March 23, 2022

Podcast: A Look Ahead at U.S. National Security

The Eyes on Washington Podcast Special Miniseries: The NDAA
Dan Sennott and Jason Klitenic

In the fourth episode of our Eyes on Washington Podcast Special Miniseries about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), attorney Dan Sennott is joined by head of the National Security, Defense and Intelligence Team Jason Klitenic. Their conversation focuses on the future of national security in the United States. They explore how foreign influences on U.S. domestic affairs have evolved over the last few years particularly through the use of technology. Mr. Klitenic highlights how foreign actors have been able to infiltrate and undermine the United States through false information, misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms. He also shares advice for combatting misinformation as a way to restore faith in American democracy. The conversation briefly touches on the Russia and Ukraine conflict, indicating the likelihood of cyber-attacks and potential ramifications on Ukraine and the rest of the world. Lastly, Mr. Sennott and Mr. Klitenic share their thoughts about security clearance reform and protection of U.S. technology from intellectual property theft.

This Eyes on Washington Podcast Special Miniseries breaks down the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is the yearly authorization of funding and policy for the entire Department of Defense (DoD). Hosted by attorney Dan Sennott, this miniseries delves deep into the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) NDAA, its wide-reaching provisions, policy initiatives and the associated laws being passed in Congress. In each episode of this miniseries, Holland & Knight attorneys will tackle specific topics and themes in the FY22 NDAA.

Listen to Part 1: NDAA Introduction and Overview of FY22 Themes »
Listen to Part 2: U.S. Economic Relationship with China and Reshoring Manufacturing Capabilities »
Listen to Part 3: FY22 NDAA Cybersecurity Provisions and Acquisition Reform »


Podcast Transcript:

Dan Sennott: Thank you very much for joining us, Dan Sennott of the National Security Practice Group here at Holland & Knight and this is Eyes on Washington podcast. This is the final podcast in our series on the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. In this podcast, we'll talk a bit about what's on the horizon in national security and what we can expect DoD and Congress to focus on in the coming year. I can't think of anyone better to talk about this with than Jason Klitenic, who's the head of the National Security, Defense and Intelligence team here at Holland & Knight. Jason, it's a pleasure to have you here. You have a really incredible background in intelligence and national security. Could you tell us a bit about your background and your practice here at the firm?

Jason Klitenic: Yeah, thanks, Dan. One thanks for having me. And one of the highlights of this for me is Dan, you and I are doing this in person. We're actually like real human beings, we're sitting in a room, we're staring into a speaker and I think we're socially distant. Yeah, as you said, you and I obviously are colleagues here at Holland & Knight in the D.C. office. You and I are both members of the firm's National Security, Defense and Intelligence team here at Holland & Knight, we represent organizations, companies, individuals on a wide variety of national security related matters. It spans everything from government contractors who support the war fighter and intelligence community agencies with a variety of services and products. We also help companies with compliance related issues that might uniquely arise in the context of national security issues. So think things like insider threat, theft of trade secrets, things of that nature. And we also have, as you might imagine, a really robust M&A practice here in the firm that specializes in assisting companies that are buying or selling within the national security sphere. So these are companies all around the country, but many of which happened to be in the D.C. area and those are companies that much of their mission just again support the government, government customers in both the DoD and IC space.

Major Developments in U.S. National Security in the Last Few Years

Dan Sennott: Great. Let's go ahead and get into it, a little bit about what's on the horizon when we think in national security. Now, foreign influences of U.S. domestic affairs has been around for years, obviously, probably since the inception of our nation. How do you think it has evolved and changed over the course of last few years?

Jason Klitenic: Yeah, a few things. One, we have technology, right? And technology for good, right. There is no greater power. There is no greater weapon. It's something that all Americans, we'll just focus on our country for now, it's part of our everyday life. We all carry a phone wherever we go. We, you know, a lot of us have our laptops wherever we are. We're glued to a TV, computer such as it. So technology is good, right? So you can quote me as saying that technology is good. Now there are other aspects about our country that are also wonderful, and we have this thing called the First Amendment. Americans, we are free to express ourselves. We believe in the marketplace of ideas. And as long as you don't do something to cause harm to others in this country, you can pretty much do whatever you want whenever you want. And that's why we are the great country that we are. Now, our adversaries also recognize this.

We have technology, right? And technology for good, right. There is no greater power. There is no greater weapon.

When I was, before I rejoined Holland & Knight, I was the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a lot of what we did, we coordinated closely with the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. And so a myriad of issues cycle through the intelligence community, but one particular issue that was front and center for a lot of my tenure there was countering malign foreign influence, interference with elections, election security issues. And one of my takeaways from working on those types of issues is just how, from the government's perspective, just how difficult and challenging they are. And they're challenging for a variety of reasons. And one of the reasons why they're challenging is, you know, here in America, in the United States, we don't do things like have crackdowns on social media. We don't monitor social media. We don't do things that authoritarian regimes do. Rather, we think a better system is to let people express their views, however, and whenever they want to even have those views are wrong. Well, our adversaries recognize this, and they've become pretty adept at putting out false information, disinformation, misinformation that has several different types of nefarious intent. One of the types of nefarious intent is to undermine our political system to put out false information about various political candidates, maybe candidates who they think would if they were to hold office it would not be in their foreign nation's best interest. Another thing they do is anything essentially to kind of create chaos, undermine who we are as Americans. So some of the things that people see on social media or things that purportedly are news that people read about regarding public health and COVID and vaccines and masks and side effects. You know, a lot of that is done by groups again looking to undermine our national security interests our U.S. interests. And then the third sort of catchall category, I would say, is our adversaries again, very adept at putting anything out there. And it's in their interests. Anything out there that tears apart our social fabric as a country. And so when you think back to some of our recent social justice issues that we've gone through as a nation, you know, our adversaries are watching that and they themselves are putting out information that they think will rather than bring us together as Americans, try and divide us. And so that's another sort of category of misinformation. All these things are again they're difficult to counter. It's not always easy to attribute to who these actors are, you know, nation state actors, terrorist organizations, rogue actors. The 14 year old kid sitting at his bedside computer in the shadows, a burned out smokestack somewhere in some, gosh forsaken place launching cyber-attacks. So those types of things are really hard to counter. And again, from my perspective and certainly from our government's perspective, what makes them so important is that they truly do seek to undermine who we are as a country. You know, something so basic as having people question the credibility of an election. You know that's a really significant and disconcerting, you know, moment, event, whether it's a federal election or a local state election. But when people seek to undermine Americans' confidence in our own democratic system and our own ideals, that is that's a powerful thing.

You know, something so basic as having people question the credibility of an election. You know that's a really significant and disconcerting, you know, moment, event, whether it's a federal election or a local state election. But when people seek to undermine Americans' confidence in our own democratic system and our own ideals, that is that's a powerful thing.

Combatting Misinformation and Restoring Faith in American Democracy

Dan Sennott: So this year in particular, it being an election year, it being midterms, very important elections coming up. If you're in that space, if you're running either a social media website or you're just in cyberspace, you have a presence there, what kind of things should folks be looking out for in the run up to this election?

Jason Klitenic: I think a few things. So one of the things that makes this so difficult about how do you counter these types of actions, and there certainly are things that you can do to counter them. But you know if someone, let's say, a foreign adversary inserts into an election, a piece of information that is false, it's fraudulent in all respects. How do you counter that without making it an issue in and of itself in the election? And so I know this government does what they would, they do a lot of briefings, they do a lot of briefings to members of Congress on variety of issues and their oversight capacity, but they also brief people who are running for office at various levels. If there are instances, evidence that suggests those people are being targeted right by what I'll just referred to as malign actors. And one of the challenges with that is, you know, you've briefed one party, but then do you brief the other party, you know, the person who they are running against? And in doing so, do you run the risk of one of those people saying, Aha, you know, I am so feared by this foreign nation that they're, you know, putting information out there about me to make it look as if they'll fill in the blank. And so it's just really hard to kind of manage these issues without again making them issues themselves in the election. I think to answer your question, I think, you know a couple of things, what can they look for: first of all, of your traditional red flags, you know, things that maybe stand out if they're seeing things that, gee, gosh, this doesn't look like this was written by someone in Topeka, Kansas, because you know, the syntax is off, flawed verbiage, you know, things that maybe we've all seen, but that's a red flag. But I think the best way to keep, people, I think the best way to counter these types of threats is to make sure that the American populace understands what I think at an intellectual level everyone understands, but maybe more at a visceral level understand that, you know, you can't believe everything you read, right? And I think about, you know, friends, family, people that come to me and say they write so and so on the internet and I don't know why they're consulting with me, I don't know if these things are true or not, but I always tell them 'look, I don't know if that's true. I hadn't heard that. I don't believe everything that I read on the internet,' but I think it's important to, I think, keep things in perspective when they see things, when they read things and ask themselves, 'Does this seem reasonable?' One of the things that I think again may be getting back to COVID, and I think this is a salient point, hopefully it's relevant.

But I think the best way to keep, people, I think the best way to counter these types of threats is to make sure that the American populace understands what I think at an intellectual level everyone understands, but maybe more at a visceral level understand that, you know, you can't believe everything you read, right?

I was recently speaking with someone at the FBI and we were talking about various downsides of the pandemic and people not showing up to work and just operationally some certain challenges. And you and I are at a law firm Dan, we like coming into the office and a lot of our colleagues are here, but some of them are not and we miss them. But one of the other things that the bureau is seeing is that people who, because of the pandemic and they're not going into work, a lot of folks who are sitting in front of their computer all day, every day, right? And they're sitting at their computer and they're reading things on social media and other means. And maybe in years past before the pandemic, if they were in an office or manufacturing plant, they'd be standing around the water cooler and saying, 'Hey, I just read this following article seems kind of crazy.' And then they would bounce ideas off each other and someone would say, 'Well, I don't. I don't know. That doesn't sound right, Dan. I think, you know, I actually, if you look at this,' but what's happened is people are now, they're sitting at home and they're sitting in front of their computers and the way that getting back to technology, the way that artificial intelligence works is the more information that you see that has a particular view, the more information you're going to get that is consistent with that view that furthers that view, even if that information is wrong. And so, you know, again, maybe time tying the pandemic in to it. But that's sort of to me an example of misinformation in a just a really dangerous environment where a lot of folks are isolated, they're not socializing maybe in the ways that they normally would. And it becomes and I'm just going to use this term broadly, but it becomes sort of a breeding ground for people to become radicalized in their views. And that's a dangerous thing, and our adversaries recognize that also.

But that's sort of to me an example of misinformation in a just a really dangerous environment where a lot of folks are isolated, they're not socializing maybe in the ways that they normally would. And it becomes and I'm just going to use this term broadly, but it becomes sort of a breeding ground for people to become radicalized in their views. And that's a dangerous thing, and our adversaries recognize that also.

Russia and Ukraine: The Role and Impact of Cyber-attacks

Dan Sennott: That's an interesting byproduct of the COVID pandemic and no doubt that our adversaries have figured that out in our exploiting that to some extent. And speaking of disinformation campaigns, let's talk about recently, Russia has invaded Ukraine. There are obviously a lot of really, really bad consequences as a result of that. But can you talk through what we can expect to see some of the second third order effects regarding cyber-attacks or other things that we can expect to see as we respond to this aggression by Russia?

Jason Klitenic: Yeah, no. You know, for me, what's so interesting and I mentioned this to you, I had lunch with a good friend of mine yesterday who I had previously served with in government, and he pointed out to me, so this is not my original thought. But he pointed out to me what was so horrific and interesting about what is currently happening in Ukraine is, you know, in the past, we have seen things like World War II, a conventional land war. If you've got tanks, missiles, guns, troops on the ground, we've seen that. We know what that is. We've also seen fast-forward, we've also seen what a cyber-attack looks like one country seeking to take out a another country's critical infrastructure and that's happened in the Baltic republics and elsewhere perpetrated by the Russians. And so we know what that is and this what's happened now, I think what we're going to see if it's not already happening is you're going to see a conventional plan or an invasion, one country invading another country crossing its borders and then you're going to have cyber-attacks, cyber intrusions laid over that and with it, and it's all going to be happening at the same time. And so what does that mean? It means you're going to be seeing, I think, things like denial of service attacks. So I don't know. I imagine they may try and turn the lights out. They're going to hit the power grid, you know, maybe they'll hit other the energy sector, other key things that keep a country like Ukraine going. I mean, if you think about our own country, our own financial systems, the New York Stock Exchange, those were all incredibly vulnerable things that you know, those are the types of things that I worry about. So you're going to have war, you know, air, sea, land and then cyberspace. And, you know, in the ether and you're going to see things happening and you're going to see other and Russia hasn't been quiet about this but you know, they threatened attacking anyone that comes to the defense of Ukraine, whatever that looks like. And so, you know, you could see I expect to see our own government is cautioned about attacks over here. And so cyber-attacks by the Russians over here and elsewhere and I'm sure the Brits and others are facing the same types of threats and we'll deal with them as we face them. And then the other thing we talked about that's interesting is, you know, a lot of these systems, military systems, communication systems are reliant on satellites, right? So you're going to see, you know,  you may see satellite against satellite something out of like a 1960s sci-fi movie where if you think about military systems, a lot of them again rely on satellite infrastructure architecture. And if you want a blind and deaf and an army, a military, one thing you could do would be, you know, take out some of the satellites that they rely upon to do what they need to do. And so I just think, you know, we start off Dan by having such a great day, right? We're going to such dark places, we're going to such dark places. I am and you know me, I am an optimist. The glass is always half full. But something like this that we're watching in Ukraine unfold is this tragedy. And it's only going to get worse, obviously, before it gets better and you're going to see things like a humanitarian crisis on top of everything else.

I think what we're going to see if it's not already happening is you're going to see a conventional plan or an invasion, one country invading another country crossing its borders and then you're going to have cyber-attacks, cyber intrusions laid over that and with it, and it's all going to be happening at the same time.

Dan Sennott: And I think it's interesting there are already discussions and many that emerged from Munich Security Conference about what Congress's response is going to be to that. And there's already a coalition, a bipartisan coalition senators who are looking at an emergency supplemental in order to address this. So I think we'll see that legislation, but certainly in the FY23 NDAA Russia is going to be front of mind and how do we address that? And oh, by the way, we still have great power competition, strategic competition. I believe the DoD is now calling it with China as well.

Jason Klitenic: Absolutely.

Security Clearance Reform

Dan Sennott: And that was a major theme in FY22's NDAA. So I think we'll probably continue to see that. And so I want to go back to something a little bit lighter, although not quite, which is security clearances, as you know, speaking of the NDAA. There have been several attempts over the years to try and reform the security clearance process and kind of remedy this backlog we're seeing and a persistent backlog and you've seen a shift back the function from OMB to DoD now. So in the last couple of years, what have you seen, have you seen any improvements in that space or what do you think's on the horizon as far as security clearances are concerned?

Jason Klitenic: First of all, my view of, I guess, security clearances, the security clearance process, maybe I have some perspective, I would not hold myself to be an expert in security clearance issues. But  I've been a big part of it from kind of a 360 perspective. And by that, I mean, like you, I've been in government, I've been subjected to and voluntarily participated in the security clearance process. And I feel like I know what that's all about, and it's a completely reasonable, rational, thoughtful process. I respect the women and men who are charged with implementing it, and it's incredibly important right, because what this really is all about when you're talking about security clearance is, it's who should be trusted with our most valued information. And I've said this repeatedly. But you know, whenever in my career, I've had access to classified information and I've had jobs where I've had a lot of access. You know, I was always mindful of all the things that our brave women and men out in the field and elsewhere did to get that information that I was reading. And so once that information is bestowed upon you and you have the privilege right to review it, you know that is sacred. And so I think that the vetting process, it needs to be thorough. I'm not someone who just sort of raises his hand and complains that it takes too long because the fact of the matter is, I know at times it takes a long time, but maybe it should take a long time. Now, having said all that, I've also been on the other side where I've tried to recruit people to come work for me and I waited for the clearance process to come through and I may have been trying to bring someone over from another IC agency, they had all the clearances they would need to work with me. They had a full scope polygraph, they were ready to go, but we didn't have reciprocity. So that person maybe had to go through the same process all over again to come work with me and my agency. Again, I defer to others on those types of things. My understanding is that the reciprocity now is much better than it used to be. It's much easier to get people to move from one government agency, let's just say one IC element to another IC element IC agency than it used to be. And I also think that the pipeline I don't want to use the word backlog. Obviously, the pipeline has been greatly diminished and that was also a I would just say a heavy lift. A lot of resources went into that. So I think it's certainly it's improved and it's just improved, I think the last three to five years. But I also know now that I'm on this side of things and in the private sector, we have a lot of government contractor clients and their employees are reliant and dependent upon the security clearances, their lifeblood because they can't perform the work unless their folks are cleared. And for them, as you know, and there's nothing to be ashamed of, but time is money, right? So if you can't get people on the contract and it's also for me, security clearance reform is one of those maybe few wonderful issues where everyone is in violent agreement. Congress wants it to happen, the government contracting community wants to get their people clear. The government agencies want to get their people cleared as quickly as possible, one so they can on board qualified and suitable government employees. But they also as government contractor, you know, they have, they rely on these government contractors to perform really important services, provide really important products. And if they can't get those folks clear, then there is a gap. And so everyone agrees that we can make great strides in security clearance and how we do it and the timeliness. It is one of those again rare issues where topics, where I think everyone, it truly is one of common interests, common concern.

Everyone agrees that we can make great strides in security clearance and how we do it and the timeliness. It is one of those again rare issues where topics, where I think everyone, it truly is one of common interests, common concern.

Security of U.S. Technology from Intellectual Property Theft

Dan Sennott: Yeah and I think one of the related issues that there is common interest and universal agreement, and we saw this in the FY22 NDAA I assume it's going to be an issue for years to come is security of U.S. technology. We have seen an incredible amount of intellectual property theft by China and others. And you alluded to, you know, there's a lot of work that we rely on the private industry and the Department of Defense relies on private industry in order to develop the sensitive technology and then deliver the end product. So any thoughts on how that is going to evolve over the course of the next year or so and that security of U.S. technology will manifest itself?

Jason Klitenic: Yeah, I think and again, this is something we were talking about earlier, just because it's so front and center. When you look at something like what's happening in Ukraine, and so that's when you start to think about, you know in the United States we develop all these tremendous and wonderful technologies, and we're really careful as to what happens to that technology, the information that supports that technology, making sure it doesn't leave our borders in any way, right, without it being scrutinized. That's where things like export controls come in. We have a really in the United States, fortunately, a really robust regime, and it should be robust to make sure that the wrong technology doesn't end up in the wrong hands. And you know, early we're talking about things like satellites and critical infrastructure and cyber. And so you can imagine weapon systems for these things that we develop and give us an advantage against our adversary. You know, for me, the simple example, because it's just something that's always resonant, you know, night vision goggles, night vision goggles. Well, you know Dan, you're an army veteran, you understand the benefit of night vision goggles and being able to see in the dark when your enemy cannot. So that's a huge, huge advantage. And so you get things like night vision goggles, technology and all of a sudden you see now all of a sudden your adversary can see every bit as well as you can, all because the technology got loose. So, yeah, I think that I think we will see, particularly as technology continues to be so tied to defense, national security. You know, we're kind of past the base of the homing pigeons and the cavalry, you know, and it's just baked into to everything. This is baked into everything and military communication systems, weapons systems, GPS, I mean, it's the whole thing, so I expect you'll see our government continue to be really energetic in the way it approaches it really energetic in the way it makes sure that it best to can our universities, research institutions, that their development, their technologies are protected, the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, you know, we're here to talk about national security, but it just transcends every industry, chemical industry, pharmaceutical industry. And because these are all things that are, you know, our adversaries would love to get their hands on. And normally, you know, pretty Pollyannish and I would say, to make the world a better place. But I'm not, I'm not so sure that's true.

In the United States we develop all these tremendous and wonderful technologies, and we're really careful as to what happens to that technology, the information that supports that technology, making sure it doesn't leave our borders in any way, right, without it being scrutinized. That's where things like export controls come in.

Closing Thoughts: It's a Dangerous World

Dan Sennott: Well, you know, this has been a great discussion, any last point you'd like to leave us with on the landscape in national security in the coming year.

Jason Klitenic: Yeah. You know, I just think that the, you know, the world, maybe it's because it's cloudy out Dan, but the world continues to be a dangerous place. Right. But I think the good, always right, good always overcomes evil. We know that to be true or you and I would not be sitting in this room right now. And I think that governments' philosophically aligned, culturally aligned, same value systems, you know, will join together. I keep thinking about just because it's so fresh on my mind. You know what Russia has moved into Ukraine, and I, I don't see how that really was in anyone's best interest. But it's a reminder that it is a dangerous world, and that's where I'm heading with this. It's a dangerous world. We haven't even talked about things like terrorism, you know? And that's not going away. But I think that the sector, the services, the women, the men, both in government, the companies that support the warfighter, the intelligence officers, the community at large, those people work. I mean, they do remarkable things right. They do remarkable things all day, every day without the limelight. And and those are the people who you and I have both have the privilege to serve with serve among, and those are the people that I have the most confidence in. And those are the people who ultimately when, wherever we're in a jam, they're the ones who are going to get us out of it. And so the future is bright, feeling really good about things. But the world, the world is just going to remain a dangerous place. That's just the nature of things.

Dan Sennott: Well, I couldn't imagine a better way to end this NDAA series than this conversation and really great to get your insights. And thanks, Jason, for being here.

Jason Klitenic: Thank you.

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