Being fired by the attorney general of the United States a day before being eligible for retirement, and leaving the organization you have dedicated your life to, was “excruciating,” said Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI. “It still is, on some level, and so, to be separated in the way that I was, was incredibly frustrating, and was sad. And left me in a tough spot in 2018.”
McCabe, now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government, sat down with Ellen Laipson, director of the Master’s in International Security program, and Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA and now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at the Schar School. The Center for Security Policy Studies and the Hayden Center hosted the virtual event, which had an audience of about 170 people. The full recording of the discussion is available here.
McCabe and the moderators discussed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants and courts, the Trump administration’s relationship with the intelligence community, the investigation of links to Trump and Russian operatives called Operation Crossfire Hurricane, counter-intelligence cases, Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, and McCabe’s best-selling book The Threat.
Naturally, as we head into the 2020 presidential election, McCabe reflected on the Russian interference of 2016.
“What we knew about Russian interference in the election at that point was very pertinent,” he said. “I think that in a lot of the conversation around this issue, people have lost sight of that context within which we then received information that caused us great concern. So, we knew that the Russians had been targeting all kinds of different institutions—American institutions—in cyberspace as early as the fall of 2014.
“Russians embarked on a particularly active, aggressive campaign of probing the computer networks of academic institutions, think tanks, some government institutions, political institutions,” McCabe continued. “We would see this activity throughout surveillance capabilities: That they would probe these systems and essentially, or in some cases, actually infiltrate systems and exfiltrate data. We didn’t know what they were doing with the information they were taking.”
What the Russians were doing wasn’t immediately apparent.
“I think the most common assessment was they were conducting the normal sort of intelligence collection that adversaries do all the time, and that’s what our adversaries do,” he said. “They want to understand what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, what we’re planning, those sorts of things. And so, that activity continued to build throughout 2015. Then, in the early spring of 2016, we saw other Russian intelligence actors get involved in that same activity, and we saw them start to target the Democratic National Committee.
“We saw them not just target the DNC, but actually target the DNC systems and begin to exfiltrate a lot of data. Again, the question was: ‘What are they going to do with all this data?’ Well, eventually we found out. That data was released through different online personas… and ultimately released with the assistance of WikiLeaks, right on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, in 2016.”
By then, it was too late to stop it.
“It’s a weaponization of stolen cyber material that we really had not seen before,” said McCabe. “Which really caused everybody great pause, and there was no question at that point that the Russians were playing a very active role in our presidential campaign.”