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Kerry, Clinton talk Cybersecurity and State Department Cyber-Diplomacy at Hearings

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, January 25 2013

At his confirmation hearing Thursday, Secretary of State-designate John Kerry addressed how he views Internet-based threats, echoing comments made by current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the day before at a House hearing on the Benghazi incident.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Kerry to describe the "most serious threat facing us today" in terms of cybersecurity.

Kerry responded that much of the information about those threats is classified. Then he continued:

"But every day, while we sit here right now, certain countries are attacking our systems. They are trying to hack in to classified information, to various agencies of our government, to banking structures. Money has been stolen from accounts and moved in large sums from entities," he said. "I mean, there's a long list of grievances with respect to what this marvel of the Internet and -- and the technology age has brought us. But it's threatening. It is threatening to our power grid. It's threatening to our communications. It's threatening, therefore, to our capacity to respond."

Calling it the "21st century nuclear weapons equivalent," he said the threat would require "cyber-diplomacy and cyber-negotiations." He went on to say that it would require balancing the values and interests of the United States and other countries to find common ground, but that he did not have a "magic silver bullet" to address the issue.

Clinton also touched on similar issues while answering questions from House Foreign Affairs Committee members as part of the investigation into the Benghazi incident. Since it was expected to be her final appearance in that capacity in front of the committee, Democrats asked her more general questions about her views on the challenges facing the State Department.

Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), asked her about her assessment of "technologically advanced" jihadist threats coming from Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

"Well, you mentioned a word that is rarely mentioned in these hearings but I predict will be a major threat to us and that's 'cyber,'" Clinton said, "because it's not only going to be nation-states where we already are seeing cyber-intrusions, both against our government and against our private sector, but increasingly nonstate actors will have more capacity to disrupt, to hack into, to put out false information, to accuse the United States of things that can, you know, light fires before we can put them out," she replied.

Later, she gave some insight how "cyber diplomacy" can work in response to a question from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.), in one of his first high-profile appearances in Congress, about how the U.S. can engage in areas that are unstable on the ground.

"First, we have a lot of tools that we don't use as well as we should. I think we've abdicated the broadcasting arena where both in TV and radio, which are considered kind of old fashioned, media are still very important in a lot of these ungoverned, a lot of these difficult places where we're trying to do business," she said. She urged the committee to pay attention to the broadcasting board of governors which she said "is in desperate need of assistance, intervention, and change."

She then emphasized importance of social media and how it was being used more in the State Department, not just to communicate with leaders and officials, "but really, as you say, get down into the grassroots."

She noted she had started two new organizations to counter violent extremism, including a new operation within the State Department, staffed with inter-agency experts focused on responding to Al Qaeda and other jihadist propaganda.

"So if they put up a video which talks about how terrible Americans are, we put up a video which talks about, you know, how terrible they are," she said. "We are trying to meet them in the media channels that they are communicating with people."

She compared the State Department's challenges today with those of the Cold War:

"[In] our fight against international communism, against [the] Soviet Union, during the Cold War, we did a lot of things really well. I mean, we kept people's hopes alive. We communicated with freedom lovers and advocates behind the Iron Curtain. We did it through media, we did it through our values," she said. "Well I think we've got a similar challenge even though it's a very different world. And let's get smart about it, and let's figure out how we're going to put some points on the board, so to speak, in dealing with both governments and populations."

She also responded to an earlier comment from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), who had asked why the State Department hadn't provided "call logs of messages, instant messages during that [Benghazi] attack between the post and the operations center."

Clinton responded that the question took her by surprise.

"Our op center does not do instant messaging," she said. "So, the reason you haven't gotten instant messaging is we don't do instant messaging."