The modern world’s new battleground is cybersecurity — within that combat theater, people fight mightily against adversaries that pose no less a threat, and perhaps even more of a danger, to our foundational freedoms.
Chris Krebs was a kind of general on that field of battle — the head of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA); or at least he was, until the evening of Nov. 17. It is not an exaggeration to assert that Krebs’ leadership and strategy directly defended our democracy by protecting our polling places and processes and maintaining the integrity of the results.
Krebs did this while under both friendly and foreign fire, some of which emanated straight from the White House. But unlike U.S. service members defending American democracy abroad, Krebs will not be eligible for a medal.
Instead, Krebs was canned. In two late-night tweets Nov. 17, President Donald Trump, with only 10 weeks remaining in his term, accused Krebs of issuing a “highly inaccurate” statement maintaining that President-elect Joe Biden’s projected victory had been free and secure and fair. Trump went on to falsely assert, in a statement that caused Twitter to attach a warning caveat, that there was evidence of “massive improprieties and fraud.”
Trump was likely referring in his tweets to a joint statement Thursday from CISA, the Election Assistance Commission and entities that represent the chief election officer in every state. That statement included the following language: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” The statement went on to call the Nov. 3 election “the most secure in American history.”
Krebs was fired because he had the audacity to publicly challenge Trump’s fantastical fabrications about the election. Soon after word of Krebs’ termination became public, his deputy Matthew Travis resigned from CISA as well, reportedly under White House pressure.
To be clear, Krebs wasn’t fired for making inaccurate statements. He was jettisoned for doing his job. Buried in all the media attention over Trump’s refusal to accept defeat is the story of a resounding American victory in the cyberwar against foreign agents attempting to influence election outcomes.
Krebs, a former policy director at Microsoft, has been the face of our country’s efforts to secure the 2020 presidential election. Krebs not only coordinated cybersecurity with election officials in every state, but he also convinced some of America’s most talented hackers to work for CISA. CISA’s partnership with the U.S. Cyber Command and its head, Gen. Paul Nakasone, created a formidable alliance against meddling counterparts in the Russian and Iranian governments.
The public side of the American strategy, led by Krebs, was masterful. "I think what you're seeing more than anything is 3.5 years of collaboration," Krebs modestly explained, "The 50 states are working together, sharing information," Krebs said. "From where we came in 2016 to where we are, we have a much better game plan."
While the more public part of the plan was impressive, the secret and stealthy side may someday become the plot of a Hollywood spy thriller. Nakasone, who leads both the National Security Agency and the military's U.S. Cyber Command, went further than Krebs, suggesting in a statement that secret operations stopped foreign interference. "I'm confident the actions we've taken against adversaries over the past several weeks and months have ensured they're not going to interfere in our elections," Nakasone said, referring to cyber strikes carried out against the computer infrastructure associated with Russian and Iranian government hackers.
This successful counteroffensive against Russia’s pro-Trump efforts did not sit well with Trump. But Krebs’ Twitter termination may have also been an attempt to slow CISA’s efforts going forward. Trump and his minions, at home and abroad, need the kind of propaganda machine that only the cyber world can provide. Hacking, propaganda and phony accounts are all part of promoting the kind of chaos and distrust that both Trump and our foreign adversaries seem to want right now. CISA, meanwhile, is part of the larger U.S. team that detects and defeats such efforts. Even Trump-allied GOP senators who understand the critical work of CISA have expressed dismay at Krebs' firing.
“I'm proud of the work we did at CISA," Krebs told NBC News on Tuesday night after his firing. "I'm proud of the teammates I had at CISA. We did it right." Krebs and his team did do it right. We should be proud of them. And the president — and those who support him — should be ashamed. Maybe, some day, Krebs will get a medal, but that will have to come from a president who cares far more about our country than he does about himself.