The Georgia 'home factor' in Donald Trump's fight with U.S. intelligence

A part of the declassified version Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia's efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process. AP/Jon Elswick

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

A part of the declassified version Intelligence Community Assessment on Russia's efforts to interfere with the U.S. political process. AP/Jon Elswick

On the last day of November, only weeks after a tumultuous presidential election, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning offered a widely ignored observation on a highly current topic.

“Cyberspace can be considered the ultimate high ground — which means that in modern conflict, ceding cyberspace invites defeat,” he said. “We’ve seen Russian forces employ offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities with a new degree of sophistication.”

Where the army secretary made his remarks is just as important as what he said.

The occasion was a ground-breaking at Fort Gordon near Augusta. Over the next several years, the U.S. Army will be consolidating its cyber-security operations on acreage just off the Savannah River. Army Cyber Command will join a highly secretive National Security Agency intelligence-gathering operation on the base, as well as the U.S. Army Signal School.

Augusta is on its way to becoming a major hub for cybersecurity in the United States, perhaps second only to Fort Meade in Maryland. To the point that Fort Gordon ultimately will leave the power grid that supplies electricity to the surrounding community.

All of which means that, in the current flap over Russia’s election-year hacking, between President-elect Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, Georgia Republicans might ought to show some caution when it comes to choosing sides.

Lining up behind Trump, in this instance, could mean rooting against the home team.

For it is possible, perhaps even likely, that much of the evidence of Russian handiwork used in Friday’s briefing for the president-elect originated with one of your friends or neighbors in Augusta.

“To some extent, it’s a witch-hunt,” Trump told the New York Times just before that session with intelligence gatherers.

Trump’s is not a widely held view among those who have been there. “This is, as far as I can tell, just Trump being Trump. Who knows why he’s picking a fight with folks he’s going to have to rely on to make some very critical decisions?” Saxby Chambliss said.

Chambliss, a Republican, left the U.S. Senate in 2015. During his 20-year career in Congress, he served on intelligence committees in both the House and Senate. He considers the consolidation of cyber-intelligence operations in east Georgia — the Army made its decision three years ago — to be one of the highlights of his Senate tenure.

Chambliss is now a partner with DLA Piper law firm, and remains engaged on the periphery of U.S. intelligence matters.

In Trump’s clash with America’s spies, the former senator wished upon the president-elect “a greater understanding of the difficulty of the job they have to do, and the decisions and conclusions that they come to — based upon, often times, facts that may not be as clear as black and white.”

Chambliss disagrees with Trump’s incredulity when it comes to Russian trespasses on computers in the United States.

“The Russians, the Iranians and the Chinese have always been the top state actors. And we’ve seen activities from all three of those nation-states on a fairly regular basis,” the former senator said.

Nor does he doubt the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to figure out what’s going on. “They knew what was being hacked and when it was being hacked. The Senate got hacked. The House got hacked. And any number of agencies got hacked. We would know it, and we would know what information was obtained,” Chambliss said.

But the former senator sides with Trump on at least a pair of issues. The role of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a White House post created to coordinate intelligence-gathering among military and civilian entities after 9/11, probably should be pared down. (Chambliss would return the lead-dog status to the Central Intelligence Agency.)

He also agrees with Trump on the ultimate vulnerability of every American computer – outside the U.S. Department of Defense. “If a very sophisticated group puts their mind to it, there are not many computers they can’t get into,” Chambliss said.

That’s why what’s happening in Augusta is necessary, the senator would contend. It has an economic payoff, of course. “I can’t give you the exact number, but there are lots and lots of employees there, civilian and military. We run a lot of sophisticated operations out of NSA Georgia,” Chambliss said.

High-end defense contractors have begun to establish offices in the area. Augusta University, recognizing an employment opportunity when it sees one, already offers a four-year degree in cybersecurity, and is now creating a graduate program.

“Every infantry officer at some point in time goes through Fort Benning (in Columbus),” Chambliss said. “Now, everybody involved, from a military or civilian standpoint, with U.S. cybersecurity at some point in time will come through Fort Gordon. We’re the epicenter.”

Chambliss said Trump’s dispute with the cyber-intelligence community has had the benefit of focusing attention on one all-important issue.

“A decision has got to be made,” the former senator said, “over what constitutes an act of war in the space of cybersecurity. We still don’t have that decision made yet.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said that Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computers — then leaking that material to influence a presidential election — amounts to such an act. Chambliss isn’t so sure.

“The other decision that has to be made is when we go on the offensive. And the two are pretty well tied together,” Chambliss said.

That’s right. A cyberwar could very well be in our future. And many of the decisions that lead us into it — or away from it — will be made  in Augusta. So just maybe, it might be right and proper to treat the home team and their work product with a little respect.