ON THE EDGE OF CYBER ATTACK CRISIS
From Cold War to Cyber War, An Interview with Former CIA Executive Mark Kelton
A witness who has seen the backside of world history 'Geronimo EKIA.’ That was the message that US President Barack Obama was waiting to hear. On May 2, 2011, in the White House Situation Room, Obama and his advisers had been watching a live video from Pakistan. The US Navy SEALS were in a top secret operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan and the live video kept the White House posted on every move. After 40 min since the operation launched, the White House heard silence, then the code “Geronimo EKIA”, almost a decade after 9/11, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed.The one who broadcasted the operation live from US Embassy in Islamabad to the White House was Mark Kelton, the CIA's station chief in Pakistan.
In May 2018, after 7 years from the historical top secret operation in Pakistan, the former CIA Deputy Director Mark Kelton were in Tokyo, right in front of me. He looked back on those days and said “it was very difficult, at the same time, it was rewarding operation.” “I was very honored to be involved in that operation at that time of history, as we could kill it and punished him appropriately”. The interesting thing about Kelton was that he never used proper nouns on the interview, he never called Osama bin Laden by his name. After the Abbottabad operation, Kelton was suffered from undiagnosable severe pain and forced to return to the US only after seven months on board. US media broadly reported that he had been poisoned by the Pakistan ISI due to relationship deterioration between the US and Pakistan. Kelton retired from the Agency two years ago and he currently takes several executive posts in cyber security industry.
Could be 6’2 tall, Kelton spoke calm with his head slightly down but sometimes laughed out loud. As he did not called bin Laden by his name, he seems he was trained to speak carefully using appropriate words. We could see from his career history that it was exactly the history of US counterintelligence history. He is a living witness who has seen the world history from the backside, counterintelligence point of view. Now, wonder why Kelton turned to be in cyber security industry from counterintelligence and counterespionage world? To pursue his objectives, we need to go deep into his 34 years long career at the CIA.
“It was 1981 when I joined the CIA. It was during the Cold War time and I was assigned to the counterintelligence against the Soviet Union. I have visited Eastern Europe, Africa, etc”. He started this interview by telling about his career. It was the active era of counterintelligence and counterespionage between capitalism vs communism. “The Soviet Union had rich experience in counterintelligence and counterespionage against western countries and they owned the most professional and experienced agents in the world, besides US. It was very tough to deal with”, Kelton said. During his assignment, the Revolutions of 1989 resulted in the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond. At the same period of time, Vladimir Putin served in East Germany as the KGB agent and in 1990, after the collapse of the Communist East German government, Putin retired from the KGB and decided to pursue political career. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kelton was appointed to the Balkans in 1991 during the Yugoslav Wars. Few years later, he returned to the US and obtained an M.A. degree in the U.S. Naval War College, and another MA from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He laughed saying “it was fun, as I used different part of brain away from agency”. As served in the CIA, which part of “brain” he used? First of all, we need to understand how they operate. Intelligence officer like Kelton works with agents, “to gather various information by hiring, enabling, and managing agents”. CIA officers’ day-to-day work is mostly occupied with reporting and documentation. “Working in intelligence is not a dream job”, Kelton said. Once you get in, the world does not look the same and your ordinal life is not guaranteed. “It was a lot of stress”, he continued, “you cannot take work home. You cannot speak loud and talk freely every time, you never know who watches you, can be enemies. It is very honor to serve for your country by it is a lot of responsibilities you need to take”.
The inauguration of President Putin and battle-place moved to cyber space
Right after Kelton was assigned to Russia as a chief, the inauguration of President Putin occurred. Kelton felt the similar styles from Putin who served in the intelligence agency and spent his career in the same region as Kelton during the Cold War, from every way Putin said and acted. After his assignment in Russia, Kelton took up Europe Head position with a responsibility managing technology. This is how Kelton began to be involved in cyber security world. “I am not a computer science specialist but I was responsible managing computers and espionage tools, whether they functioned appropriately, were safe to use, and protected from leakage and tapping, of course involved in cyber espionage as well”. Kelton was promoted to Pakistan Director after the Europe role and commanded the Abbottabad operation. After he was back in the US, he concluded his career in 2016 as Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.
As a witness of through turbulent history, who spent most of his career in the CIA and played a core role in technology and cyber espionage, how does Kelton see today’s cyber world? “People might think the history of the internet started very recently but that is not true. Cyber world is not the new world”, he insisted. “We can access to data and collect them very quickly and you can get massive amount of data thru the internet. Tool is different from the pre-internet era but the principle remains the same. We try to collect information and protect information. Espionage
activities have always been with technology and the agency had made good use of computers and cryptogram, new technologies”. In fact, the CIA continues to develop new technologies to execute and fulfill their works. For example, according to the leaked document in March 2017, the CIA developed tools breaking into iPhones.
Increasing Threat from China and Russia Kelton named China and Russia as a cyber threat. It has been symbolically expressed by recent Huawei’s scandal. In 2012, the US congress flagged Huawei as security threats that equipment from Huawei could be used for spying in the US. In February 2018, the directors of the CIA, FBI, NSA and several other intelligence agencies express their distrust of Huawei in the Senate Intelligence Committee. They said in the hearing that Huawei “provides the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information. And it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage”. Why did the US government blame Chinese company Huawei? Kelton explained, “countries like China and Russia provides government intelligence to their national companies so that they can succeed in global economy”. Kelton continued, “we have to be cautious in the possible case, if Huawei makes a successful bid in public infrastructure in your country and your country implements Huawei and provides public services, you must anticipate who controls your infrastructure and who can access to your private information thru that infrastructure”. In 2017, the US president signed to ban the use of Kaspersky Lab antivirus software within the US government due to high risk to US national security.
In the very near future of 5G world, it will deliver speeds far beyond anything that has come before. It requires new infrastructure and equipment and China urges to win and control the 5G infrastructure. “We cannot just sit down and watch their move. I have been involved in the discussion how we protect our network, information, communication, and privacy in the coming 5G world”. “We have to stop them” said Kelton. Does he miss field work in the CIA? “Of course I do, for better or worse, I may remain active throughout my life”.