An Interview with David Sanger

David Sanger is an award-winning New York Times journalist. He reports primarily on national security, foreign policy and the White House. Mr. Sanger has been on two Pulitzer Prize winning reporting teams and has published two books. He teaches national security policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The Penn Political Review and The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Mr. Sanger to talk about the presidential election, foreign policy and reporting on national security.

Conducted by Michaela Palmer

Transcribed by Jesus Alcocer, Cary Dannenberg, William Lee, Michaela Palmer and Nishant Upender

Penn Political Review: What we’ve seen this year with Russia’s involvement in the US presidential election is unprecedented. What do you think their hacking tells us about how future elections will play out, and what – if anything – can the US do to prevent their influence?

David Sanger: Deterrence in the cyber realm is very unlike deterrence in the nuclear or conventional realm…You don’t know where a lot of cyberattacks are coming from. In the Cold War… there weren’t that many nuclear players. The only one that could reach us in a significant way was Russia and later on, China. In cyber, everybody’s got the reach. In North Korea, they can’t produce a light bulb but they managed to take out 70% of the computers at Sony Pictures Entertainment. It takes a lot of time to figure out who’s attacking you. It may be a state, it may be a non-state actor, it could be a criminal group, it could be a hacktivist, it could be sympathizers of WikiLeaks or Anonymous. It could be a group of teenagers. Thus, you can’t do arms control treaties. And frankly if you see an attack coming out of say, China, and you call up the Chinese and say, “the NSA is looking in at your systems and we see an attack massing,” they’re likely to say, “not the government, not us. Kids nowadays, what are you going to do with them?” Even if that is a group that is acting on behalf of the Chinese government. So the deterrence problem is vastly more complicated…

I think that we spent years over-worrying about the cyberattack on the electric grid that takes everything from Maine to Florida and under-worrying about the much more subtle attacks that can have different effects… And if you think about the past couple of years – separate and apart from what the United States has done to others – those are the attacks you have seen. The Chinese took 22 million security files out of OPM. Five years ago, ten years ago no one would have known what to do with 22 million security files. But in an era of big data you can sort that and put relationships together and figure out who is a spook and who is a diplomat and who has vulnerabilities because they are in debt…Years ago, it would not have been useful to go through the voter registration rolls… with big data and an ability to go crack these systems, it’s possible. I hope it doesn’t happen. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. Election day could come and you could show up at the polling place particularly here in Philadelphia where there is no paper backup or paper ballots, and say, “hi, I registered to vote three months ago,” and they look and they say, “hmm…don’t see it on the central register…” So, we’ve got a vulnerability where we’ve been thinking about structures – electric grids, cellphone networks, emergency response – and we haven’t been thinking about data flows. So if we’re going to prevent this from happening in future elections… The lesson’s got be that there has to be some minimal level of security that we all agree on even if the states run each of their systems. There’s got to be an early warning system, there’s got to be resiliency, and there has to be paper backup. Because you don’t have to attack every election system in the United States. You just have to attack enough that people have doubt that their vote is being counted. So that if somebody in Iowa is reading that someone in Pennsylvania does not know if their vote is being counted, they’re thinking, “I wonder if my vote is being counted.” All you have to do is sew doubt in the system and I think that is what the Russians are doing at this point. I don’t think they can throw the thing to Donald Trump. I mean, they read the polls the way everybody else does. I think they are just looking for disruption. And in their view, they’re doing what to us what we did to them – what Hillary Clinton did in 2011 parliamentary elections where she came out with statements and said “We don’t think this was a free and fair election.” And Putin didn’t take that well and he complained and Medvedev complained that we were interfering in their election. So in their minds it could well be that they are just be evening the score card.

The Daily Pennsylvanian: Could you please talk about your views on the major differences between the foreign policies of the presidential candidates?

DS: One of the big differences is that in doing our interviews with Donald Trump in March and in July…. it was pretty clear that Mr. Trump’s view of the world is very transactional. Which is not really that surprising if you spent your life as a real estate developer. You’ve gone into a country and you’ve struck a deal… you then go on to the next country with the next deal that you’re doing… so the concept of building up alliances, which has been the fundamental underpinning of American foreign policy since the post-World War II era, is somewhat missing from his world view. It’s not that he necessarily thinks that that’s a bad idea; he doesn’t mind allies if they agree with him, as many past presidents have not, but I think his view is very much… alliances are not useful for their own sake in his mind, I think. So when you talk about a relationship, whether it’s with Japan or the NATO countries or whatever, you tend to get a, “I need to look at our trade deficit,” or “I need to figure out what we’re getting out of this one-on-one relationship” and mostly he views it as a tax on American resources. So when we talked to him about Japan for example, or South Korea, he wants them to pay more for the troop presence there… The concept that we have a strategic interest in keeping American troops just offshore of North Korea and China on what is basically an unsinkable air craft carrier – the Japanese Islands – is something that I don’t think he has given a whole lot of past thought to. He views it very much as a transaction of “we’re protecting them, they should pay up.”

Secretary Clinton takes a much more traditional alliance-building view. But her view is almost a Republican view. It is very much more similar to what you would have heard from, say, maybe Mitt Romney but certainly from McCain in the ’08 cycle… I think she believes, as President Obama did, and I think this comes very much from her time as Secretary of State – that we’re not in a world anymore where we can pretend to be a sole superpower. And not only that, we don’t want to be. Because if you’re the sole superpower you either have to decide that some battle isn’t worth your fighting, or you’re all in, but there’s nothing in between. Whereas in the Middle East right now, I think she’s fundamentally along with the concept that we want to be training allies; we want them to be able to go take on the fight and they just don’t have the capability to go do that yet. For her, the weak side of that is, as it has been for President Obama, a fuzziness of the definition of when Americans go in and actually intervene. And here, she and President Obama have some significant differences. Obama has been extremely hesitant. Syria’s a great example. She wanted to go fund the opposition more, she wanted to arm the opposition more in a covert program. She talked about that in some of the Goldman Sachs speeches that got released in WikiLeaks… But what she told Goldman Sachs, for an extraordinary amount of money, it was essentially what she would say to us when she was Secretary of State and that was – the United States on one hand can’t fight every battle, but we have to recognize that most other countries don’t have the capacity to go do this. And the fundamental difficulty we face right now and what we’ve learned since 9/11 is, if there is an ungoverned space in the Middle East, it’s not that it can be filled by a radical group, it will be filled by a radical group. They will gravitate to a space that will give them some territory and protection. That’s how Al Qaeda operated, that’s how ISIS operated and if we defeat ISIS, it’s how the next radical group like that will operate. And so you have to think hard about whether or not you want to let that ungoverned space appear. If you don’t want your troops sitting there, someone’s going to have to. You have to think about whether or not you’re willing to spend the money to go do that early on so you’re not facing an ISIS later on.

PPR: You mentioned the South China Sea. Can you speak a little about what you would like to see the next president’s policy towards China look like, given our relationship in recent years?

DS: Well, there is a reason that the Chinese relationship is so complicated. It’s unlike Russia and unlike most other large adversaries. There is a level of interdependency between the United States and China that restrains action on both sides. Do you remember the crazy days when people would say something like, “They’re going to pull out all their money from treasuries and you know our economy is going to collapse,” and you sort of wanted to shake them and say, “Okay, let’s think about that for a moment.” They are going to pull that out of dollars and they are gonna put it in what? The Euro right now? Be my guest. The yen.? Their awful enemy in Asia, the Japanese? Go right ahead. And they need to have it in something because of their trading relationships around the world. So, we have significant leverage. That leverage may not help us sort out the question of whether or not we can change their ability to create islands in the middle of the ocean and call it their territory. But we can make the argument that – as Secretary Clinton did when she was Secretary of State – that we have as much claim in these areas as they do. We’re a Pacific power as well. I think the United States made a mistake by not running more freedom of navigation operations through that area of the South China Sea earlier on, because you don’t want to be in the position that when you start doing it, it seems like an aggressive act. You want to be doing it every week so that they are used to seeing you. They may not like it, but it’s not like you just showed up in a moment of crisis. To do that, you need to make the pivot real. You need to be putting more resources, more time, more diplomacy, more money into Asia. Everybody understands this intellectually and nobody can seem to break free from the resources that we keep tied up in the Middle East for obvious reasons.

PPR: You report a lot on national security. Can you talk about the balance between reporting on information that it is important for the public to have access to, and not going too far and reporting on something that could be harmful to national security?

DS: This is a balancing act that we are engaged in each and every day… First things first, you cannot write about the major challenges that the US faces today – whether it is China, or Russia or Korea, or any of the other things we’ve discussed –  without tripping into information that is classified somewhere, somehow… Secondly, things are so wildly over-classified these days that the very fact that something is classified is not in itself going to stop you from publishing it. I remind people that when WikiLeaks happened in 2010 and we got the State Department cables, 10 or 15% of those cables were newspaper articles that were published in Lisbon or Beijing or Sao Paulo, that somebody decided should be included in a cable and sent back to Washington. On their way to doing that, they stamped “secret” on it. You could Google it that day! My position with an administration whether it’s Democrats or Republicans – it would be the same if it were run by Martians – is the mere fact that something is classified is not gonna stop us from publishing it. You have to establish to us why it would be in an imminent threat to a life, an ongoing operation, an imminent operation. And you can’t use the argument that something would merely be embarrassing to publish, because we publish embarrassing things all the time, sometimes right out of the mouths of politicians or policymakers.

So, then the question comes: what is your fundamental role? And is our fundamental role to encourage debate on issues that the American public needs to know about? Even if the US government doesn’t want them debating it. Try this thought experiment: supposing we had had the national intelligence estimate on Iraq prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003, with all of its footnotes and doubts that Saddam Hussein actually had nuclear weapons. Highly classified document. Should we have published that ahead of a war that was being sold on false pretenses? You bet! Do we wish we had had it? You bet!

PPR: What do you view as Obama’s primary successes and failures in dealing with Syria?

DS: He came to power determined not to repeat George Bush’s big mistake of committing a lot of Americans to a war overseas that basically had no end. And it’s hard to remember now but when he came in we had 180,000 or more troops deployed across Iraq and Afghanistan. And because we hadn’t quite defined what it was they were supposed to accomplish, we weren’t in a good place about how long they would be there and when we would pull them back. He defined a set of objectives and pulled them back fairly quickly in Iraq. In the Iraq case, merely implementing a plan that Bush had left for him. I think the first term was pretty good in that regard. Getting Bin Laden was an additional benefit. Focusing on Iran and keeping them from having the materials to get a nuclear weapon was another. There are things about the Iran deal I would like to have different. But it’s a negotiation and in a negotiation both sides get to go have their stuff. We got 10-15 years out of it. That’s not nothing. Do I wish it was longer? Yes. Do I wish there were stricter rules about what they could do after year fifteen? Absolutely. But by and large I think that was a significant step in the right direction. In Syria, we allowed our fear of getting bogged down in another Middle East war to permit a humanitarian disaster to unfold that I fear could be a significant blot on Obama’s legacy. I would not want to be the poor museum curator who has to go design the Syria cubicles of the Obama library because we’ve had nearly half a million people die. Was that Barack Obama’s fault? No. Were there things we could have done earlier to stop it? I think so. Had we predicted that the Russians would move in quite so decisively with airpower, I think it would have forced us to think, “could we have moved in pretty decisively with airpower ahead of them?” Just as Rwanda was Bill Clinton’s big regret, my guess is that Syria would probably be Obama’s.

PPR: You mentioned Syria before being a blot on Obama’s legacy. How do you think his legacy will be remembered?

DS: I think a few things. I mean there’s the obvious, with being the first African American president. There’s been huge legal progress for gays and lesbians, for women in the military, for transgenders. You’ve got a range of social issues, I think, some of which he wasn’t even on board with in 2008. I think the progress has been significantly more sweeping than he would have thought. Obamacare may need some adjustments, but the fact of the matter is we have millions more people covered today, than we did when he came in… I think the downside will be whether or not he let the pendulum of America’s influence in the world swing too far out here after too many years of unilateralism, and whether there’s a happy medium that he hasn’t quite found yet.

DP: Is there anything else you want the undergraduates at Penn to know about this election and how it will affect how the US interacts with other countries?

DS: It’s hard to overstate how much the rest of the world is watching this election… I think we have – for better or worse – we have let the world see our internal struggle about how much we want to be a global player and how much we want to pull up the walls. It’s as obvious as the “make America great again” slogan, where the key word is “again.” As if there’s an image to many people of an older, whiter, more Christian, simpler America that doesn’t look like the America that you guys all know at Penn. And, that’s an urban-rural thing. That’s a college-educated versus non college-educated thing. It’s a racial thing. No country that transforms itself ever does it in a straight line. It’s always sort of up and back and up and back, and that’s been the history of America from when we wrote the first amendment and we had the Alien and Sedition Acts not long after that. To those who think the world is falling apart, the country is falling apart? A hundred years into this country we actually had a full civil war. We are not in quite as much new territory as we all might think. But boy, this election has certainly engaged everybody and all of your fellow students in a way I bet the last cycle didn’t. And that’s not all bad.

This interview has been condensed and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.

Photo courtesy of the Miller Center