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Panetta: WikiLeaks dump of hacking documents ‘seriously damaging’ to CIA

March 8, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
A day after WikiLeaks published documents on the CIA's tools for hacking into personal electronics, Reuters reported that intelligence officials are focused on contractors as the likeliest source of the leak. How is the CIA likely responding to the revelations? Former CIA Director Leon Panetta joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the consequences for counterterrorism efforts and more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday’s WikiLeaks dump of documents was yet another major breach of classified information inside U.S. intelligence services.

Hari Sreenivasan picks up our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today, the story about intelligence leaks advanced on multiple fronts. Reuters reported intelligence officials have known about the security breach since last year, and are focused on contractors as the likeliest source of the leak.

And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Trump is extremely concerned about the breach.

For more on all of this, we turn to Leon Panetta. He served as the CIA director during the Obama administration.

Mr. Panetta, first, what’s happening in the CIA right now? If it’s a mole, how do they find him, if it’s an inside job, him or her? Or, if it’s from the outside, how do we figure out where we were hacked?

LEON PANETTA, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: Well, I think the more important issue is going to be, how do you replace those important tools that have now been made public and try to reestablish our intelligence capability, so we can gather the information that is absolutely essential in order to protect our country?

This has been seriously damaging to the CIA and its ability to conduct intelligence operations. So, I would imagine the first focus is on, what do we do to try to replace our ability to go after terrorists?

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, we had Chelsea Manning from the Army. We had Edward Snowden and Harold Martin from the NSA. Weren’t there reforms taken after these things? Why didn’t they work?

LEON PANETTA: You know, I’m sure there were steps taken to try to make sure that this wouldn’t happen.

But we are, clearly, living in a world in which the ability to hack has developed to a point where I happen to think that probably anything is vulnerable today. So I think you try to take steps to try to protect that kind of sensitive information, try to do what you can to make sure that those who are working for you are taking steps to protect it, contractors are taking steps to protect it.

But the bottom line is that, in today’s world, I think you always have to be prepared that somebody may very well be able to get access to that kind of information and, if they do, that they will make it public. I think that’s the world we live in right now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, I think it caught a lot of people by surprise that the CIA has such an extensive hacking operation. Don’t we have the NSA for that? Why is the CIA doing this?

LEON PANETTA: Well, the CIA does it for intelligence-gathering purposes abroad. It’s not done here in the United States. It’s done abroad.

And, for that reason, the CIA has to develop the capabilities that it has developed in order to be able to track those that are known suspects of terrorism.

You know, we went through 9/11. There was a national commission that was established to find out why we were attacked on 9/11. And the result of that is that the CIA and other intelligence agencies developed better capabilities to go after terrorists and to try to locate them.

There is a reason we have not had another 9/11 attack in this country, and a lot of that is because our intelligence agencies, our law enforcement agencies are sharing information and gathering information that makes sure we protect the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Speaking of sharing information, back in 2010, when you were still CIA director, the Obama administration said that they would share zero day vulnerabilities, those hacks that are core in pieces of software, like in an Apple iPhone or an Android operating system, with the technology companies.

But, here, we have evidence that the CIA has hoarded a lot of those zero day vulnerabilities and really violated that trust.

LEON PANETTA: Well, I have to tell you, at least in my time as director of the CIA, that we had a very good relationship with Silicon Valley and with high-tech companies.

And, you know, we had a cooperative relationship. Obviously, they have their interests, and we respect that. They are dealing with privacy issues, and we respect that as well. But, in the end, all of us are concerned about being able to ensure that we are able to go after terrorists, that we’re able to detect when they are planning attacks on this country and elsewhere, and that we are able to take steps to protect this country.

And I think what we have to do is make sure that we get back to that kind of cooperative relationship.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The thing that has a lot of people concerned is, when you keep these zero day vulnerabilities to yourself, and you don’t tell Apple or you don’t tell Google or you don’t tell Microsoft, hey, there’s this hole in your software, that means that identity thieves, other governments could also be using this.

I think there’s also general discomfort, to put it mildly, with consumers, who say, wait a minute, I thought that my product was safe, but here I don’t necessarily know whether it’s even — my government’s look out for my best interests.

LEON PANETTA: Well, again, I think the fundamental issue that’s involved here is whether or not we want our intelligence agencies and our law enforcement agencies to be able to protect our country.

And I know that there are there’s often this debate about, are we going to be able to protect our security and our freedoms at the same time? I believe we can. I don’t think we have to make a choice on that.

The reality is that what the CIA has done in terms of its capabilities and what it is able to do is done pursuant to the law and is done pursuant to oversight by the Congress and by the Intelligence Committees on the hill. They are fully aware of what capabilities the CIA has, and that is the way we try to protect our freedoms at the same time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Former Defense Secretary and former head of the CIA, among many other things, Leon Panetta, thanks so much for joining us.

LEON PANETTA: Thank you.

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