That made me wonder: does he ever worry about his ring being hacked?
Don’t worry, the chairman of the intelligence committee told me. Oura comes off when he goes into the SCIF, a bit of insider Washington jargon standing for it Sensitive segmented information furnishingswhere members of Congress hold classified meetings.
Warner and I spoke on the sidelines of the Aspen Security Conference last week. As the world burns figuratively and literally, I have regularly asked SCIF what the US can do about two major security threats the world is now facing: Russia’s aggression and China’s rise.
Regarding Russia, he said there is a possibility that the war in Ukraine will escalate and NATO will engage in a kinetic war. But “the shoe that didn’t fall,” he said, is a cyberattack that “would fall somewhere in the gray area of violating Article 5 or not” — meaning it requires a NATO response .
I asked him why Russia hasn’t flexed that muscle yet.
Three reasons, he told me. Initially, the Russians thought “they would win so quickly, they didn’t want to destroy Ukrainian systems”. They also “have reasonable respect for how much we might fight back”. Finally, the consequences of cyberwarfare, perhaps even more so than actual warfare, are unknowable.
“When you talk about the tools that go beyond a single network,” he said, “it’s a worm, once you let it out you don’t know where it ends up. … It’s not the equivalent of a chemical weapon or a nuclear weapon, but there are tools that they didn’t launch because I think they were interested in knowing what the full impact would be.”
And yet Russia’s reluctance to use its cyber weapons has surprised both warners and intelligence agencies.
Time may not be on the side of the west. It is widely believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to annex eastern Ukraine. If this is the case, I asked Warner what can be done to prevent this and speed up support for Ukrainians?
“Part of the challenge is that we want them to be successful,” he said. “But that could also drive Putin to act more hastily.”
Any annexation, he said, would be preceded by a referendum on belonging to Russia. According to Warner, the secret services should be aware of “how crooked any Russian referendum would be”. The aim would be to “ensure the world realizes that this is a wrong choice”. The US should publish how many Ukrainians have already been expelled from these areas, he said, and redouble its campaign to uncover Russian propaganda.
The other major threat is the rise of China – not only as a military power, particularly in relation to Taiwan, but also in cyberspace. The areas of activity include artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing and synthetic biology.
“It would be a huge mistake on America’s part if it turned into a bi-polar competition,” he said. “It has to be that alliance of democracies.” President Joe Biden’s administration, he said, thought alliances should be more “informal.” Warner told me that “it should be as large a group as possible.” It could be organized around technologies, he said.
Warner, a former venture capitalist, used to believe in the importance of bringing China into the international order. But for about eight years, he said, “90% of every Intel session I’ve had has been about intellectual property theft” — even when US firms were making record investments.
So he set out, getting committee members and intelligence officials to meet with private sector actors like university leaders and financial executives. At first, he said, he couldn’t get anyone at a private equity firm to attend a meeting — “they were making so much money they didn’t want to hear it” — but now even they’re concerned. He particularly recalled a SCIF meeting where several private equity firms reported having intellectual property stolen or losing money as the Chinese government cracked down on the companies in which they had invested. “They had all taken their clumps,” Warner said.
One question is how much the US knows about China’s intentions and capabilities. How does Warner rate intelligence?
“China is a very tough target,” he said. At the same time, China is telegraphing its technology strategy in a way previous regimes haven’t, “and that gives us the opportunity to have a counter-strategy.”
That doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. There is “no body in the US government tasked with figuring out which technology” the US should prioritize in this competition, he said. The director of national intelligence, the CIA, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon all have different ideas, he said. Identifying that priority is part of his goal as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“It’s a very interesting, cool area,” Warner said. Even if he occasionally has to remove his Oura ring to do so.