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The Man Who Protects America's Secrets

Sep 15, 2017
Originally published on September 15, 2017 10:35 am

It's called the "Wall of Shame."

Tucked away in the hall of an office building outside the nation's capital in Bethesda, Md., the wall features the portraits of double agents, traitors, leakers and saboteurs.

It's not a display most Americans will ever see. In fact, it requires a top-secret security clearance to ride the elevator up to the floor it's on.

The wall include photos and dossiers of Robert Hannsen, Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard — among others — who all pleaded guilty to revealing America's secrets.

"This is a reminder for our employees: this is why we do what we do," says William Evanina, head of U.S counterintelligence — the nation's spy-catcher in chief. This is his office building, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Evanina gave NPR's Mary Louise Kelly a tour of the wall and sat down for a wide-ranging interview that included Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

Evanina does not play a role in the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the election, but he does in figuring out how to prevent it from happening again. While he thinks the U.S. can take steps to prevent a reprise of last year, he says it's the unknown that probably gives him the biggest pause.

"I don't know if I can be confident in Russia not doing anything in the future, or any other country, because technology will change," Evanina says. "And as we look towards providing mitigation steps to what happened last time, we're not even aware where technology is three years from now."

New Technologies, New Challenges

Evanina says it's a cat-and-mouse game that's been going on for decades.

And then, there's Facebook. The company recently announced $100,000 in election ads were sold to Russian-linked accounts last year.

Evanina says while the government needs to work more effectively with the private-sector, including Facebook, trying to block such activity may not be the best use of resources. Instead, he says you need to understand what happened, be able to articulate the danger and then adapt.

"Does that mean we don't follow intelligence officers around anymore, that we spend more time on Twitter and Facebook and social media? And if that is the case, we have to train our personnel accordingly," he says.

Another priority for Evanina is confronting the "insider threat." That includes people within the intelligence community leaking information to the outside.

"I don't think we could ever stop someone who is intent on stealing a document," Evanina says. "Where we have succeeded significantly, and I will say some of the recent cases have shown this, is the ability to stop the bleeding once it occurs."

Evanina credits that to security measures put in place after Edward Snowden's extensive leak of classified information. "I don't think we're going to see someone get away with 1.5 million documents anymore."

Earlier this year, government contractor Reality Winner was indicted for allegedly leaking a classified report to an online news outlet. While Evanina wouldn't talk about that particular case, he again noted that Snowden had leaked more than a million documents.

"I think a lot of the reform efforts were set forth to prevent that from happening [again]," he says.

Preventing Leaks to the News Media

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the government intends to crack down on leaks to journalists. Evanina was at his side for the press conference and says the government needs to convince government employees and contractors that these leaks do damage.

"We need to get back to basics about what we do and why we do it," Evanina says. "I'm saying, 'Listen, you went through a lot of work your entire life to get to a point in your life where you have been bestowed the right to protect these secrets. Don't violate that.' "

Meanwhile, a new government memo written by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster directs agencies across the federal bureaucracy to hold training sessions focused on the importance of protecting sensitive information. Included in the training materials is a video featuring Evanina.

How do we know this? The memo was leaked.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Leakers, double agents, traitors, saboteurs - their portraits hang on a wall that few Americans will ever see.

BILL EVANINA: What we have here, Mary Louise, is what we call the Wall of Shame.

KELLY: The Wall of Shame. That voice you just heard belongs to Bill Evanina. Think of him as the nation's spy-catcher in chief.

EVANINA: You'll see Hanssen and Ames, Jonathan Pollard, who's out of prison now. And then we have little depictions of what they did and why they're important and what their little dossier is.

KELLY: Robert Hanssen, Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard - they all pleaded guilty to betraying America's secrets, whereas it's Bill Evanina's job to protect them. Evanina is the head of U.S. counterintelligence. And the Wall of Shame he's showing me is at his office in Bethesda, Md.

EVANINA: This is a reminder for our employees - this is why we do what we do.

KELLY: When I said few people will ever get to see that wall, that's because you need a top-secret security clearance to ride the elevator up to this floor - either that or an appointment for an interview. When Evanina and I sat down, we started with questions about Russian meddling in the presidential election.

Are you confident that Russia, or any other foreign adversary, will not be able to interfere in the 2018 vote in the way that we saw in 2016?

EVANINA: I don't know if it's a confidence issue. I think as we move forward...

KELLY: Is that a no?

EVANINA: Yeah. I don't know if I can be confident in Russia not doing anything in the future - or any other country.

KELLY: They're going to try, you're saying.

EVANINA: Because technology will change. We're not even aware where technology is three years from now. So as much as we say we can mitigate what happened last year - I think we can. But it's the unknown that should probably give us our biggest pause.

KELLY: Sounds like you're saying you could stop Russia from doing what they did in 2016, but they're going to try something else by the time we roll around to 2018.

EVANINA: And they have for decades, right? And I think that's the cat-and-mouse game that we play.

KELLY: Speaking of cat and mouse, Evanina says the number of Russian intelligence officers operating here in the U.S. is holding steady at around a hundred - that the U.S. kicked some out. Russia finds ways to sneak more in. And Russian tactics keep evolving, which prompted me to ask about the recent revelation that Russia bought ads on Facebook.

How do you stop that?

EVANINA: Well, I think stopping it going forward is probably not the right posture. You have to understand it first. And then you have to be able to articulate the danger and why it should be a priority and then drive resources towards it. So does that mean we don't follow intelligence officers around anymore, that we spend more time on Twitter and Facebook and on social media? And if that is the case, we have to train our personnel accordingly.

KELLY: But short of arguing that your team should be able to unilaterally access Facebook accounts in real time, how do you prevent something like that from happening?

EVANINA: Right. Well, I wish we could, but we can't. You know, this is America, and we have something that no one else has. It's called the Constitution. Other countries that we play against don't follow the same rules we do. So as we move forward to understand what happened with Facebook, which was not illegal - right? - we have to partner more effectively with private sector organizations like Facebook for them to understand what that threat is.

KELLY: How do you do that? I mean, what does that look like?

EVANINA: Well, it starts with dialogue.

KELLY: Bill Evanina has spent a lot of time dealing with the damage - his word - caused by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor. Since then, new data breaches have come to light, including just this past summer. Reality Winner, another NSA contractor, arrested and charged with leaking classified information.

Are you confident it won't happen again?

EVANINA: No. And I'm pretty sure that it will. And I will preface my comments with saying just about all of those open investigations. So I have to be very careful what I say. And I'll remind you there is a bunch others you probably forgot about that happened within the last year or so. The FBI...

KELLY: Or maybe I didn't know about it because they're not public.

EVANINA: The FBI employee, the state department employee who was arrested. We have a couple of contractors, as well, that don't make the headline news. But at the end of the day, the insider threat, which is our biggest priority here, is that individual who wakes up tomorrow and decides to do something nefarious. I don't think we could ever stop someone who is intent on stealing a document. Where we've succeeded significantly - and I'll say some of the recent cases have shown this - is the ability to stop the bleeding once it occurs, right? I don't think we're going to see someone get away with 1.5 million documents anymore. But to have someone not walk out of a building with a document will be really, really hard to stop.

KELLY: So you're saying it's almost impossible to stop somebody who has the access, has the motive. But it would be a whole lot better if they took one document, as opposed to a few thousand or a few million.

EVANINA: I'm saying the chances of them taking a few thousand or million documents has been minimized by the reform efforts put in place subsequent to Mr. Snowden.

KELLY: But how do you square that with, say, the case of Reality Winner, who was just this year?

EVANINA: I'll stand on my last statement. And I can't really talk about that particular case. But, again, let's remind your listeners that with the Snowden case, we had over a million documents taken. And I think a lot of reform efforts were set forth to prevent that from happening.

KELLY: This led us to the matter of leaks. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a press conference to announce a crackdown on leaks to the media. Standing by his side was Bill Evanina. I asked have any know what measures specifically he's calling for.

EVANINA: From our side, I think I'm an old-fashioned mentality, as to we need to get back to basics about what we do and why we do it, right? So there's over 4 million clearance holders in the U.S. It's a small percentage of the folks who have the right and honor to be bestowed with this clearance.

KELLY: But a whole lot of people who have access to things that are - you're trying to keep secret.

EVANINA: Right. And I'm saying, listen, when you went through a lot of hard work your entire life to get to a point in your life where you have been bestowed the right to protect these secrets, don't violate that because you are putting not only our soldiers and intelligence folks around the world at risk. But you're betraying the Constitution, your oath. You're betraying your peers that sit next to you.

KELLY: Any particular leaks that really bothered you because of the damage it caused?

EVANINA: There's been a lot.

KELLY: Can you name one, though?

EVANINA: No. There's been a couple recent in the last six months that really have hit us hard. But I think everyone in our community have to really respect that and chip away with the mindset that it's your obligation to protect the data.

KELLY: And we in the press feel like it's our obligation to get information out there and put it in the public domain and let people decide.

EVANINA: Right. And I think that's a great dialogue to have. And I welcome that narrative. I don't understand the interest in a media outlet wanting classified documents to potentially harm our nation. So I think that dialogue has to continue in our free society. And the value of the government and the media is intertwined and always will be.

KELLY: Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. And here's a coda - a new memo directs agencies across the federal bureaucracy to hold hour-long training sessions next week focused on the importance of protecting sensitive information. Among the training materials, a video featuring Evanina. And, by the way, the reason we know about this memo - it leaked.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "BLACK LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.