving hundreds — perhaps thousands—of protesters dead.

That event, for the young Jim Sciutto, to a large extent sparked his interest in China. Soon thereafter, it inspired him to make Chinese history his college major at Yale. He has since lived in China as a journalist and diplomat.

As Sciutto joked in discussing his book, “Russia is like your drunk friend at a party, while China is like your scheming evil friend who has a smile on their face while stabbing you in the back.” He is clear that China and Russia are not working together, but they share a common goal of challenging U.S. global leadership on various fronts.

Consequently, we find ourselves in the midst of “The Shadow War.” In Sciutto's view, this undeclared war is below the threshold of a shooting battle, but potentially is just as dangerous. One glaring example is the Russian-directed attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, with the goal of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump, as reported on extensively by Robert Mueller.

But in Sciutto’s eyes, and according to the U.S. intelligence insiders he’s interviewed, China is truly the most concerning threat, with its growing economic might, ability to steal military secrets and fast-advancing satellite technology. “Star Wars is here today,” Sciutto explained, with China possessing “kidnapper satellites” that “can snatch our satellites out of orbit.” As Sciutto details, we are vitally dependent on these satellites for everything from GPS for our cars to our financial system to our military.

So how does America win this “Shadow War”? Watch my interview with Sciutto here or read the transcript below, to hear him lay out a list of prescriptions for our nation and why leadership from the top plays a key role. With Trump refusing to condemn Russia’s attack on our 2016 election, declining to shore up election systems in advance of 2020, and misplaying China on issues from trade to North Korea, victory is not guaranteed.

 This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

First, I want to touch on a few issues in the news to start us off. Donald Trump is in the U.K. You just got off the set at CNN where you were covering him and came over here. Yesterday when the president landed, one of his first tweets was to not only attack CNN, but to call for a boycott of AT&T, CNN's new parent company, all to change the coverage of CNN. Forget that you work at CNN. As a journalist, what's your reaction to that?

Listen, first of all, it's part of a troubling pattern. Because he's used this cudgel before. You think Amazon with the Washington Post, and certainly, his frequent attacks on the New York Times and so on. But connecting it to the business side of things is one of these norms that we talk about. It's almost broken norms, I should say. It feels cliché to say, but these are broken norms with consequences. When you have an American president, in effect, attempting — we should make clear — to interfere in the business of the country for personal effect.

Now, it's interesting. You can argue that it's gotten to the point where folks don't listen anymore. AT&T's reaction to this has been kind of like a shoulder shrug, in effect. But, there have been decisions where it appears that the president's personal animus has affected decisions. There’s the question of would Trump's Justice Department have challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger had there not been a personal aspect to it?

Now, you talk to the Justice Department, and they say we pursued this out of principle. But, there's, at minimum, a question as to where that influence came from. Listen, I'll leave the judgment to your viewers as to whether they're comfortable with having a sitting U.S. president use that as a motivation to take steps like this.

Is the goal self-censorship? Chris Cuomo, your colleague, last night on his show he said that the goal, he thinks, is that people lose their jobs at CNN so they won't cover lies as often. Do you think the goal truly is that he hopes that someone at CNN, some decision maker, goes, you know, "If we cover this we know what's going to happen, the president's going to gin up anger against us, let's just forget it"? 

I think it's absolutely his hope. He does it all the time, both to gin up fear, on the one side, but also add to doubts about what's really true. This goes to that connected idea of him constantly attacking things as fake news when, clearly, they are not. We saw that today. The president, he was asked about the protests in London to his visit, and he says, "They're fake news. I've only heard cheers." We immediately came out and said, well, here are the live pictures of those protests taking place right now. It's obvious to your eyes. It's not fake news. At the end of the day, even he is not attempting to claim it's fake news. It's just his moniker for news he doesn't like.

 I think it was interesting that London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote an op-ed on how history teaches us the danger of being afraid to speak truth to power and the risk of failing to defend our values from the lies of the far right. He mentioned on CNN today that Trump is the poster child, I believe, for the far right. We're seeing Trumpism connecting the dots. More and more nations have moved to the right across Europe.

Right, and you have a number of cases like that. You look at Austria, you look at Italy today, where far-right parties are, or even France. I mean, we're talking extreme. In the most recent European elections, they had something. They were below expectations, the far-right parties, but still. In Italy, you still have a very large presence.

So if you talk to Europeans, they don't consider this some sort of like, "well, may happen someday" theoretical possibility. They're seeing it, and, by the way, they have memories only a few decades ago, of the consequences of that extreme taking power.

Today is the anniversary of another extreme event, June 4, 1989. Thirty years ago in Tiananmen Square, the horrific crackdown by China on dissidents, especially young people, students in the streets. This date and this event actually had a personal impact on your own trajectory as a person. Share with us a little bit about why.

Thirty years ago, around this time, I was in college. I was a freshman, but one of my sisters lived in Asia and my parents and another sister had gone out to visit her. They went to Beijing, as one does, as tourists. They were there in late May 1989. They didn't know that this was going to become the thing that it did, but we have family photos of my parents and sisters in Tiananmen Square in the midst of those protests surrounded by what were then hopeful, young students hoping for change in their country.

They left the day martial law was declared in late May. And then, in the succeeding days as they continued their trip throughout Asia, they were reading and, of course, saw on television the crackdown that followed, the bloody crackdown that followed. And, of course, that had an enormous impact on them because they had been in the midst because they met face-to-face with some students who likely died in that crackdown.

I was a freshman choosing my college major, and I was at Yale, and I happened to be taking a class with a professor there, Jonathan Spence, one of the great China scholars of time. And I said, listen, this is a place, this is a country, this is a phenomenon I want to study more. And that, of course, led, after college I became a history major with a Chinese focus, but ended up living in Asia for a number of years and returning very recently to live there again. And without that moment, that moment changed my life, too.

Let's talk about your book, “The Shadow War,” about Russia and China and their efforts to block and undermine U.S. global leadership. They have the same goal, different approaches. Recently when you were on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” you said that Russia's like your drunk friend at a party. [Laughter.] I've never had a drunk friend try to hack my emails and weaponize it through WikiLeaks, but I get your point. Tell us why Russia's like a drunk friend at a party.

The point, I mean, it was a little bit facetious, but first of all, as you say, China and Russia have a very similar strategy. I call it the shadow war. They're not working together, they're not working in cahoots. I mean, there are areas where they cooperate, but they are very individualistic, single-minded. Each wants to regain their position as a global power and do so by undermining and even surpassing the U.S.

Folks will always ask me who's the bigger threat. Typically, if you talk to folks in the intel world, national security, etc., they'll say, Russia is more dangerous, aggressive and a short-term threat. China is the greater existential threat over time just because it's a more powerful country, much bigger economy, greater resources, greater population.

But there's also something in their tactics, and the subtlety or lack of subtlety. And that's why I'm saying that Russia kind of like breaks through the front door like your drunk friend at the party. And I said to Colbert, I said, "China's like your scheming evil friend who remains quiet, might have a smile on their face while they're stabbing you in the back." Again, overly simplistic, but I think there's some truth to it.

Explain to people a little, what is the shadow war?

I think folks at home are aware of a couple of fronts in this war. It's a multi-front war. They know that Russia interfered in our elections. They're probably aware that China, for instance, steals our intellectual property, private sector, government secrets, etc. But there are other fronts in this war that are happening at the same time and that are part of this grand plan to undermine and surpass the U.S. I think most people are not aware of those. For instance, do they know that today there are weapons floating around in space? Both China and Russia have tested and deployed space weapons. Star Wars is here today. Lasers are in space today.

Russia has kamikaze satellites that can destroy U.S. satellites in orbit. China has kidnapper satellites that could snatch them out of orbit. Why? Because our military and our civilian life is more advanced in space than anybody, but also more dependent on it. Smart bombs aren't smart without satellites. Drones don't fly, we don't have nuclear early warning without satellites. You and I not only would get lost without GPS, but down the street here, the New York Stock Exchange, financial transactions depend on timestamps from GPS satellites.  So, you have a whole host of ways to undermine and even paralyze the U.S. if you were to take away those space assets.

Under the ocean there is a massive new great game in submarine warfare competition. Both Russia and China deploying quieter, faster submarines. Why does that matter? A quiet submarine that you can't detect can show up off the coast of New York and launch nuclear missiles, in the event of a war. Cyber-warfare is happening a thousand times a day in a thousand different ways. And then you have old school 19th-century kind of stuff going on. Russia invaded the Ukraine. China up and created new territory in the South China Sea. All those fronts add up to the shadow war. It's happening sort of quietly. Quietly enough that most folks aren't talking about it, but it's very real.

Your chapter on election hacking is excellent. It is worth the price of the book on its own. What I was amazed by was the details that you got from people you interviewed on why we knew it was Russia who hacked us, what the telltale signs are — like a CSI of computer hacking — and how there is not only high confidence but, it seems, absolute certainty that it was Russia.

There's no question.

Share a little bit about what they did and what you document in your book about how experts knew it was Russia. What did they find?

I have the advantage, throughout the chapters of the book, talking to folks who were deeply and directly in these things. In this case, it's the former deputy director of the NSA, Rick Ledgett, who was the head of their operations center. He basically ran the response to this. A couple of things. One, the hackers embedded in their code the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian alphabet. Russian hackers use that kind of stuff. They were working, and you could tell by login and logoff, they were working Moscow hours. This kind of stuff is important. But it's not just that, because someone at home might say, "Well, you could fake that."

 But they saw this pattern across the board. Beyond that, the Cozy Bear, Fancy Bear, these are the names they issued these hacking groups that work for the Russian military. They had, prior to the election interference in 2016, been behind the comprehensive and very successful attack on the State Department email system.

There are digital fingerprints. I mean, you and I have a way that we take notes, for instance, or brush our teeth or whatever. Hackers have a way of hacking. They saw commonalities right down to... We're all lazy, to some degree, so if I got something that works, you ever cut and paste, I don't know, an email from one person to another? Hackers cut and paste lines of code because it worked last time. So, this web of signals, fingerprints, leads them to the folks behind this. When you hear the president say, "Well, it could be a 300-pound guy in his basement." No, the NSA does this for a living. They know who was behind this attack.

In your book, you detail the 2014 attack on the State Department, which when you put it together, you see, oh this was part of a pattern. This was the beginning.

Yes, and one thing on that Rick Ledgett said, which also gets to the broader aggression here, is that he said, prior to 2014, '15, when the State Department was hacked, and particularly in the 2016, Russian hackers, like you'd expect hackers to be, liked to cover their tracks. They'd poke their heads up like a hedgehog and then down and kind of like slip away. Around that time, he said, they just didn't bother anymore. They were like, bang. We tried to come through this door, we'll try to come through that door. Just the level of aggression rose where they didn't care if you caught them. That speaks to just the level of aggression.

So, what was their goal? What was Russia's goal in 2016 with their interference in our election? It has all been documented by Robert Mueller in a detailed indictment last July, which I think was the most detailed, about the military officials who were actually involved. What was the goal?

Another person who was very helpful with this book is Jim Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence. Again, he was deeply involved as this was happening. He said that at the start, their goal was simply disruption—to mess with the process, add to division, and embarrass everybody involved, Trump, Clinton, you name it, just because we like to mess around. And some of that is true, the way Russia does this. And they particularly did not like Hillary Clinton.

Yes, that's super clear.  

They did not. Over time, and Russia, like everybody else in the world, did not expect Donald Trump to win, didn't think he had a shot. But, through the months, oh, wait a second, he's the nominee. Wait a second, he has a bigger following that we expected. The goal shifted from simply undermining Clinton to also helping him. That's the U.S., that's not me saying it. That's the assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Committee.

Let’s talk about China. China is the devious friend. It's watching what's going on. You make a good point that they are lethal. These are spy people. They're not going to hack, they’re not going to put things on Facebook, they're not going to distribute. I'm not saying Russia won't kill people, they have. They've tried to kill people, former spies. But you make a great point. China is even more lethal. Explain a little bit.

Well, I talked to Bob Anderson, he's the former Head of Counter Intel for the FBI. He was involved, directly, in tracking Chinese spies. One of the chapters here just takes one of them. It takes this guy, Su Bin, who, over the course of four years, stole hundreds of gigabytes of data on the F-35, F-22 and C-17. Tremendous success before they caught him. And he says, and he's a cop. He's a former Delaware cop, so he talks like a cop. There are a lot of words in that chapter that don't let your children read them, but that's the way he talked.

He said, don't mistake, and I'm just paraphrasing here. He said, don't mistake the Chinese for being any less viscous than the Russians. In fact, he said their intelligence service is arguably even more viscous. He said they will kill people, they will kill people's families, they may do it just at home, but they'll do it elsewhere, as well. They are willing to really do anything to get what they want, so don't mistake them. That's why I say they're like your quiet, scheming friend. But that friend will still stab you in the back.

What about the telecommunications company, Huawei, and the concerns that they have a dirty network, that somehow, they're going to be able to, through their government, see what's going on in the network? There are countries like the US and even in Europe, who are concerned about that. This is part of the government's plan to gather information. Explain a little bit what that is and what's going on.

Rick Ledgett makes this point in the argument that it's in Chinese law that Chinese companies have to, if asked, cooperate with the security services. The same is in Russia. It's the reason why, I bet you lots of folks at home use Kaspersky Labs on their computers, anti-virus, etc. The government doesn't do that anymore because they are concerned the same thing happened there.

Anyway, Huawei is a big company, makes a lot of stuff, makes it pretty well. The routers for the internet and that kind of thing. But the concern is, and the US probably wouldn't be pursuing this if they didn't have intelligence to further back that up, is that they, in effect, allowed back doors so that the Chinese security services, when they want to, can sneak in and steal that information, whether it's information about communications used by Chinese nationals and Chinese nationals overseas or you and me.

Those concerns don't come from nowhere. It's interesting, because it's one of the disagreements between the US and the U.K., even an ally, which has bought a lot of this stuff. But the US is saying, you keep doing that, we're going to stop sharing intelligence with you. It's hard ball.

You’ve painted a very bleak picture but an honest picture. In the last chapter, you address how we win this. How do you make people sleep better at night knowing China's not going to steal our satellites, that they're not going to break into our elections in 2020 again? Are we doing the things that we need to do from the leadership level down to make our nation safe?

Quick answer to that, no, we're not doing the things necessary, but it's winnable. It is winnable. And folks at the lower level, not low, low levels, but folks except at very much at the top, the commander in chief, because they don't see that leadership yet. From the submarine commanders who I talk to, the folks flying the spy planes, the people sitting in the NSA fighting these attacks, men and women, people in Space Command, they're already thinking about this. Belatedly, right? It took a long time to recognize this, but they're taking steps. There are still big picture decisions that need to be made, there's still resources that need to be allocated and attention focused.

Why is it important that this president has had only one cabinet level meeting on election security? You're not going to get the resources you need and the focus without that kind of leadership from the top. But a few things. One, know the enemy. For a long time, U.S. leaders of both parties have assumed that China and Russia want what we want. That delusion persisted. It's not true, so you've got to know that and then, adjust the way you react. It doesn't mean you go to war, but it means you treat with kid gloves and say, I know that you know that I know what you're up to there, and take steps to defend yourself.

Defend election systems, better defend our national security systems and so on. Defend your satellites. Satellites are now being launched that have maneuverable capability so they could get out of the way of the bad guys. There's discussion of some shielding to protect them from, yes, lasers in space. There's the still open question of whether the US deploys its own weapons in space. That has some dangers to it, as well. So those decisions have to be made.

You need leadership from the top. You don't have that. You need alliances, because you're much stronger when you're working with your allies against these major threats. We have an administration that has questioned and undermined those alliances, to some degree.

In some areas you need treaties. We need a treaty for space. We don't have it. We need a treaty for cyberspace. We don't have it. It helps set the rules, to some degree. We had numerous treaties with the Soviet Union even in the midst of the Cold War to kind of put some boundaries and reduce the risk of global conflagration. You need the same thing for space and cyberspace. We don't have that yet. So, folks know what the steps are, but we're not taking them yet.

We had the SALT Treaties with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Imagine doing that if you didn't have the president negotiate. You couldn't do it. So, everybody says you need what they call a whole of government response, and that's only possible with leadership from the top.

That’s going to be problematic. Last thing, the trade war. We're getting conflicting things. Even today China is saying I think we're going to reach a deal, literally. And a week from now, when the stock market bumps and then, a week from now, it won't. Is there something we're missing? Is a trade war making a good deal from China's point of view, in its best interest with the United States, or can they just weather a storm and inflict damage on farmers and others who rely on the trade?

It's in no one's interest to have a trade war. We're going to pay a price for it. Now, each of us has things we want from the other. Listen, to the president's credit, China has to be confronted on trade cheating, stealing of secrets, etc. The question is what works to get you more in that direction? There is some concern that China has been pushed into a corner here where the president has been so forward-leaning and in your face, China doesn't want to lose face.

I would say to people, China is not a democracy, but it has domestic politics. And a Chinese leader cannot be seen to be kowtowing to the American president. If they have been beaten over the head to the point where now, because Xi Jinping has to worry about his own longevity, too. Can they make a concession in this environment? It's possible.

President Trump has often taken extremist positions and sort of moved back, but we'll see. Because you also see this other path. China's threatening, for instance, to stop exporting rare earths to the U.S. Rare earths are in your phones, these are those metals and so on. The U.S. doesn't produce them themselves anymore. A trade war can get very dirty and very damaging to the U.S. very quickly.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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