There’s something really fascinating being in a room where real news is being made. That’s what the Aspen Security Forum is like. You have notable persons you’ve seen in the news standing before you, being interviewed by just-as-notable reporters doing their best to extract something new and noteworthy out of them. Seated around you are other reporters and attendees all on their phones or laptops either writing up their stories or posting something on a social media channel for followers to digest.
It’s a room full of constant ripples that start at the stage and continually wave out into the room and beyond. If you have your computer cracked open to take notes and your smartphone handy you see all of these ripples happen in real time. It is amazing to take in, and on a day like the second day of the Aspen Security Forum those ripples could easily be described as a constant crush of news making waves.
Starting the day with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, NBC’s Peter Alexander conducted a respectful interview in which he did his utmost to have her say something critical of her boss, the president. With tough questions about the separation of children from their parents at the border and more personal queries about the president berating her in a Cabinet meeting and whether she ever considered resigning, Nielsen held her own and didn’t lose her cool.
While all the questions were certainly within bounds, as Alexander and the reporter colleagues he tapped in the audience continued their efforts to try to get her to say something contradictory about the president it became a wasteful exercise for them and for the DHS secretary. Nielsen tactfully addressed all of their questions but rather than take the answer she had given (and given multiple times over), they continually came back trying to catch her off-guard.
Here was a cabinet secretary with one of the largest and most complex portfolios in the world and rather than address any number of other newsworthy subjects (e.g. Secret Service report to prevent school violence, HSI efforts to combat human trafficking, etc.), it became a game of “we’re gonna get ya.” I guess everyone is looking for a YouTube-able moment to put on cable news and social media feeds, but it was a lost opportunity to cover lots of other important ground relating to other big homeland security issues.
Nielsen, like her predecessors, does not have the luxury of time to do long media availabilities, so when the opportunity avails itself like it did at Aspen it would be great if the time to talk to her wasn’t a media exercise in trying to get her crosswise of her boss. But that seemed to be the goal of her questioners.
That same goal of “gotcha” seemed to be held by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in her more-than-memorable interview of DNI Dan Coats. Again, with more-than-fair questions being offered, Mitchell did what a lot of reporters try to do and sought to put Coats “on the spot” over the comments President Trump made earlier in the week in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Coats answered them all with the exception of gently pushing back on Mitchell’s question about whether he had ever considered resigning in the wake of the president’s comments. With a visible display of discomfort to her query, he replied, “I don’t go there publicly.”
But it was Coats’ candor in his answers that was probably the most memorable. He offered a forthright and steadfast defense of the intelligence community and the work that they do day in and day out to protect America and her interests around the globe. It was almost as if he was drawing a “defensive perimeter” around the intelligence community and showed he was more than ready to take on its detractors. He certainly wasn’t shy or circumspect when it came to defending their honor, integrity and profession from their critics, even if one of the most vociferous was his boss, the president of the United States.
When Mitchell asked him why he issued the statement contradicting Trump’s press conference statement about Putin’s denials of trying to influence America’s elections, Coats again was resolute. “I was doing my job,” he said.
“I thought I needed to correct the record,” he added. “This is the job I signed up for and it was my responsibility.”
It was an impressive display of character and, dare I say, independence on his part.
That same Midwest candor and charm shined even brighter in an unscripted moment when, after being handed a note by an offstage producer, Andrea Mitchell announced to the DNI and the audience that Trump had invited Putin to come to Washington in the fall.
At first visibly cringing at her mention of the word “Twitter,” Coats leaned toward her to hear her repeat the announcement. Settling back on his stool after taking in the surprise announcement, he simply replied, “OK; that’s going to be special.”
I don’t know what else people expected him to say but for every one of us who has ever received a drop-in-the-lap notice by the boss announcing something big and shocking (and involving your biggest adversary), picture yourself sitting on a stage on live television and thinking of something better to say that doesn’t get you bleeped and an FCC fine for poor word choice.
It was honesty on display. And it was as refreshing as the independence and integrity he asserted for the community he leads as DNI.
Capping the day was something you don’t often see at Aspen and that was a speech by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Aspen has long favored formats where notables are either interviewed or on discussion panels. It certainly helps keep things on time and mixes things up, so to see someone at a lectern delivering prepared remarks came as a surprise. And boy was it a pleasurable surprise.
After hearing FBI Director Christopher Wray, DHS Secretary Nielsen, DNI Coats and nearly a dozen other Aspen presenters recount Russian efforts to mess with American elections, Rosenstein announced new Department of Justice efforts to “alert the public to foreign operations targeting” our democratic republic.
The new DOJ effort is a byproduct of the recently completed work of the Cyber-Digital Task Force and Rosenstein’s remarks left no illusion about how aggressive the Justice Department was going to be on these issues.
“Influence operations are a form of information warfare. Covert propaganda and disinformation are among the primary weapons,” Rosenstein said. “The Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest. Focusing merely on a single election misses the point. As Director Coats made clear, ‘these actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.’”
The force of his words and reference of historical examples of American efforts to combat Russian information warfare were powerful and were not lost on a crowd that included more than its fair share of Cold War veterans and students.
For all the head-spinning news of the past week, and even the dark assessments by some of the Aspen presenters about the increasing Russian threat, Rosenstein, like Wray, Nielsen and Coats showcased their leadership and asserted independence in doing already tough jobs in a tough environment with an even tougher boss to answer to.
And that reinforced to me that we’re in good hands.
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