How TV Can Help Fight ISIS



In response to an executive order from President Donald Trump, U.S. military leaders have presented the White House with recommendations for destroying the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. While the Pentagon’s immediate focus is on the battlefield, its plan to defeat ISIS is reportedly much broader, recognizing the need to utilize “all elements of national power” to attack the key sources of ISIS’s strength, including its ideology.

This recognition is not new. More than a decade ago, while the United States was focused on destroying al Qaeda militarily, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission wrote that the terrorist group was just one manifestation of “a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world… that will menace Americans and American interests long after Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured.” The commission concluded, “Our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the Al Qaeda network, and prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism.” Substitute ISIS for Al Qaeda and the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation is just as valid today.

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In fact, ISIS’s very existence is proof that we didn’t heed those warnings. The U.S. has still not dedicated anything close to the resources necessary to prevail against extremist ideology. To do so requires nothing less than a full-scale generational commitment to engage, support and empower moderate forces in the Muslim world, amplifying the voices of all those who seek to advance values such as pluralism, the rule of law, women’s rights, critical thinking, reason and innovation. One of the most impactful ways to amplify these courageous voices is through comprehensive partnerships with the largest, most credible media outlets in the Muslim world.

“In war,” Napoleon famously said, “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” The extremists understand the continuing truth of this adage. They devote tremendous energy and resources to a communications strategy that exploits all media platforms, traditional and new. There are reportedly more than120 extremist or sectarian television channels in the Middle East, indoctrinating and inciting tens of millions of viewers through the airwaves. Referring to both Sunni and Shia extremism, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has said, “Satellite channels unseen by Western audiences and free of either its restrictions or regulations, broadcast, with far greater impact than the internet, an almost continuous message of intolerance and venom to the ignorant and susceptible.”

Fortunately, many of the Middle East’s most popular television channels are led by visionaries who understand that the best response to extremism is programming that inspires and empowers their predominantly young audiences. For example, during the last two Ramadans – sweeps month in the Muslim world—the leading Pan-Arab channel MBC aired a hugely popular anti-ISIS comedy, Selfie, which reached tens of millions of viewers. The show’s leading actor, famed Saudi comedian Nasser Al Qassabi, previously starred in Tash Matash, the long-running TV show that regularly challenged conservative taboos in Saudi society.

Millions of young Middle Eastern viewers want programs of this kind—drama and entertainment that reflects their cultural storylines and can compete with the best television anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, programs like Selfie are the exception. In a region facing multiple wars, failed states and low oil prices, TV advertising rates are low and profitability is constrained. Channels are unable to develop their writers. Producers and directors are starved for more opportunities.

The region’s creative community has asked for America’s help in addressing this shortfall. They want mentorship in the storytelling and scriptwriting skills that make American shows so successful. They want to develop television and film with better pacing and more drama. And they want to know how America’s creative community has helped galvanize Americans and their allies to meet some of the world’s great challenges.

The United States can rise to the challenge, helping the creative artists of the Middle East unlock the potential of their drama and entertainment industry by mentoring and supporting the next generation of storytellers in the Middle East. The goal should be to flood the region with production of original, (largely) Arabic drama and entertainment programming that inspires and empowers, transmitting values that will help make the Middle East a more tolerant, open-minded and secure region.

None of this is primarily a job for the U.S. government. But Washington can play an important supporting role. The Trump administration can provide catalytic funding to help compensate for the limitations of the Middle East television market. It can convene patriotic American investors who understand the national security stakes and will help fund creative content that may not earn huge returns (at least initially). It can prod our Fortune 100 companies to provide a range of support that will help defray costs. All this will help stimulate new partnerships between creative artists in the US and the Middle East, but with indigenous actors in the lead and Americans in a supporting role. In light of the tremendous popularity and credibility of America’s television and film industry, these partnerships will be perceived as a significant net gain for the creative community in the Middle East.

The United States still remains unmatched in its ability to foster collaboration between people of different societies and tell stories that inspire and unite in common purpose. The president and key members of his team understand the power of media to shape culture. We need to draw on these strengths and support those within the Muslim world who are working courageously and tirelessly to win the war within their civilization. Only by helping amplify their voices can we end the cycles of violence that wrack the Middle East and endanger the world.

Paula J. Dobriansky is senior fellow at Harvard University “Future of Diplomacy Project” and former under secretary of state for global affairs.

Aaron Lobel is founder and president of America Abroad Media, an organization that partners with the media and creative community in the greater Middle East.

Why Steve Bannon Wants You to Believe in the Deep State

Like a George Lucas Death Star or one of those planet-eating monsters in Star Trek, the Deep State has crashed into the national consciousness. Suddenly, it’s not just an obsession of those who inhabit the fevered, conspiracy-laced dream world of Alex Jones or Breitbart, but also the subject of countless news stories and headlines of all stripes across the media spectrum—bigger than anything imaginable, undermining the elected president of the United States, threatening the fundaments of our democracy.

Like the Death Star, the American Deep State does not, of course, exist. An appropriation from countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria, where real networks of intelligence, defense and interior ministry officials exercise real power to drive policy, sideline elected officials and eliminate opponents, the American Deep State is nothing more than an invention of President Donald Trump and his allies—the convenient enemy from within that they blame for their frustrations. The leaks that undid former national security adviser Michael Flynn? That was the Deep State. Reports of extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and all manner of other smears? The Deep State. The president is said to be irate about this rearguard action led by, in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Obama administration holdovers who have “burrowed in” and “continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration.” Trump’s unshakable certainty that his Trump Tower phone has been tapped seems to be rooted—disingenuously or not—in this belief.

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Many, including Loren DeJonge Schulman, Max Fisher and David Remnick, have written insightfully on the fatuousness of these charges, and there is plenty more to say: For example, that there may be only one Obama appointee left in the two premier Deep State institutions, the FBI and CIA. That’s FBI Director James Comey, whose unprecedented intervention in the presidential election would give Hillary Clinton a much a better basis for complaining about the political manipulations of unelected officials than Trump. At the CIA, all four Obama appointees have left, and it is unlikely any Obama people remain at the National Security Agency and the passel of other intelligence agencies, where there were never more than a handful. The problems that plague Trump have nothing to do with former President Barack Obama, or some covert “opposition.” Like it or not, leaks abound when career people feel their agencies are being unfairly attacked, as they did after Trump accused the intelligence community of politicization and fabrication, or when they fear that an administration is dangerously undermining U.S. interests, a worry engendered by Trump’s denigration of traditional U.S. allies and lionization of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What has been lost in the discussion of the Deep State, however, is that even if it is fiction, it is a profoundly useful one for the White House. As Trump takes a wrecking ball to the federal bureaucracy—what Steve Bannon has called “the administrative state”—an illusory enemy like the Deep State is exactly what is needed to justify the destruction. Repetitive allusions to sinister officials and administrators will expand and energize the constituency for a radical downsizing and weakening of government agencies, especially among Republicans, who appear to believe Trump’s utterances no matter how much the media debunks them. However thoughtful the New York Times or the New Yorker criticisms of the Deep State rhetoric may be, the White House seems to have plenty of reasons to stick with its new myth.

Indeed, the Trump administration seems to be enjoying the brush fire building in the right-wing press. It’s probably not a coincidence that Breitbart, Bannon’s former domain, has put out a string of tales about Deep State infestation, including at the Commerce Department and Environmental Protection Agency. This is the sort of allegation that would brings tears of laughter to a true Deep Stater—say a Pakistani ISI officer—who would never imagine that an agency dedicated to the environment would be worth penetrating. But it makes sense when you recall that the EPA has been identified as a key target of the administration. The “skinny budget” just released by the White House shows EPA targeted for the biggest budget cuts of any agency, 31 percent in all.

The Deep State fiction also fits well with the White House’s apparently deliberate strategy to leave such traditional behemoths as the State Department almost without any leadership. On Mahogany Row, the department’s seventh floor power corridor, 7 of 9 of the top positions are empty—only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, a career Foreign Service member, are in office. There are no assistant secretaries for the different regional bureaus, or for such functional powerhouses as the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, which spends billions a year on what one would have thought was a top Trump issue. More astonishing, there are no nominations for any of these posts.

In that light—and given the whopping 29 percent budget cut for State, second only to EPA—it is a good bet that the White House’s top priority for the State Department is not any particular policy goal. Instead, it is to make good on Spicer’s riposte to the thousand or so Foreign Service Officers and civil servants who signed the famous Dissent Channel cable objecting to the first abortive executive order on immigrations and refugees: “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” he said during his daily news briefing. “I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”

State’s not the only agency with empty offices. Nearly two months into the new administration, the lack of interest in filling some 4,000 open jobs across the government with political appointees is stunning. Even if one factors in Trump’s extreme reluctance to hire anyone who ever criticized him—which takes plenty out of the running—this can no longer be attributed to growing pains or incompetence. It’s intentional: The administration aims to cripple many agencies and eliminate them as independent power centers, thus giving more power to the president.

It’s a fact of life within the executive branch that agencies wield considerable power and pursue their own bureaucratic interests. That’s why ordinarily we have political appointees to ensure that the bureaucracy for the most part follows the policy leadership of the White House. Still, doing battle with the bureaucracy has driven presidents to distraction. It has also at times provided a brake on rash actions coming from the White House.

This administration has taken a different tack, effectively ensuring that the departments have next-to-no leadership of any kind; the gears that usually mesh so agencies work together have been sawn off, and there is just a lot of spinning going on. The exception, of course, is the Department of Defense, whose ability to work Capitol Hill and the massive industries that depend on it, is being enhanced.

The Trump team appears intent on changing the nature of American government so that power can more comprehensively be centralized in the White House. With State cut down to size, for example, there will be fewer pesky demands that we adhere to international law in counterterrorism, uphold our treaty responsibility to accept refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or even pay attention to Arab objections to moving our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This is a big problem. Those kinds of initiatives are frustrating to plenty of citizens who’d like to see more decisive action, but they are also the heart of the brand of deliberative policymaking that has usually kept our government on track. Slow and steady government works. And yet that is exactly what Trump and his minions seek to demolish.

How far will this incautious power grab go? It’s impossible to say, but there is a campaign in the making. Trump adviser Newt Gingrich has said he has spoken with Bannon about the issue and made clear he is on board, declaring, “Of course, the Deep State exists. There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president. … This is what the Deep State does: They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie and then deny that they were behind the lie.” Sean Hannity has called for firing “deep state, Obama holdover” officials, adding, with characteristic delicacy, “It’s time for the Trump administration to begin to purge these saboteurs before it’s too late.” A variety of House Republicans, including Duncan Hunter of California, Steve King of Iowa and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania have echoed these charges: Kelly went to so far as to charge that Obama had stayed in Washington to “run a shadow government,” a remark he later retracted.

These are the sounds of a myth taking to flight. It would be a mistake to underestimate its durability or its potential power.

Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department 2009-2012.

Steven Simon, who was National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012, is the John J. McCloy ’16 visiting professor at Amherst College.

How the FBI tailing Trump could dog his presidency

From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, history suggests that it is never a good thing for a president to have the FBI, with its nearly infinite resources and sweeping investigative powers, on his tail.

FBI Director James Comey’s promise to the House intelligence committee Monday to “follow the facts wherever they lead” in the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia during last year’s election amounted to an ominous guarantee, barely two months into Trump’s term, that institutional forces beyond any president’s control will force the facts of the case to light, whatever they are.

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“Comey’s admission of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, with no endpoint in sight, is a big deal,” said historian Timothy Naftali, who was the first director of the federally-run Nixon presidential library. “This is not going away.”

Moreover, given Trump’s demonstrated willingness to attack any adversary – hours before Comey’s testimony, he tweeted that the suggestion of collaboration between his campaign and Russia was “fake news” – official acknowledgment of the investigation not only raises sharp new questions about the president’s own credibility, but about his willingness to continue undermining public trust and confidence in the government institutions he leads.

Typically, there mere existence of such an investigation would make any White House hypersensitive about the appearance of attempting to interfere with the FBI or the Justice Department. Bill Clinton’s loathing for his FBI director, Louis Freeh, was an open secret in the 1990s (and the feeling was mutual), but it couldn’t stop the bureau from doggedly pursuing investigations of Whitewater or the Monica Lewinsky affair. If anything, the reverse was true.

Will the Trump White House, which is installing loyalty monitors in every Cabinet department, feel similarly hamstrung about publicly attacking Comey, whom the president famously hugged at a Blue Room reception shortly after his inauguration, or trying to quash the inquiry? At a minimum, Trump and his aides would do well to recall the most celebrated instance of a president’s attempt to block an FBI investigation.

“The obvious example that comes to mind is Watergate, when Richard Nixon famously turned to the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation,” said the historian Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton. That attempt failed spectacularly, of course, but Zelizer added, “This is the kind of investigation that is never good news for an administration,” and noted that the current probe has already “consumed much of the president’s time and the doors keep opening to bigger potential problems.”

Trump has an ambitious agenda that involves the Justice Department, on matters from immigration, to civil rights to border security. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was one of his earliest and most vocal supporters, had his choice of Cabinet positions. Sessions has announced he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, but Comey went out of his way to say that the Justice Department had authorized him to take the unusual step of disclosing it.

The disclosure raises questions about how will Trump navigate his dealings with his attorney general and the department to avoid any suggestion of meddling in an ongoing investigation. At least since Watergate, there have been strict protocols covering contacts between the White House and Justice Department about pending investigations – protocols that Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus may already have violated by speaking with Comey and Assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe about the Russia inquiry.

It also raises the possibility that Trump will get bogged down in questions about the investigation, which could adversely affect his ability to achieve his policy goals. Even initiatives that have nothing to do with Russia or national security could suffer if a Republican Congress is less inclined to fight for his proposals, and there is also the matter of the time and focus responding to such an inquiry requires from the White House.

Bill Clinton devoted much of his second term to fending off the Lewinsky investigation and subsequent impeachment proceedings, fueled not only by the zealous special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, but by a hostile FBI. When the Lewinsky probe was gathering steam in 1998 and Starr’s lieutenant Bob Bittmann requested 20 FBI agents and ten financial analysts, “We had them the next day,” he would recall. Freeh personally let Attorney General Janet Reno know that he opposed the Secret Service’s invocation of a “protective function” privilege that would shield its agents from having to testify about any contacts they may have witnessed between Clinton and Lewinsky.

Trump’s aides and allies have questioned whether the permanent professional bureaucracy of the federal government amounts to a “deep state,” dedicated to undermining his policies. They should be more concerned in the short term amount a new “Deep Throat,” like the long- anonymous source who aided the Washington Post’s Bob Wooodward’s coverage of Watergate. The source turned out to be Mark Felt, the No. 3 official at the FBI, a reality that the Nixon White House caught on to just months after the foiled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Now why the hell would he do that?” Nixon asked his chief of staff Bob Haldeman on October 19, 1972. A few months later, when Felt’s name was floated as a possible successor to FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, who had resigned under fire, Nixon told his attorney general, Richard Kliendienst, “I don’t want him. I can’t have him.”

If Trump can take any comfort from Comey’s latest revelation it may be that the FBI director’s own credibility was badly damaged last year — first when he took the unusual step of announcing that the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server did not warrant prosecution; then when he announced he was revisiting the investigation in light of potential new evidence found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin; and finally when he declared, just days before the election, that his original conclusion still stood.

Trump has repeatedly shown himself willing to breach the usual niceties of presidential decorum and discourse. With his White House now officially under siege by an entity empowered to seek subpoenas to compel testimony, it’s anybody’s guess just how the president or his lieutenants might react. But one thing is certain: The mood in the White House is grim, and probably apt to get worse before it gets better.

In September 1972, as the FBI pursued its Watergate investigation, Nixon had some advice for his White House counsel, John Dean, as reported in John A. Farrell’s forthcoming book, “Richard Nixon: The Life.” “This is war,” Nixon said. “We’re getting a few shots and it will be over, and we’ll give them a few shots and it will be over. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side right now.”

The president had no idea just how wrong he was. But the FBI did.

Hacked information bomb under Germany’s election

BERLIN — In May 2015, a message popped up on every desktop in the German parliament: the computer system was about to shut down. Moments later, screen after screen around the Bundestag turned dark, affecting thousands of lawmakers, officials and staffers.

While the outage was brief, it was enough to rattle nerves — especially among those who had heard a rumor that, two weeks earlier, hackers had gained entry to the computer system by sending an email seemingly from the United Nations. Once a recipient clicked on a link in the email, however, it opened the door for malware to enter the parliament’s computer system.

A Bundestag committee on the hack was later informed that the intruders — possibly a team of Russian hackers, known variously as APT28, Sofacy and Fancy Bear, with suspected links to the Kremlin — had roamed around freely in the system for three weeks, spying on communication between lawmakers and their staff, and eventually absconding with a large trove of information.

In the aftermath, the parliament held several emergency meetings and brought in government cyber specialists to analyze the attack. Eventually, the network and its security system were rebuilt from scratch, according to Klaus Vitt, Germany’s highest ranking government official in charge of information technology.

But by then, the proverbial horse had bolted.

“We expect [attacks] to increase during the next months” — Sebastian Neef and Tim Philipp Schäfers

To this day, it is not clear what the hackers stole, though it is likely to include confidential emails and documents regarding the day-to-day business of parliament as well as more mundane exchanges between the more than 5,000 people who work in the Bundestag and across the country in various constituencies.

While the hack could be a case of old-fashioned espionage conducted with modern means — in part because of its similarity to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the United States, which the same Russian group reportedly pulled off a few months later — some German officials believe that the stolen information is more likely to be used as a weapon, making it a ticking bomb under the German elections in September.

“The danger is real,” said Vitt, who reports directly to Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière.

Array of risks — and fears

As Germany prepares for the fall elections, much attention has been given to so-called fake news — disinformation campaigns, some of it reportedly backed by the Kremlin in an effort to thwart Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chances of reelection. Indeed, German legislators last week proposed a law to impose penalties on social networks that fail to delete fake news, and Facebook recently announced that by the end of this year it will hire more than 700 people in Berlin to review news content.

But in almost a dozen conversations with POLITICO, lawmakers, government officials and cybersecurity experts expressed concern about hacking — and the possible political use of information from attacks that have already taken place.

The interviews, many of which were conducted on condition of anonymity, also revealed how Germany was vulnerable to such attacks due to cultural attitudes, poor security systems as well as a lack of understanding of the threat itself. While the network has been rebuilt and security has improved, weak spots remain — some of them inevitable, as adapting to the ever-changing threat of cyber attacks invariably resembles a cat-and-mouse game.

One of the greatest frustrations for German security officials has been that, despite repeated warnings, many lawmakers remain unwilling to take the most basic precautions against attacks such as creating more secure passwords or installing anti-virus programs on their private devices.

“I couldn’t give a shit,” said one member of parliament when asked about whether he or his staffers had been paying closer attention to cyber security since the 2015 attack.

Historic fear of surveillance

Paradoxically, it was a concern over privacy that partly opened the door to the spying. Fear of surveillance is pronounced in Germany, where memories of spying by the Stasi, the East German secret police, still casts a long shadow.

The fact that Germany’s domestic secret service kept dozens of MPs from the opposition party Die Linke on a watchlist hasn’t helped quell such fears, and lawmakers have been concerned that if the government ran the Bundestag’s computer systems then intelligence services would have a backdoor to obtain information.

“If the parliament’s infrastructure was connected to Germany’s government network, this would essentially mean that it was in fact overseen by the interior ministry which would also grant Germany’s domestic intelligence service access to it,” said Konstantin von Notz, deputy chairman of the Green Party in the Bundestag and their spokesman on digital policy.

This, he said, could undermine the democratic separation of powers. “Just ask yourself the question: ‘Would you be willing to hand over [those powers] … to the secret service and the executive side?’”

As a result, the Bundestag’s network was serviced for years by a patchwork of more insecure servers. After the attack, privacy concerns threw up another hurdle: Since by law data could only be stored for seven days on the servers, government experts struggled to reconstruct what had been stolen as some of the data from the time of the intrusion had already been deleted. Following the attack, the policy was changed and data is now stored for three months.

German Government Commissioner for Information Technology Klaus Vitt | German Federal Ministry of the Interior

German Government Commissioner for Information Technology Klaus Vitt | German Federal Ministry of the Interior

But while the network is more secure today than it was in 2015, “room for improvement remains,” said Von Notz, though he declined to be more specific because of security concerns.

According to experts, one of the main vulnerabilities is the “human factor.” While human folly is not just a German problem, the greatest challenge remains the possibility that one negligent individual can open the door for intruders to infiltrate the entire network.

The typical modus operandi in so-called phishing attacks is for the hacker to send what appears to be an email from a legitimate source but which in fact aims to trick the user into revealing his or her password, as was the case after the DNC hack in March last year when intruders gained access to Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s 60,000 emails via a message that looked like it came from Google. A typo by an aide reportedly led to the debacle.

With such human frailty in mind, a “central technical premise” in the rebuilding of the Bundestag network, according to a government report, “was — and remains — that one single compromised work computer must not lead to an entire network being compromised.”

Wave of attacks

The Bundestag hack in May 2015 wasn’t an isolated incident. In the past few years there have been several attacks on critical computer infrastructure connected to German institutions, including one earlier in 2015 when a pro-Russian group brought down parliament websites during a visit by Ukraine’s then-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

In the spring of 2016, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was attacked, with intruders trying to get access to account names and passwords of party members, apparently without success. Later in 2016, another attack on the Bundestag was fended off before intruders could access the servers.

With high-stakes elections approaching, officials and cyber security experts fear a wave of attacks between now and September.

“We expect [attacks] to increase during the next months,” said Sebastian Neef and Tim Philipp Schäfers, two white-hat hackers and the founders of “Particularly phishing attacks against single individuals … to gain first access to networks and organizations.”

Officials are reluctant to talk publicly about the threat or what’s being done to counter it.

“We’re dealing with very professional assailants, that’s why only in rare cases you can identify them beyond doubt” — Klaus Vitt

The Bundestag administration denied requests for interviews, explaining in a written statement that “it makes sense not to give any public statements, to prevent giving tips to potential assailants.”

Representatives of both the CDU and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) denied requests for interviews.

A CDU spokesperson confirmed in an email that they have suffered repeated attacks, adding that the party constantly updates its IT protocols and cooperates “with external security experts who advise us early and comprehensively.”

“Of course, we take cyber attacks seriously,” wrote an SPD spokesperson. “However, we ask for your understanding that we don’t give out any information about how we deal with them.”

Striking back

Some things about the government’s efforts are known. Cyber response units are being embedded in all German security agencies, ready to strike back in case of an attack. Berlin is also centralizing the government servers, currently spread across separate locations. And the National Cyber Defense Center will act as a central hub for security agencies — including Germany’s armed forces, who run their own cyber security unit, and the country’s foreign intelligence agency — to exchange information about attacks and suspects.

One challenge that remains is the lack of cyber specialists in the public sector. Even Germany’s national cybersecurity authority overseen by the interior ministry, known as the Federal Office for Information Security, or BSI, suffers from a lack of expertise. In the aftermath of the 2015 attack, of the almost 600 people at the agency, only about 15 understood what had happened, according to an assessment made by the BSI director at the time.

Since 2015, however, the BSI has staffed up, with plans to fill another 180 positions by the end of this year, bringing the total number of full-time positions to more than 800, according to the ministry. And “the BSI is only one unit in our National Cyber Defense Agency,” said Vitt. “We have more experts in the federal police, in the armed forces and in both our domestic and the foreign intelligence agencies.”

Still, the government has a hard time competing for the sharpest cyber talents who can take home bigger paychecks in private employ.

“It wasn’t easy to fill those positions,” Vitt said, in reference to the BSI hires. “Placing an ad in some newspaper wouldn’t be enough.”

‘Under a microscope, everyone looks crappy’

When the computers in the German parliament shut down in May 2015, it wasn’t actually another attack. Rather, it was a defensive move: the network’s connection to the internet was cut in an effort to boot out the intruders. But the hole wasn’t entirely plugged: it took IT experts another week until they could stop the hackers from extracting data.

Almost two years later, two central questions remain unanswered: Were the Russians really behind this and, if so, what did they want?

Attributing cyber attacks is highly complicated and computer experts agree that, in many cases, it’s impossible to say with certainty where an attack came from.

“We’re dealing with very professional assailants, that’s why only in rare cases you can identify them beyond doubt,” Vitt said. He denied to comment specifically on the Bundestag intrusion but said his agency had strong indications that the majority of attacks in Germany originate in Russia and China.

An independent analysis of the attack by a security researcher concluded in 2015 that “the attack was perpetrated by a state-sponsored group known as Sofacy (or APT28)” — the group also fingered in the DNC hack.

However, some caution that foreign intelligence services can disguise cyber attacks to appear as if they originate from another country.

In January 2016, the federal prosecutor launched an investigation into possible activity by foreign agents, based on findings by the German domestic intelligence agency, the prosecutor’s office confirmed to POLITICO. The investigation is still ongoing.

But an initial government analysis suggested that the intruders, among other things, targeted “select email inboxes from the political sector.” The intruders also recorded keyboard writing in real-time and took screenshots of what was on people’s desktops, the analysis found.

Did the intruders collect material for an information bomb to detonate closer to the election, much in the way of the Wikileaks release of the DNC emails just a few months before the U.S. elections?

Bundestag officials say it is a distinct possibility. And while it is unlikely that highly confidential material was among the files obtained, even minor things could create major headaches — if, for example, lawmakers were caught making fun of colleagues or party leaders, googling images of their interns, or ordering overpriced office supplies.

As one MP put it: “Under a microscope, everyone looks crappy.”

Read a full transcript of the interview with Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Information Technology, Klaus Vitt, in English and German.

Gov. Brown talks about threats at home and around the world as he arrives in Washington

With political anger among his fellow Democrats at a fever pitch, Gov. Jerry Brown made it clear as he arrived in Washington on Monday that he feels no pressure to lead the charge in a battle pitting California against President Trump and the Republican agenda in Congress.

“I will pursue my own rhetorical paths,” Brown said after the second of two quick meetings scheduled just hours after he landed in the city.

Even so, the governor’s four-day visit comes in the midst of one of the capital city’s most contentious weeks this year. And its grand finale, Thursday’s expected vote in the House on the Republican effort to scrap the Affordable Care Act, holds particular importance for millions of Californians who could lose health coverage.

Brown attended a pair of events Monday in the early hours after his arrival, perhaps most notably meeting with Bob Fenton, the president’s director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. On Saturday, the governor made a fourth request of Trump for a federal disaster declaration to cover the widespread damage from a series of winter storms.