Former President Trump is on trial in the senate. Democrats showed dramatic video presentations with previously unseen footage of the Capitol riot showing how close some lawmakers came to danger. Trump’s lawyers say the trial is unconstitutional — and besides, the riot was not his fault — and they appear to be taking most Republican senators along with them. Meanwhile, the White House has been mostly ignoring the impeachment trial and making plans to go bigger on deficit spending with better economic projections convincing them they have more room to borrow and spend on relief and infrastructure. Anya Kamenetz joins the panel to talk about schools reopening, as the Biden administration seeks to balance the interests of parents and teachers. A hacker recently tried to put dangerous levelss of lye in a Florida wter systeem. It didn’t work this time, but how much should we worry in the aftermath of the massive Solarwinds hack that affected untold numbers of government agencies? Nicole Perlroth talks about cybersecurity and major risks facing the United States and what we should be afraid of.
Read the full transcript below:
Josh Barro: This is Josh Barr: and welcome to Left, Right & Center, your civilized yet provocative antidote to the self-contained opinion bubbles that dominate political debate. It was the second week of February and this week former President Trump has been on trial in the US Senate. He was impeached over the insurrection that occurred at the Capitol on January 6. The Articles of Impeachment say he fomented that attack on another branch of government. In an effort to overturn the results of an election he lost. The House managers making the case for conviction presented powerful video evidence about how dangerous the attacks were including the attackers getting remarkably close to reaching Senator Mitt Romney. They also showed how the former president's public remarks and his tweets aligned with the events of the day. The president's attorneys say the trial is unconstitutional that you can't hold an impeachment trial for a former president, and they say he didn't cause the attacks, that his comments were political rhetoric protected by the First Amendment, and not an instruction to sack the Capitol. To talk about that, let's bring in our Left, Right & Center panel. As always, I'm your Center. I'm joined by Tim Carney, columnist at the Washington Examiner and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute on the right. Hello, Tim.
Tim Carney: Hey, Josh.
Josh Barro: And on the left, David Dayen, executive editor of the American Prospect. Hello, David.
David Dayen: Hi. Good to be here.
Josh Barro: So Tim, this was a very powerful presentation. But did it really move Republican senators at all? It was sort of remarkable to me to watch this video of this very dangerous event that happened to you, and to come away with it, apparently with the same intention to let the former president off the hook for this.
Tim Carney: Now, this has been the story for all three impeachments of my adult life, which is that there's not a single senator who gets moved during the whole trial. And I wonder whether the Democrats realize that and so they put on kind of a made-for-TV trial to say: if we're not going to move any Republican senators, at least we can kind of move the the history books and move the the public opinion, because I do think they've done a very good job, and they helped persuade me of Trump's guilt, about which I was, you know, ambivalent before this.
Josh Barro: Ambivalent, because you weren't sure the extent to which he ought to be held responsible for the actions of these other people?
Tim Carney: Exactly. I don't like the idea of criminalizing speech, and I think even if we're not talking about the criminal standard of incitement, we do need to have a very high standard. What I argued in an Examiner piece was that to be sort of morally culpable of incitement, your words or actions had to be bad in themselves, they had to be demonstrably a cause of the violence that ended up happening, and that that causal connection had to be something foreseeable. And that Trump kind of being stupid and talking about claiming fraud and all the false and self serving things he said, wasn't enough for me, because these were obviously kind of crazy people who were storming the Capitol, but particularly it was the course of events regarding Mike Pence and the tweets and the phone calls with with Tommy Tuberville. Those were the events that seemed to me that the Democrats successfully connected the dots from Trump's actions to the barbaric actions at the Capitol.
Josh Barro: Yeah, that was establishing that the president's tweet attacking Mike Pence for not trying to interfere with the electoral vote count came just shortly after he'd been informed that Mike Pence had to be evacuated from the Senate chamber because of the unrest at the Capitol. David, there was some heartburn going into this from at least some democratic senators. We know Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia was even trying to find a way you could have a bipartisan censure agreement that might get us out of holding this trial. And the concern had been basically that they're not going to convict Trump. Trump is already out of office, and they're not going to use this power to prevent him from running for office in the future. And there was this question of what purpose the trial would serve and whether would end up distracting from or interfering with the prerogatives of the new Biden administration. I'm wondering what you make of that. Looking at this week, has this trial been a useful exercise, even if we really know that it's not going to end in a conviction?
David Dayen: I do think it has been useful. And I think, you know, what Tim was saying is testimony to that. This was not really a trial in the sense of trying to target a jury and convince them of guilt, but really to, in the court of public opinion, lay out the case for why it is so important to make this clear about what Trump's actions were and what they led to. I mean, there's this interesting parallel going on at the same time of this trial of all these other court cases around the country with rioters who have been arrested and indicted, who are all — not not all of them, but a large majority — of them are really saying that they were taking orders from Trump, seemingly on the advice of legal counsel. And, you know, connecting that to this trial. It's It's It's kind of an interesting and interesting set of events. I think that Democrats have the desire to work through making this case quickly. I think using visual aids was kind of a masterstroke. And to make it clear that this was the timeline, that this is not going to be long forgotten, I think the true test is going to be in the months and years after this, and what Democrats do, should Donald Trump run again, or just in terms of connecting the Republican party to this event. You know, certainly it was the case that in the Reagan years, the word "Carter'' was never far from Ronald Reagan's lips. Is this going to be a situation where the Democrats attempt to define the Republican party through this riot, and use that as a political tool going forward? I think this week laid the groundwork for that.
Josh Barro: Yeah, Tim, how much do you worry about that? I mean, clearly, most Republicans are politically afraid of rejecting the former president here because of the extreme level of support that he retains among rank and file voters for the party. But you also have ...this has been, to put it mildly, extremely off putting into a lot of people, including a substantial number of people who used to vote Republican. How much do you worry about what David describes there, that this is just going to get thrown back at Republicans over and over in the 2022 campaign?
Tim Carney: I mean, obviously, it is the Democrats' hope and plan to make sure Republicans never get to shed the shame of Donald Trump. I thought it was a mistake when Democrats did that in 2016, when it looked like Trump was imploding and they tried to say, you know, 'Barack Obama would say Rob Portman is no different from Donald Trump,' basically. And that that was a mistake then. Now I don't think it's a mistake. Tactically, it's prudent. I would hope that all my liberal friends out there hope that the Republican Party outgrows Trump, and finally sheds him. That would be good for the country. A Democratic operative probably wants the Republicans to keep doing what unfortunately, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader is doing, which is clinging to Trump because he is by far the most popular thing among Republican voters. Now, on the other hand, he's incredibly unpopular if you consider independents and potentially swing Democrats, and so I would hope that that helps Republicans shake out of their support for Trump. Now, I would hope that Trump being such an immoral man who was so bad for the country would be enough for Republicans to do that. But that's not the way politicians work. So I'm hoping they look and they say, if we ever want to reach independence, if we ever want to win back the suburbs that we're losing, and if we want to expand the gains that we've made among minority voters, we need to move on. That's really hard when so much of your party's base still supports a guy.
David Dayen: Yeah, I think that's that's the real problem. And the challenge that Republicans face right now is that a substantial number, perhaps a majority of their base really embraces Trump and Trumpism and a substantial majority also rejects it vociferously. So, you know, there was some talk this week and I think we're going to hear this and it's going to be mostly talk, on both sides about maybe there's another party that gets billed some some moderate Republicans talking about moving, I guess, some Bush veterans talking about creating some sort of third party. I think that is just sort of a bargaining exercise with this struggle and this predicament that Republicans have placed themselves in, where the concerns of their base and the concerns of being a national party able to win a national majority within the country are at odds now because of the strange system that we have in America. And the fact that the combination of redistricting and gerrymandering is likely by itself to produce a Republican majority in the House in 2022 could paper over this rather quickly. You know, I'm always kind of skeptical of talk about the crack up of a major political party when they are so entrenched, but this problem is going to keep coming up again and again as long as Trump is is is sort of out there and maintains the order of a significant portion of the party base.
Josh Barro: David, the White House has been trying to project this week that they're not really paying a lot of attention to this trial, that they are focused on the ongoing negotiations over the next relief bill. They've been talking about the infrastructure package that they're hoping to get done later this year. And one thing that we heard from the White House this week is the economic projections, and therefore the projections about the size of the federal budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, is looking better than it had been expected to be. And so that sort of gives them a little bit more flexibility, including maybe, maybe they don't really need to pay for the whole infrastructure bill, like we talked about on last week's show with with tax increases and other offsets, that maybe in addition to borrowing nearly $2 trillion for relief bill, they can borrow additional money later on to finance infrastructure. So what do you make of that increasingly expansive view? And what do you see as the outlook for actually getting both of those major pieces of legislation done this year?
David Dayen: I think it's fascinating compared to where the Democratic Party has historically been, and where it was in the very recent past, including in the administration that Joe Biden was part of — this is really a different conception of the possibilities of a president on the deficit side. I mean, even the conversation that briefly sparked with Larry Summers's comments last week was really about the consequences of running a big deficit, consequences for inflation, consequences potentially crowding out other spending. It wasn't about the spending itself, which historically was really the preoccupation. So now we're having an argument on the terms of 'will the Federal Reserve be able to get a handle on inflation, or should inflation run hotter for a little while to catch up with undershooting over a certain period of time?' That's a really different conversation. And, you know, I compared this this week to Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister who came in with this program called Abe-nomics, which involves large fiscal spending to increase the debt-to-GDP ratio in Japan, and also monetary easing to a really loose accommodating monetary policy. And this created a real surge in employment, there's some question as to whether or not it was fully successful. There were parts of it that weren't really implemented. And there was a kind of counterproductive consumption tax that Japan put in. But overall, it was a conception of, in order to sort of break out of doldrums that Japan was in for a long time, you have to run the economy hot. And I see some parallels here between that and Biden's project. I mean, coming out of recessions, historically, over the last 40 years, most of the income gains have gone to the very top. There have been elongated and slow recoveries of employment to the extent that in the most recent recession, it took several years to get back to the employment levels that we had pre-recession in 2008. So the Biden team is not wanting to wait for that. They are saying we are going to pull this forward and we are going to raise deficits, we are going to take advantage of borrowing while it's cheap and the Federal Reserve is completely behind this. Jay Powell did a speech this week saying that we need a whole-of-government approach to full employment, employment is taking precedent over deficits. And it's really a new conception, compared to where Democrats in at least in the presidency have been over the last 20-30 years.
Josh Barro: Tim, I think a reason that Democrats have shifted on this is that Republicans also shifted on this. I mean, if you look at the record under the Trump administration, you had a Republican president who ran very large budget deficits even when the economy was significantly stronger than it has been in the last year. It is the Fed Chairman that Donald Trump picked who has presided over this dovish shift in monetary policy and who is making those comments. David notes about the need for this continued fiscal support, and then obviously, you had the CARES Act and the big fiscal intervention that started under President Trump saying, you know, this is an enormous crisis, and we just sort of need to throw a ton of money at it. And then you look at the public opinion polling and the Biden proposal for another nearly $2 trillion relief package polling very strongly, you know, in the mid- to high-60s, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Checks to almost every American for $1400, that's polling over 70%. So if we get to a position where this relief package gets done through the budget reconciliation process on close to a party line vote with very little Republican support, are Republicans getting dangerously out of step with the public there? I mean, this doesn't feel like Obamacare. This isn't something where you use a party line vote to push through a very controversial measure. This is where you use a party line vote to push through a very popular measure. And if the economy continues to grow strongly, like it looks like it's going to in 2021, shouldn't Republicans be worried that they oppose the thing that was popular at the time that it was done? And that it worked?
Tim Carney: Yeah, I mean, spending lots of money has always been popular, and that was kind of obscured in Republican circles and in Democratic circles because elites of both parties disliked it, whether it's budget hawks, like like Paul Ryan on the right, or, you know, the the Simpson-Bowles types in the in the center and the left, and look at who the most popular governors have been for the last few years. It's Republican governors like Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker who liked to spend tons of money. And that Donald Trump, part of the way he won was by shedding the worry about overspending that was part of fiscal conservatism. And so in the pandemic, it became kind of particularly obvious, in addition to the politics, that the worry... and what I hope is that when the right criticizes federal spending, it moves from just sort of deficit worrying or overspending worrying kind of the way we would tsk tsk our sibling who's who's running up a credit card bill to be: are they crowding out? Are they wasting money? Are they rewarding their cronies? These can be the problems. Giving money to bars that are forced to shut down, that's not crowding out anything, right? And if it's going out to everybody, like the $1400 checks, that doesn't seem like just rewarding political friends. So I would hope that conservatives would, instead of just saying 'this spends too much,' would look for and try to attack Biden for where his spending is clearly just an ideological thing or trying to reward friends like public sector unions, etc. But that would be a pretty nimble shift I don't necessarily expect from the Republicans in the short term.
Josh Barro: Let's take a break. I'll be back with Tim Carney: of the Washington Examiner and David Dayen of The American Prospect to talk about reopening schools. You're listening to Left, Right & Center.
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Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center, I'm Josh Barro. On the right is Tim Carney:, columnist at the Washington Examiner. On the left is David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. One of Joe Biden's pledges for his first 100 days in office was to get most schools in America reopened for in-person learning. This week, the White House has vacillated on exactly what that pledge means. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the goal could be met if at least half of schools are doing in-person instruction at least one day a week by the start of May. On Thursday, she said the president would not rest until every school is open five days a week. The White House push to reopen schools, like pushes by state and local governments, has met major resistance from teachers unions, many of which say the conditions are not yet met for safe in-person instruction, because teachers are not yet vaccinated or because schools have not made other changes that are necessary to inhibit the spread of the virus. Another reason many schools remain closed is serious ambivalence among parents about whether it is safe to reopen for in-person instruction. Public opinion surveys and elections made by parents who are offered an option of in-person or virtual school reflect serious divisions about when and whether school should reopen. But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says schools can reopen safely even before teachers are vaccinated and the center is providing new guidance about how to do that. The Biden administration also wants new funding in the relief bill to help schools make in-person instructions safer. To talk about the outlook for schools reopening, we're joined now by Anya Kamenetz. Anya is an education correspondent at NPR. Hello, Anya.
Anya Kamenetz: Hello.
Josh Barro: So one thing I'm struck by in this conversation is that we don't even know what fraction of schools in America are currently doing in-person instruction. I guess the Department of Education is now setting out to try to figure out the answer to that.
Anya Kamenetz: That is correct. NPR has been relying on estimates from an organization called Burbio, which scrapes a sampling of school websites and district websites. Their estimate is that the president's goal has already been met: about two thirds of schools around the country are offering either full-time, five-days-a-week instruction or some form of hybrid teaching.
Josh Barro: Is a reason that there's maybe a different impression of that in the national media is that some of the largest school districts in places where you have a concentration of media and government institutions, those are disproportionately likely to still be closed?
Anya Kamenetz: I think that's exactly right. You can point to some pretty large school districts, some of the largest school districts in the country are in Florida, which have opened up full time, as well as Georgia and Texas being states that have lots and lots of kids attending five days a week as well as across rural parts of America. So really, the issues are in California, a lot of the Eastern Seaboard, and those tend to be places with high concentrations of journalists, as you mentioned.
Josh Barro: Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that Rochelle Walensky had been speaking "in her personal capacity" when she made those comments that schools could reopen safely. What is the political situation around this reopening push from the Biden administration? Because teachers unions are certainly a key political constituency for the Democratic Party. Is the administration significantly cross-pressured right now?
Anya Kamenetz: Absolutely, I would say this is a very fraught situation and part of that traces back to some messaging by the Trump administration, which was, you know, very strongly in favor of schools reopening but without a lot of extra help to get them to do that. And in fact, the Republican political pressure was so strong that you saw that schools opened in places that were high Trump supporting counties, even with very high levels of the virus, whereas places with strong strongholds of Democratic support have stayed closed, you know, for 11 months now. So, you know, it became politicized and I think that the lack of coordination between the scientific arm of the federal government and the and the executive branch is not helping people make decisions right now.
Josh Barro: David, there are a lot of public employees who have been working in person throughout the pandemic. Police, firefighters, sanitation workers, workers at public hospitals are all at work in person. What is the reasonable level of risk to ask public school teachers to be taking to go back in school in person? Is it proper to expect them to be teaching in person before vaccinations are widely distributed?
David Dayen: I mean, some of the employees that you were talking about don't work inside eight hours a day. Now, I think that one thing that's very interesting in this debate is if you look at national opinion polls, not only do you see that it's parents who are, as you noted, very divided in terms of whether or not to send their children to school. But also, according to the most recent polls I saw, that there is still widespread support for teachers unions even in this debate. YouGov poll said 56% would strongly support the idea of teacher strikes if educators felt school conditions were unsafe. And interestingly, if you break that down even more, you see that the groups most reluctant to return their children to school and most supportive of teacher union concerns are usually in poorer communities and communities of color, whereas the cohort that is more skeptical of teacher unions and more willing to send children to school are more rich and more white. And if you think about the megaphone, in terms of the media, and who gets pride of place in the debate, I think that's what's driving maybe what looks like a lot of dissension here when there might not be as much.
Josh Barro: Tim, what do you make of that situation? I know you've been a big advocate for school opening not just nationally, but in your home county in Maryland. What do you make of the fact that there is this significant divide in public opinion? And has there been any effort by the advocates for school reopening to try to put pressure not just on governments and on the unions, but to try to convince the public that they should be joining this clamor for schools to reopen in places where they happen?
Tim Carney: Yeah, there really is this issue of a fear that pervades so I agree that the teachers unions are the bad guys here and that and that the Biden administration risks politicizing science by overriding the CDC on this. But even if we did that, even if we got the school board to agree to open up, lots of parents would be afraid to send their kids to school. There's a couple things. One, I think parents should continue to have the option to have their children remotely schooled either because there might be pre-existing conditions at home, or just out of a fear that may or may not be grounded. But a big part of it is the way that so much of our national media has covered this. If a teacher dies, it gets you know, do you remember Dana Milbank had a piece in The Washington Post in October, claiming that he said, the disproportionate number of teachers appearing in COVID-19 obituaries is striking. This is kind of a made up claim out of anecdotal reports and those anecdotal reports just absolutely took over. And when I was fighting over the summer with my own county government trying to close down our non-public schools who wanted to open and had mask mandates and and planning, the the blowback I would get, and again, The Washington Post had they had op eds going after us and the Twitter blowback, somebody accused me of working for a company that manufactured coffins for kids and that's why I wanted kids back in school. The fear on this is incredibly widespread. I think some of it has been irresponsible sensationalism by our news media. But I think that if we could get the school boards to open up that that could help persuade parents, okay, with masks, with proper distancing, there are ways that we can make school safe, and the New York Times had a great piece on it recently, showing that experts in child health almost unanimously agree that with distancing and masks and better ventilation, school is safe.
David Dayen: Well, I mean, I think that's a bit of a flattening of what the research actually indicates. I think it indicates that it's safe to reopen when community spread is low, and there's a lot less agreement on whether to reopen if community spread is high, as it's been since the fall practically in the United States broadly. There's a lot of disagreement about what to do when it's high. And yes, masking and social distancing and ventilation are key parts of that. But you know, that's why this money is needed. There was a report out of Philadelphia, that the Philadelphia public schools wanted to use window fans attached to boards and that would be the ventilation that they would use in these schools. There is just too much variance, I would say, in terms of the actual capacity for a safe environment in a lot of these schools and school districts to make a blanket statement that all schools should remain open. That's why this money is needed, in many senses, to upgrade these facilities so that they can be safe.
Josh Barro: Anya, what's your sense of what teachers and what parents feel the need to see, in order to feel that it's safe to return to in-person instruction? I mean, it's likely that over the next few weeks, we're going to see an increasing number of states where teachers are able to get COVID vaccines but that we don't have the approvals yet for children to get the vaccine, so it's likely that it'll be not until the next school year that it'll be possible to do widespread vaccination of students. What are these constituencies looking for in terms of, whether it's vaccine or whether it's some of those physical plan changes and practice changes in schools that David is describing in order to feel comfortable with more in-person schooling?
Anya Kamenetz: Well, the bottom line is trust: trust in your administrations and local governments and the national government to actually provide what's being promised. That is what I hear from teachers and that is what I hear from parents. It's all well and good to say, with proper distancing, proper masking, these things being followed, that schools are safe to reopen and to operate. But, you know, there is such a legacy of mistrust from the health and science community in the black community and from honestly, city governments, in the case of many teachers unions, to say, you know, we've been teaching in decrepit buildings, with no soap in the bathrooms and no paper towels for decades. And nobody seemed to care when we were doing Donors Choose fundraising, to get basic supplies for our kids, not to mention food and clothing, which is a whole other issue. And now you're telling us that you're going to meet some kind of medically acceptable standard for safety? Well, we just don't buy it. And that really is far beyond what can be promised or or even conducted. I think in districts that have a good relationship with their students with their families, this has been, you know, not smooth, but relatively possible to do and everybody's happy when they're able to keep schools open. Nobody wants schools to be closed, certainly not for this long. But what has held up the process in a lot of these big urban districts is simply, you know, a long legacy of mistrust and really bitterness on both sides. And I would also want to speak just for a second to the point that keeping schools open or closing them down is not the only need that needs to be addressed for students. Right now we have students who have been out of school for 11 months. We also have students who have had very limited schedules in their school and very limited access to remote schooling. We have very large numbers of students that are failing classes, meaning basically they're not engaged with their learning. Students that are truant but not really detected by our current system, students that are going without food that is usually supplied by schools. And so, you know, beyond the short term, we're talking about March, April, May is almost the end of the school year in some cases, it really needs to be a much bigger picture discussion about: what is the redress? How do you come back from this? How do you offer students who have lost out on the learning that they absolutely need and the mental health in many cases help that they absolutely need because of what's already been lost.
Josh Barro: Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR and she's working on a book right now about how the last year of the pandemic has affected children. Anya, thank you so much for joining us.
Anya Kamenetz: Thanks for having me.
Josh Barro: I've been talking with David Dayen of The American Prospect and Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner. We will be back with Nicole Perlroth to talk about some fairly alarming cyber attacks. You're listening to Left, Right & Center.
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Josh Barro: Back again with Left, Right & Center, I'm your host Josh Barro:. On the right is Tim Carney, senior columnist at the Washington Examiner and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. On left is David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. Buried in the news after the Super Bowl this week, we learned that hackers breached the computer system of a small public water authority in Florida and tried to dangerously increase the level of lye in the water. The intrusion was caught right away: a system engineer saw the cursor on his computer moving not under his own power and he fixed the chemical levels just a few minutes later, long before dangerous water went to anybody's home. This is one of those cybersecurity stories: on the one hand, nothing that bad ultimately happened. On the other hand, that's pretty scary, right? What if this works someday? Back in December, we had a much larger one of these stories: the Solarwinds hack, where we learned that foreign hackers likely Russian exploited a software vulnerability to compromise computer systems at over 400 of the Fortune 500 companies and dozens of US government agencies, including parts of the Commerce, State, Energy, Treasury and Defense Departments. It's going to take years to hunt for and close all the backdoors the Russians may have put in our computer systems. And yet that story, like the water system story, I'm sure it's unclear to most Americans how much they should worry about it. It hasn't affected my day to day life at all, at least so far as I can tell. But what should we worry that the Russians might have done or will do with that access? And what should we worry that other bad actors will do to our computer systems? To talk about that, Nicole Perlroth joins us now. Nicole is a cybersecurity and digital espionage reporter at the New York Times. Her new book about the cyber weapons arms race is called This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends. Hello, Nicole.
Nicole Perlroth: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Josh Barro: Absolutely. So how large is this problem?
Nicole Perlroth: Well, it's pretty pervasive. I mean, we know that the Russians were able to get into the State Department, the Treasury, the Department of Justice, they got emails there, they got into the Department of Energy, the nuclear labs, and the Department of Homeland Security, the very agency charged with keeping us safe. And just as you said, they were in there for nine months before we discovered them. And we didn't discover them because the government found them. We discovered them because a private security company FireEye was itself hacked, and in the course of unwinding that attack, discovered they'd come in through Solarwinds, this IT company used by more than 400 of the Fortune 500 and all of the agencies I mentioned. So it could be years before we discover every other last backdoor that they've planted and buried in these systems. And essentially what that means is that the Biden administration just inherited federal IT networks that it cannot trust. Now, in terms of what they could do with this access, for all we know, this was an espionage operation. They were after emails, strategy documents, and that could be very dangerous on its own, because among the things they would have gotten access to are things like Black Start, which is essentially just a blueprint for how to turn the power back on in the event of a massive power failure. And we know that Russia has been getting into our power plants for more than five years. At one point, the Department of Homeland Security even published a screenshot showing Russia's hackers with their hands on the switches inside our power grid. We also know that they have used that access to actually turn off the power, not here, but in Ukraine in a series of attacks in 2015-2016. So just because the current goal of this campaign was espionage, we also know that it would just take a few modifications for them to use that same access to wipe out data, to freeze up systems, and that could have a really destructive effect on the way our government runs.
Josh Barro: One of the things you talk about in your book is that a key part of our defense strategy here is offense, which is to say that we have done all sorts of penetrations into other countries computer systems. Part of the problem here is other actors have gotten ahold of some of the tools that we have used for that, and so what discourages Russia from shutting down our power grid is what we could do to Russia. In the event that they did that, is that deterrence a good enough strategy? What is the investment that we're making in actually making it impossible for other actors to do this, rather than them just being afraid to do it?
Nicole Perlroth: Right. So you know, it definitely qualifies as digital mutually assured destruction. But cyber is not like nuclear, you know, you don't need a uranium stockpile to pull off these attacks. And even when we do these attacks of our own, if the code is discovered, it can be dissected and then retrofitted and used back on us. And we've seen that happen in a couple of cases. There was a case a couple years ago where we discovered that China had actually detected one of our attacks on its systems, taken the code, retrofitted it and used it to hack our allies. So this is not, you know, these are not real weapons, this is code, and code can be dissected and retrofitted. So, you know, we have been hacking into the Russian grid, we reported that a couple years ago, we've been making a loud show of it, because we want Russia to know that if they do anything here to turn off the lights, we will turn around and do it to them. The problem is that we are vastly more vulnerable than we think. We are the most advanced player in cyberspace, we have pulled off some of the most stealthy and also some of the most destructive attacks in history. But our critical infrastructure, and by that I mean the water treatment facility, that was hacked, the power grid, the air traffic control: a lot of these systems are owned and operated by the private sector. And for a long time, we were just hooking these things up because we could, without asking ourselves: should we be connecting our water treatment facilities and the amount of lye that we can put in the drinking supply to the internet? And what our adversaries have figured out, particularly countries like Iran and North Korea, is that they can cause a lot of damage with a very rudimentary attack on American systems. And we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of defense and security and locking up our own critical infrastructure, whereas they are just not as digitally connected so they have a real asymmetrical advantage when it comes to these cyber attacks.
Josh Barro: David, what do you make of this?
David Dayen: Yeah, I mean, I think it's really interesting when you talk about the role of the private sector here. I mean, Solarwinds is a private equity owned IT firm, sometimes you call these kind of companies a roll-up company. They bought something like a dozen competitors from 2010-2019, profit tripled at that time, there are these huge lock-in effects with IT, where companies and government agencies, they don't want to just completely shift it out. And so that creates these incentives to prioritize profit over quality. I remember reading in a Reuters article that anyone could access Solarwinds update server by using a password, and the password was solarwinds123. So it just seems to me that there's there's this tendency to give over our critical infrastructure to these private sector companies that have more concerns about cutting costs, offshoring labor, raising prices, and leveraging market power than actually protecting and safeguarding our national security. And I wonder what the way out of that is, whether it's something inherent in this particular business model, because there's a lot of IT that is in the private equity space, or whether it's just sort of a mass rethinking of who gets the keys to, to these critical infrastructure apparatuses.
Josh Barro: Nicole?
Nicole Perlroth: Yeah, I thought you put that really well. And, you know, when we talk to some of the victims of the Solarwinds attack, a lot of them didn't even know they used Solarwinds, let alone that the Solarwinds password to update its software with solarwinds123. As you mentioned, they had been outsourcing a lot of their labor overseas to places like Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship. That's not to say Belarus is somehow fundamentally, you know, less secure. But we didn't even know that this key part of our software supply chain was manufactured, tested and built abroad. So I do think this is the wake up call, where we actually just have to do pause and do a very basic inventory of our systems to know how much of our software is American made, how seriously do these companies take their security. And there have also been a couple ideas tossed out there about changing the incentive model by giving companies that have good security practices who do well on penetration tests, tax credit. There's also been, you know, the stick angle here, which is insurance companies might not offer cyber insurance to companies that don't meet these basic security standards. And I do think we should focus on the market incentives, because every attempt that Congress has made to pass legislation to mandate that our critical infrastructure is up to snuff has failed, because every single time lobbying firms have come in and said, 'his is too onerous, this is too burdensome, this is too expensive, we shouldn't have a situation where the government is forcing these critical infrastructure operators to do anything.' So what we got was watered down executive orders, first from Obama, and then under Trump. But clearly, it's time to identify our critical infrastructure, which by the way, the definition of that keeps expanding, the more systems we just pile on the internet. And then really make sure that we are creating real incentives for these companies to actually take security seriously. In Solarwinds case, we learned that a couple years ago, they did have someone inside the company beating on the table saying if you don't take security more seriously, the result could be catastrophic. And when they didn't take him seriously, he resigned. And so, you know, really, we need a fundamental rethinking of how these companies treat security if they want to count the government and critical infrastructure as customers.
Josh Barro: Tim?
Tim Carney: Nicole, thanks for writing the book, and congratulations. One of the things I'm worried about is the revolving door. It always bugs me when our public servants put their expertise and connections to work for private interest, but here's some of these former NSA contractors...when they go out, some of them are working for foreign governments. And aren't they actually sort of arming with our NSA tools countries like Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, which, while not enemies are certainly not the always good guys?
Nicole Perlroth: Yes. And that was the big eye-opener for me and doing this book. If you talk to some of these former NSA operators, they'll say, 'well, Turkey is a NATO ally, right? And so is the United Arab Emirates, and so is Saudi Arabia. Why shouldn't I be able to train the Turkish military in this tradecraft?' Well, just because it's legal, all you had to do was see Erdogan's thugs beating people on that lawn in DC on his last visit to know how those tools and tradecraft will get used. And one of the most stunning examples I discovered was CyberPoint, which was a beltway contractor, had been recruiting NSA analysts and operators outside the agency, promising them that they would double, quadruple their salaries and give them a nice apartment in Abu Dhabi, and so they're moving our NSA analysts over to Abu Dhabi and at first, they're saying, 'okay, you're here to attract terrorists,' and that made sense. But then it quickly became 'okay, we'd like you to hack Qatar and see if they're funding the Muslim Brotherhood.' And then it was, 'can you hack FIFA Soccer Federation and find out whether Qatar bribed FIFA to host the World Cup?' And then in the most stunning example, it was, 'can you find out what the Qatari Royals... where they're traveling, where they're flying, we want their flight itineraries, we want to know who they're meeting with, we want to know who they're talking to.' And there was a trip that Michelle Obama was planning with a Qatari Sheikha back in 2015, where she was going to come over and promote the Let Girls Learn initiative, and every last email between Michelle Obama — then First Lady of the United States — and Qatar was beaming back to these former NSA hackers computers in Abu Dhabi. Now, call me crazy, but that seems like that should violate some norms of behavior in terms of what we're able to do with the tradecraft that we're getting from agencies that are taxpayer-funded. So, you know, it's time to really take a very clear look at where these tools and tradecraft have been going. And, you know, we haven't even got into the tools... in 2016, the NSA own hacking tools were hacked, and we still don't know who did it. It was someone who appeared on Twitter under the username shadow brokers, and then over the next several months, dribbled out the NSA's most premier hacking tools, which were picked up by North Korea, and then Russia in one of the most destructive attacks we've ever seen. So clearly, our defense is lacking. And it doesn't matter so much if we are the best player in offense if we can't protect our own systems, because anyone can just turn around and hit us harder and where it really hurts.
Josh Barro: If listeners are worried about this, is there anything that they should do in their own personal technology practices? I mean, for example, I'm buying a new dishwasher. And one of the questions that came up for me was do I want to...
Nicole Perlroth: Don't do it!
Josh Barro:: [laughter] And so I'm not getting the Wi Fi connected dishwasher. But one thing you write about is the vast expansion of the number of devices, in our lives in our homes, and also devices at companies that are connected to the internet, maybe creating vulnerabilities, but we wouldn't even think about it. So what do you do as an individual to better protect yourself in this environment where there are, you know, so many weaknesses that can be exploited.
Nicole Perlroth: So, you know, first I'll say, I realize this problem sounds so distant to so many people, and so intimidating and so hopeless. But really, it's a lot like climate change in a way where it really is going to come down to a collective choice by people, by businesses, by government, and in terms of what people can do, I mean, the thing that I think is the most helpful is just thinking through your threat model, as they put it in this industry. So for me, I'm a journalist, and my crown jewels are my sources. So I know that there are going to be people out there trying to find out who my anonymous sources are for particularly sensitive stories. So when I meet a sensitive source, I don't bring my devices, or I used to have a standing appointment before the pandemic, where I meet my source for dim sum every Tuesday on the first Tuesday of every month. And we would leave everything at home and we wouldn't email about these meetings. And when I go to, you know, conferences, hacking conventions, I'll just bring pen and paper, that kind of thing. And then I use Signal, the encrypted messaging app, for a lot of my communications. And for most people, it's just your personal data and your credit card data, and the best thing you can do is the really boring, annoying stuff, which is have long passwords, have a different password for every site, use a password manager, turned on two-factor authentication so if someone does get your password, they're not going to be able to get into your Facebook, Twitter, Gmail account, because they're logging in from a strange device and they would need a second password that gets sent to your phone. So that will knock out 50% of the threats that people face today. It won't knock out the Solarwinds attack. It just won't, but it might have even stopped this attack on the water treatment facility outside Tampa because — we don't know exactly how they got in, but — chances are highly likely it was some kind of phishing attack or they got someone's password, and they didn't have two-factor authentication switched on. So it's really important that we do these things. And then at the business level, it's about testing your code, before you roll it out into people's dishwashers and Teslas and smart fridges and the grid and we haven't been doing that, and so it's time to really practice defensive programming. And then at the government level, we've discovered, and this was a really big focus for my book, that the government has essentially created a market for vulnerability by paying hackers to turn over flaws and widely used systems like Windows, like your iPhone iOS software, Android software, and not tell us all about them so we could preserve our espionage advantage. Well, now the rest of the world has caught on to the potential for this, these vulnerabilities, to enable their own espionage and battlefield preparations. And we're all using the same technology. So for every hole that the NSA keeps silent, we're leaving Americans more vulnerable. And now that we have all these invisible enemies lined up at our gates, it's time to get those holes fixed.
Josh Barro:: Nicole Perlroth is a cybersecurity and digital espionage reporter at the New York Times. Her new book about the cyber weapons arms race is called This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends. Thank you so much, Nicole,
Nicole Perlroth: Thanks so much for having me, guys.
Josh Barro: We've reached that time once again for our famed Left, Right & Center rants, featuring pet peeves from across the political spectrum. David Dayen, it's your soapbox.
David Dayen: Well, President Biden talked with Chinese President Xi Jinping for two hours this week. That's a deserved level of emphasis, as Biden's going to have to figure out where to challenge China and where to collaborate. The dangers of ignoring the sort of mercantilist threat can be seen in the bottom lines of US auto companies this week, several of whom have had to suspend production and give up billions of dollars because they can't find any semiconductors to put in their cars. As much as 70% of the world's chips come from Taiwan and any disruption or miscalculation of demand, which is what we saw after the pandemic, can lead to shortages. Taiwan, of course has a fraught relationship with China, which is building its own chip factories through a massive tax incentive program. We're about a decade behind China in self sufficiency on the chip front. And our deep reliance on foreign supply chains is also present in the exact active ingredients for prescription drugs and medical supplies and an astounding number of items supplying our military. In the absence of a US industrial policy. multinational corporations have imposed one that abandons American workers and builds fragility and even risk into the system. You can't build back better without having the materials to build.
Josh Barro: Tim Carney, what's your rant?
Tim Carney: So a lot of policy analysts, it turns out, are really worried that America's mothers might soon be insufficiently dedicated to the workplace. The Heritage Foundation had a piece recently criticizing a $15 an hour minimum wage. But one of their arguments against this higher minimum wage was that it could result in more married couples choosing to have mom or dad stay home and raise the kids. And likewise, some economists, left right and center, objected to Mitt Romney's proposed child allowance on the grounds that it could lead to more parents deciding to exit the workforce. See, I'm not sure why this is a bad thing. Don't get me wrong. Dropping out of the labor force is often part of a downward spiral that includes depression, isolation, alcohol abuse and alienation. And this is especially true among men. But among married parents who currently have two incomes, if one drops out of the labor force, it typically isn't about despondency, but about diapers. It doesn't lead to day drinking, but to playdates. This is a good thing. America needs more stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads. Now this might sound odd during a pandemic when most of us are stuck at home. But talking about the long term and before the pandemic, millions of American mothers told researchers that they wish they worked outside the home less, either wanting to shift from full-time to part-time employment or from paid employment to full-time parenting. So if you want women to have what they want, you want to make it easier for them to stay home. It's good for parents, it's good for children, and it's good for communities.
Josh Barro: For my rant, former FDA director Scott Gottlieb warns that in just a few weeks, we're going to have a problem that we'd be pretty happy to have right now: more supply of vaccines than there is demand to take them. When we get to that point, we're going to have to convince hesitant people to get the shots in order to best suppress the spread of the virus. There's more good news: surveys show that willingness to get the vaccine has been rising, which isn't surprising as more people get the vaccine safely. But we still need that willingness to go higher and one step to do that is to stop underselling the benefits of the vaccine. We're getting more evidence that vaccines don't just prevent symptomatic disease, that they have significant effects to inhibit infection and transmission of the virus that causes covid-19. So vaccines won't just stop you from getting sick. They go a long way toward making it safe to have interactions that you've been avoiding for the last year. The vaccine will change your life, but you have to get it. That's all we have time for today. I want to thank David Dayen, Tim Carney, Anya Kamenetz and Nicole Perlroth. Left, Right & Center is produced by Sara Fay. Our technical director is JC Swiatek. Todd M. Simon composed our theme music. I'm Josh Barro:. Thank you for joining us and tune in next week for more Left, Right & Center.