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Former NSA Inspector General On Talks Of U.S.-Russian Cybersecurity Unit


Over the weekend, President Trump said on Twitter that he would work with an unlikely partner to guard against election hacking, an unlikely partner by the name of Vladimir Putin. The president met with Russia's president in Hamburg, Germany, last week. And afterward, Trump said they discussed forming, quote, "an impenetrable cybersecurity unit." The idea has been met with skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking here on "Meet The Press."


LINDSEY GRAHAM: It's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard. But it's pretty close.

KELLY: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation, Joel Brenner. He's former director of U.S. counterintelligence and former inspector general at the National Security Agency. Good morning, Joel.

JOEL BRENNER: Good morning.

KELLY: What do you make of this idea - partnering with Russia on a cybersecurity unit?

BRENNER: Well, I'm with Lindsey Graham. It's difficult to say whether this is either merely ridiculous or totally delusional. Look, I mean, Putin now promises not to do what they deny having done and which we know they did do. And on that basis...

KELLY: The hacking.

BRENNER: Yeah, right. And on that basis, the president says, we're going to cooperate with him on cybersecurity. You know, we have decades of experience with Russian versions of what it means to cooperate. We know what they do. They'd learn what they can about our tactics, our strategy and our tools. And they'd give us nothing we don't already know in return. The president seems ignorant of this history, or else he doesn't care about it.

KELLY: Well, the criticism has been swift and ferocious. We did hear Lindsey Graham there. Another Republican senator, Marco Rubio, weighed in. He said that trying to partner with Russia on cybersecurity is akin to partnering with Syria's President, Bashar Assad, on a chemical weapons unit. But Joel Brenner, let me ask you this. Is there not an argument for keeping your friends close but your enemies closer?

BRENNER: Yes, there is a good argument for doing that. And I'm not suggesting we shouldn't talk to the Russians as often as we can. But there are areas where cooperation could be realistic and would be most welcome. We have another front-burner issue with the Russians, apart from election meddling, and that's cybercrime. The worst and most persistent cybercrime in the world comes from Russians. Their security services are brutal with their people who target other Russians. But they encourage them to prey on Westerners. These are vicious, social parasites. We can't arrest them. They can. They don't. Cooperation on this issue would be the most - the single most important metric that we could ever have of Russian willingness to cooperate with us on cybersecurity. And the president didn't even bring it up.

KELLY: Well, the president did yesterday appear to maybe already be walking back this idea. He tweeted that maybe the cybersecurity unit can't happen. Is it possible this was a trial balloon? This is the president trying to figure out some sort of constructive path forward in what is an extremely challenging relationship with Russia.

BRENNER: Well, sure, that's possible, Mary Louise. But we've - we - this is a funny arena in which the leader of democratic nations around the world should be doing this kind of experimentation out loud. Let me put this in a strategic perspective. We have deep disagreements with them about the suppression of dissent in cyberspace. They call free speech information aggression. We're now experiencing their version of information aggression...


BRENNER: ...Which is basically Soviet-style agitprop. They're not going to abandon that. It's in their genes.

KELLY: That's Joel Brenner mincing no words. Joel Brenner, thanks very much.

BRENNER: You're welcome.

KELLY: He is former inspector general of the National Security Agency. And he now researches cybersecurity at MIT. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.