President-elect Trump has tapped Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general.
All three men come with conservative hardliner reputations. Pompeo perhaps has the most tangible background in cyber, having served on the House Subcommittee on the National Security Agency and Cyber-security, in addition to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Select Committee on Benghazi.
Flynn was named director of the Defence Intelligence Agency in 2012, but was removed from his post by President Barack Obama in 2014, and Sessions has served on the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.
The appointments follow yesterday's announcement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that he will step down from his post effective 20 January, leaving a key vacancy for President-elect Donald Trump to fill as he composes his new administration.
Clapper, who since 2010 has advised Obama on all matters related to national security – including cyber-threats – confirmed his impending resignation to the House Select Committee on Intelligence while providing testimony at an open hearing on Thursday. “I submitted my letter of resignation last night, which felt pretty good. I got 64 days left and I think I'd have a hard time with my wife anything past that,” said Clapper, 65, who was previously the under secretary of defence for intelligence under Obama and George W. Bush, and director of the Defence Intelligence Agency under Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.
While the decision is not unexpected, Clapper's departure opens up a key leadership void for Trump, who by some accounts has been falling behind in his transition to power as he vets candidates to fill in his Cabinet and support staff. For instance, a Thursday Reuters article that cited current and former national security officials reported that Trump's transition team has yet to announce a point person to spearhead cyber-security policy or staffing, prompting early concerns that national cyber-intelligence could be impaired if progress is not made.
“Today's public announcement by Director Clapper… underscores the need for the new Administration to move expeditiously in making key national security appointments,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), incoming vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “As that process continues, I hope President-elect Trump will seek out personnel that embody the same experience, gravity of purpose, and service to country that have been a hallmark of James Clapper's career.”
Apparently, such personnel does not include former Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who previously chaired the House Intelligence Committee and was viewed as a suitable candidate for CIA director or director of national intelligence. Rogers, along with other allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was removed from Trump's transition team earlier this week as part of a reshuffling of the new Administration's brain trust, amidst reports of possible in-fighting.
Mark Weatherford, chief cyber-security strategist at data centre and cloud security provider vArmour and a former deputy undersecretary for cyber-security at DHS, stressed patience in an interview with SC Media. “The media just has this expectation that everything is going to be publicly available and transparent much quicker than has been in the past,” said Weatherford. “It's not something that I'm concerned about just yet.”
Still, Weatherford acknowledged that Rogers' dismissal presents concerns that viable candidates may be dismissed for political reasons. “There are a lot of very experienced and very, very qualified people both on the Republican side and on the Democratic side that were not Trump supporters,” said Weatherford. “I think it would be a mistake to not take advantage of the decades of experience many of these people have.” For instance, Weatherford's off-the-cuff shortlist includes Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), Secretary of State Ash Carter or his chief of staff Eric Rosenbaugh, and NSA Director and US Cyber Command Commander Michael Rogers (not to be confused with former Congressman Rogers).
Responding to a request for comment, an unnamed Trump spokeswoman directed Reuters to the “Cyber-security” section of Trump's campaign website, which calls for an “immediate review of all US cyber-defences and vulnerabilities, including critical infrastructure, by a Cyber Review Team of individuals from the military, law enforcement and the private sector.” SC Media reached out via email to Trump's press contact for additional comment from the incoming Administration.
Meanwhile, on both sides of the aisle, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have separately called for an investigation into Russia's widely reported attempts to interfere in the US presidential campaign and elections. Citing US intelligence agencies, the Obama Administration earlier this year revealed that state-sponsored Russian hackers were directly responsible for the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) – a claim that Trump cast doubt on during his campaign.
In his Thursday testimony, Clapper said that Russian interference abated after the US publicly named and shamed the country. “The issuance of the statement and communication between our government and the Russian government seemed to have curtailed the cyber activity the Russians were previously engaged in,” he said, according to The Hill.
In comments today at a Berlin press conference, Obama said he hopes that Trump finds "areas where we can cooperate with Russia, where our values and interests align," according to a CBS News report. But the president also expressed hope that his successor is "willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating from our values and international norms.”
UPDATE 11/18: This story has been updated to reflect President-elect Trump's appointments to CIA director, national security advisor and attorney general.