Former CIA executive warns cyber attacks pose greatest threat to U.S.

James Bruce (Courtesy photo)

Longtime intelligence executive James Bruce told attendees of Monday’s Seminars at Steamboat that cyber attacks pose the greatest threat to the U.S., and they should look no further than the 2016 election for an example.

The counter intelligence effort needs to improve, at least matching the offensive and defensive capabilities of Russia and China, which Bruce said posed the most significant threats. While what Bruce called a decline in facts and truth in the country contributes to these cyber attacks, it is not the root cause.

“The cyber era has provided extraordinary capabilities to intelligence and really to a lot of other actors that are not technically intelligence services that we have never really seen before,” Bruce said. “Cyber weapons have become a real game changer.”

He also said democracy is in a “moment of peril,” and while foreign intervention could further erode confidence, effective counter intelligence may be key to preserving the democratic system.

Bruce spent his career in intelligence, including 24 years with the Central Intelligence Agency and 12 years at the Rand Corporation, and he also taught at Georgetown and Florida Atlantic universities and at the National War College.

Pointing to 2016, Bruce said Russia used covert action to influence the election through social media, stole and controlled leaks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and made attempts in all 50 states to hack electoral infrastructure, such as voter registration.

“Russians may have tipped the scales in such a way as to have helped (Donald) Trump come to power in a way that he would not have been able to do had it not been for Russian intervention,” Bruce said.

The effort in 2016, led by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, reached millions of Americans and garnered nearly 340 million engagements on multiple social media platforms. While masked with a U.S. identity, all of these posts originated in Russia, Bruce said.

This disinformation was shared almost 31 million times on Facebook and received nearly 39 million likes, Bruce said. These posts can also be targeted at specific groups of people like voters of a particular party, in a swing state or of a certain race.

“In the case of targeting (Black voters), there was a very, very specific campaign to do that, and it was all about voter suppression,” Bruce said. “As it turns out, Blacks did not vote in the same numbers in the 2016 elections as they did in previous ones.”

Bruce said three basic lies rose to the surface during these disinformation campaigns that had significant affects on voters. A study from Ohio State University looked at these lies — that Hillary Clinton was in poor health, that Pope Francis endorsed Trump and that Clinton approved weapon sales to ISIS — to see how it effected voting.

The study showed people who believed two or more of these lies voted for Trump 83% of the time, where when they didn’t believe any of them, they voted for Clinton 89% of the time.

“All three of those things are absolutely, totally, 100% falsehoods,” Bruce said. “You see the drop off in support for Clinton correlates directly with believing in fake news.”

Russia is also allowing criminal and hacker groups to operate within the country, and such groups have been responsible for attacks, such as the Colonial Pipeline attack earlier this year.

Chinese intelligence operates differently than Russia, but Bruce said it could pose just as serious a threat to the U.S.

Intellectual property is a significant target for China, and it has more than 2,000 programs designed to recruit researchers to provide them with intellectual property. Bruce said China has recruited more than 7,000 people to steal this intelligence, including three Nobel laureates.

China also targets U.S. education through Confucius Institutes, which are designed to promote Chinese narratives in the U.S. and around the world, and limit free speech on issues for China, like Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.

Hollywood is also a target, Bruce said, with China leveraging movie producers to shape plots to treat China favorably and deliver U.S. audiences propagandized themes. Similar efforts have been made to influence video game makers.

“The Chinese intelligence threat may be changing the global balance of power,” Bruce said.

Seminars in Steamboat brings experts on a range of public policy topics to the local community through free, nonpartisan discussions that will also air as a podcast from KUNC. The all-virtual seminars continue at 5:30 p.m. the next five Mondays through Aug. 23. More information and recordings of past seminars are available at

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