Foreign adversaries are “quite successfully taking our stuff,” one of the Defense Department’s top counterintelligence officials acknowledged Wednesday.
“Are we winning in this challenge, in this competition for technological advantage?” William Stephens, the director of counterintelligence at the Pentagon’s Defense Security Service, said. “It’s not a very American thing to do to say that we're not. It's certainly not to say that we're losing. But the challenge is clear. Our losses are quite profound.”
Stephens gave that bracing assessment at the outset of a panel discussion on how to protect the supply chains for sensitive technology — the array of companies that work with the government to develop weapons systems and other capabilities that are essential to national security. U.S. officials haven’t come up with an effective plan to prevent those thefts, Stephens implied, even though the National Security Strategy and military plans depend on technological superiority.
“All of those really turn on the Americans being, technologically, very well advanced,” he said. "Is there a strategy to actually secure the innovation upon which those strategies ultimately turn? If there is, I'm not sure I know of what it might be.”
The U.S. government has been rocked by a series of high-profile data breaches in recent years. Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden stole thousands of documents containing classified information on U.S. intelligence capabilities in 2013. A recent Navy review concluded that key American defense contractors “are under cyber siege” from Beijing.
“Our opponents are actually coming at us at a broad range of directions,” Stephens stressed.
Part of the problem is that security is expensive, he said, leaving vulnerabilities when companies try to cut costs while developing programs. Stephens suggested that U.S. officials need to carefully assess the value of security in order to ensure they are giving companies sufficient incentives for tight security practices for U.S. weaponry.
“What is the value of an uncompromised capability?” he asked. “Could that be the money that is spent on a counterintelligence and security program, a very good one possibly? Would we be willing to pay that? What’s more valuable — a hundred compromised jets or 80 uncompromised jets?”
Stephens emphasized that “we’re not helpless,” even if foreign spies have the U.S. military playing defense at the moment.
“If we ask and we incentivize American industry, they deliver,” he said. “But if we put the burden on them without changing the incentives, they react according to where their cheese is.”