Congressman Adam Schiff on Russian Hacking, Syria’s Civil War and North Korea

Congressman Adam Schiff

Congressman Adam Schiff said the prospect of Russian hackers influencing US election results "terrifies him", that the new Philippines President is a "loose cannon", and that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is "as dangerous as we might fear." Schiff, who represents California's 28th congressional district and is Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke at a LAWAC dinner on Wednesday October 26th.

On cyber hacking, Schiff said that from the intelligence he has seen he is certain the Russians are responsible for the hacking of the Democratic Party emails. "The evidence I think is quite overwhelming," he said. "What's new about this is, it's one thing to gather information for intelligence, it's another to publish or dump information for the purpose of influencing an election," said Schiff. He said the Russians have already done this type of thing in Europe. "For the Russians to do this in the United States is unprecedented and quite an extraordinary thing."

Schiff said that looking forward he is concerned about what could be the next step in the online propaganda war: "hacking, theft of private information, the doctoring of that information and then the release of that doctored material" that is designed to be embarrassing or suggest criminal practice or that is otherwise compromising to some American figure. Schiff said he is less concerned about Russians hacking into our voting machines, because most are not connected to the internet and because of the many paper trail protections in place, but he worries about forgeries being released to influence election results that may not be able to be proven false until long after the vote. Schiff said he thought it was important for the Administration to call out the Russians on their behavior.

Schiff said the hacking is coming from the Kremlin, the highest level of government in Russia, because the scale of it is so extensive that it could not be carried out without a green light from the top. When asked why the Russians might be doing this, he suggested two reasons - to "discredit American democracy" and "to help the candidate they view as favorable and to hurt the candidate they view as unfavorable." The stakes are high. "When Putin isn't pushed back against, they use that as an open door," said Schiff. He would like to see us work together with our European allies who are also being hacked by the Russians and raise sanctions on them for their activity. "This is better than a US cyberattack on the Russians," said Schiff, "which would probably escalate into cyber war and it's very hard to see where that ends up."

On what went wrong in Syria, Schiff said "we got here through forces that were unleashed through the Arab Spring...which released a lot of pent up demand within the Arab world for a more representative government and in different countries it was a different response." Assad cracked down hard on protesters, and that gave rise to violent opposition that started the civil war. Now some 400,000 Syrians have died, and the war is showing no signs of ending. "This situation has gotten even worse with the siege on Aleppo," said Schiff. He conceded that President Obama's failure to follow up on his threat to retaliate when Assad crossed the red line on the use of chemical weapons had a negative effect on the reputation of the US across the Middle East. At the same time he said: "Had we gone and struck Assad with limited missile strikes, it would not have removed chemical weapons." Schiff said it's a very difficult situation and he does not envy the next president for all the decisions he or she is going to have to make.

On the conflict with ISIS and Al Qaeda, Schiff said there are 3 dimensions to the fight: "military, political and ideological... and of those 3... we have made the most progress on the military front." Schiff said the Iraqis will take back Mosul and we need to use the leverage we have to help solve Iraq's political problems. He also said "ISIS will become in many respects much like Al Qaeda - a stateless, but nonetheless very lethal, dispersed organization." He said we need to work with our allies overseas and law enforcement and Muslim communities at home to combat the narrative.

One of the concerns Schiff has with ISIS as they lose their territory in Iraq and Syria is that many of their fighters are European nationals who have passports that can get them into the US without a visa - which means that the US needs to rely on European intelligence agencies to flag potential threats before they travel to the US. Unfortunately not all European agencies are as developed as their American counterparts. "The Europeans are where we were pre-9/11 - this is partly because many of the countries in Europe are small and the resources they have are limited... There is simply no capacity to be following everyone they probably should be following," he said.

In discussion with Congressman Schiff

Schiff also said that despite all the criticism of American intelligence gathering by Europeans and others after the Snowden leaks, nonetheless some of the biggest beneficiaries of our intelligence services are our allies.... "More often than not we are telling our allies in Europe and elsewhere about plots against them. We help each other look into blind spots we both have."

On China, Schiff said he was concerned about the focus of their military and the country's determination to exercise a more aggressive role on the world stage - and "not necessarily in a constructive way." He said China has historically been very inward looking, and with a far more aggressive foreign policy now, the concern is that this will distract from all the big issues within China. "I am worried about the growth and sophistication of the Chinese military as well as their aggressive actions in places like the South China Sea," said Schiff. He added that we were recently dealt "a very significant setback" with the abrupt change of direction (away from the US and towards China) of the Philippines. Schiff said the new Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte "can be described - at best - as a 'loose cannon'."

When asked if we should fear North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Schiff said "he is as dangerous as we might fear - I often describe him as much like his father and grandfather except less sane." Schiff said this is someone who is in possession of nuclear weapons and who attacked a Hollywood studio over a movie that he didn't like. "The fact that someone has a skin that thin and a nuclear weapon is a terrifying prospect." They already have nuclear devices and "they are working on miniaturizing those devices so they can fit on a missile - and they are working on ballistic missile technology so it can reach the United States," said Schiff, "If they go down the current path, they will have the capability." On what can be done about it, Schiff said the military option is a terrible last resort and sanctions have not worked, in part because of China's economic support. To counter, Schiff said the US could impose sanctions on China, increase US naval and military presence in the region, or boost US missile defense if this continues. "The biggest fear for China is a unified Korean peninsula allied with the West on their doorstep," he said.