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Congressional Democrats warn of bleak future for US cyber agency under Trump

Congressional Democrats warn of bleak future for US cyber agency under Trump


I would be very worried about CISA if Trump won a second term, Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Mary.), one of nearly a dozen lawmakers POLITICO spoke with, said in an interview. Chances are he will either try to eliminate it or neutralize it completely.

Trump cannot unilaterally kill CISA, which the former president himself signed into law in 2018, but he could fill it with loyalists who would curtail its operations. It could also prompt lawmakers to wipe out the agency's budget. And he would almost certainly end his efforts to combat foreign disinformation.

A weakened CISA could open the door for hackers to further exploit weaknesses in U.S. critical infrastructure, at a particularly dangerous time given America's increased involvement in conflicts abroad. Last year, Iranian hackers breached Israeli-made industrial equipment at several U.S. water facilities, and CISA recently revealed that Chinese hackers were infiltrating U.S. energy, water and telecommunications for at least five years. This adds to expectations of further election interference this year.

Concerned lawmakers have good reason to believe Trump has a vendetta against CISA: In 2020, he fired the agency's then-director, Chris Krebs, after Krebs called it the most secure voting year in American history .

Trump literally fired his CISA director for accurately noting that the 2020 election was secure. So of course there is concern about what he might try to do to undermine the agency's critical work during a notional second term, said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D -Va.) declared.

Still, the Democrats POLITICO spoke with didn't have much to offer to protect the agency, given the divided Congress.

If Donald Trump and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill decide to act, they already have a policy playbook waiting. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

And far-right Republicans in Congress are already laying the groundwork to weaken CISA. Last year, the House Judiciary Committees Subcommittee on the Militarization of the Federal Government released a fiery report declaring that CISA was the nerve center of the federal government's censorship apparatus. And more than 100 House Republicans voted to cut the budget by 25 percent last fall, a measure that ultimately failed.

The blowback extends well beyond Capitol Hill. In a case filed by a group of conservative attorneys general, a federal appeals court ruled that efforts by CISA and other federal agencies to report online hoaxes on tech platforms likely violated the First Amendment, a charge which the Biden administration vehemently denies. The Supreme Court is reviewing the decision.

At the National Association of Secretaries of State's winter conference in Washington this week, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, used the question-and-answer section of a panel on cybersecurity led by a senior CISA official to castigate the agency. Warner, a candidate for governor of West Virginia, compared CISA's disinformation work to the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed more than 350 Vietnamese civilians.

CISA and other federal agencies have strongly pushed back against allegations that they forced tech companies to censor Americans' speech. Yet under increasing pressure from the Republican Party, CISA's new leadership has scaled back its efforts to combat online hoaxes.

The agency stopped passing information perceived as disinformation to tech platforms or coordinating regular calls between Silicon Valley and federal officials. And new CISA Director Jen Easterly, who took office in July 2021, has remained consistently apolitical in her public appearances. The agency has focused much more on cyber alerts about potential geopolitical threats and has deployed cyber advisors on the ground across the country to help states fend off election threats.

Trump's campaign team did not respond to a request for comment on what his plans for CISA might be. But Republicans on Capitol Hill want to see further changes.

Our subcommittee revealed how CISA, directly and through proxies, censored Americans by constitutionally protecting speech, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). He accused CISA of clearly deviating from its authorities in its efforts to combat disinformation.

Part of CISA's official mission is to protect U.S. election systems from physical and digital threats. The agency says its efforts to combat disinformation focus on educating state and local election officials and are limited to deceptions fomented by foreign actors.

If Trump and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill decide to act, they already have a policy playbook waiting.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released its Project 2025 report last year, outlining a wide range of policy recommendations for a future conservative administration after 2024. The report recommends that CISA, currently part of the Department of Homeland Security be housed under the Department of Transportation, that oversight of a key chemical facility security program be transferred to another agency, and, most urgently, that CISA cease its efforts to expose misinformation and electoral disinformation.

Mike Howell, director of the Heritages Oversight Project, said in an interview that the agency should focus exclusively on protecting government networks and large utilities and that it needs to clean house.

Project 2025 is going to mean you're laying off a lot of people, Howell said.

Bennie Thompson, ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees CISA, has pledged to do everything in his power to protect the agency. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP

House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes (D-Connecticut) did not entirely dismiss the plan, calling it a fever dream mixed with legitimate concerns.

But Democratic lawmakers can't do much legislatively without control of the House. And even if Democrats were to manage to take control of the lower house in the next election and retain the Senate, Trump could still easily veto any legislation to protect CISA authorities and funding.

Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, said the senators' strategy to protect CISA supports Joe Biden's re-election.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees CISA, has pledged to do everything in his power to protect the agency. He noted that in the past, Republicans have supported efforts to create a five-year CISA director term to ensure that leadership does not immediately change with administrative transitions. He has major concerns about the future of the agency.

Trump has politicized the national security apparatus, Thompson said. Not only does he pose a threat to CISA, he also poses a threat to democracy.

Himes is also very concerned about CISA, noting in an interview that one thing we know about Donald Trump is that everything is there to serve his interests, which puts all federal agencies in a very, very difficult position .

But CISA will likely be lower on Democratic lawmakers' list of priorities than, say, protecting the Justice Department from overhauls. Many lawmakers interviewed for this story, when asked about CISA, broadened their responses to talk about the multitude of agencies that worry them at every level.

This is not the first conversation you've had, Himes said of CISA under Trump. The first conversation you have is how Trump is going to appoint an attorney general who will prosecute his enemies, because he told us he will, it's not hard to start there.

Despite potential problems ahead, CISA says it is focused on the present. Scott McConnell, an agency spokesperson, said in a statement that CISA remains focused on our mission of protecting and defending the critical infrastructure that Americans rely on every day.

We conduct all of our work in an apolitical, nonpartisan manner, and we will continue to do so, McConnell said.




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