Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) Commands Classroom

The top Dem. on the House Intelligence Committee discusses cyber threats to national security, then takes questions from students.

Last night, Rep. Adam Schiff—a rising star in Congress and American national security policy—came to Columbia Law School to discuss the Congressional investigation his committee is conducting into Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential election along with a variety of other pressing cybersecurity, national security, and privacy issues.

Schiff, of California’s 28th district (Burbank), is in his ninth Congressional term and serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He was invited as a guest of Professors Michael W. Doyle, co-director of the Columbia Center on Global Governance, and Matthew C. Waxman, who chairs the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security and co-chairs the Cybersecurity Center of Columbia’s Data Science Institute.

The event arose serendipitously last December, when Doyle recognized Schiff as the two were standing in the cold outside the White House, waiting to attend President Barack Obama’s Chanukah Party. “I said, ‘It would be nice to get you up to Columbia,’” Doyle recounts, “and he said he’d be happy to come.” The formal invitation was co-sponsored by Waxman, who plans to co-teach a cybersecurity course next year with professors from both the Computer Science department and the School of International and Public Affairs.   

Schiff, 56, spoke without notes for about 30 minutes; took questions from Waxman and students for another 45 minutes; and then huddled informally with audience members, including journalists.

Articulate, low-key, and yet forceful, the former prosecutor revealed no confidential information, but did express unvarnished criticism of President Trump’s attacks on U.S. intelligence agencies, his apparent inability or unwillingness to recognize the gravity of Russian interference with democratic processes, and his failure to stand up for the “whole idea of America” as diametrically distinct from the authoritarianism of Russia.

Among the points he made on general cybersecurity issues were these:

  • Encryption issues fall into two categories, those relating to “data at rest” and those relating to “data in motion,” and approaches to the two may need to be distinct.
  • The best response to a foreign state’s cyber attack may be a non-cyber response.
  • Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA), authorizing wiretapping of foreign communications, sunsets at the end of this year, so Congress will certainly be debating its renewal and possible reforms.

Among the points he made about Russian interference in the elections were these:

  • These acts were fundamentally different in kind from hacking for economic advantage or intelligence gathering, and unprecedented in the U.S.
  • There is a “war of ideas globally” taking place between authoritarianism and democratic forms of government, and “authoritarianism is on the march.”
  •  Russia’s goal is to “undermine the notion of there even being a truth.”
  • “If Russia wants to get into your computers, they’re going to get into your computers.”
  •  “The best defense is a very well informed populace.”

Addressing the role of the media, Schiff remarked that the press have a responsibility when publishing hacked information to provide context of its disclosure, including to mention the likely motivations of those who hacked it.

In an interview after the lecture, Schiff commented: “The questions were great. It’s such a treat to come to a law school with such a phenomenal heritage. The discussion could have gone on for several more hours. There’s such a wealth of material to discuss these days.”

Watch the full video here:



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Posted April 20, 2017