The Washington Post

What China’s hackers get wrong about Washington

“Start asking security experts which powerful Washington institutions have been penetrated by Chinese cyberspies,” report my colleagues Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima, “and this is the usual answer: almost all of them.”

(Sebastian Widmann / DAPD)

“All of them,” in this case, is exactly as inclusive as it sounds. The targets aren’t just the White House, the Federal Reserve and the major federal agencies. They’re Washington’s law firms, think tanks, news organizations, human rights groups, contractors, congressional offices and embassies. The Chinese are hacking everybody and anybody.

The Chinese have been so aggressive in their hacking that it’s become something of a status symbol in Washington, the institutional equivalent of appearing in the New York Times wedding section. If you’re not being hacked by the Chinese, do you really matter?

A basic fact behind China’s cyberwar -- and Russia’s cyberwar, and Iran’s cyberwar -- is that America spends more on its military than the next 13 top-spending nations combined. We spend about five times what the Chinese do, and we’ve been spending that much for a long time.

So China and others are looking for a weakness, in case they ever feel they need to use it. If they could knock out our financial markets and our energy grid and make it impossible for our air traffic control systems to work, that’s at least something. And it turns out that much of our critical digital infrastructure is run by private companies who bristle at government requests to harden their systems.

Another dimension of the cyberwar is simple economic espionage. China and Russia want to steal the intellectual property of American companies, and much of that property now lies in the cloud, and if it doesn't lie in the cloud, it sits on the hard drive of some middle manager who earnestly clicks on e-mails that tell him his PayPal account has been hacked. Stealing those blueprints and plans and ideas is an easy way to cut the costs of product development.

But neither military nor economic imperatives explain  why China is investing so much time hacking law firms and newspapers in Washington. What the Chinese want from the Brookings Institution is the Master Key. According to The Washington Post:

“Chinese intelligence services [are] eager to understand how Washington works. Hackers often are searching for the unseen forces that might explain how the administration approaches an issue, experts say, with many Chinese officials presuming that reports by think tanks or news organizations are secretly the work of government officials — much as they would be in Beijing.”

The Chinese look at Washington, and they think there must be some document somewhere, some flowchart saved on a computer in the basement of some think tank, that lays it all out. Because in China, there would be. In China, someone would be in charge. There would be a plan somewhere. It would probably last for many years. It would be at least partially followed. But that’s not how it works in Washington.

What the Chinese hackers are looking for is the great myth of Washington, what I call the myth of scheming. You see it all over. If you’ve been watching the series "House of Cards" on Netflix, it’s all about the myth of scheming. Things happen because the Rep. Frank Underwood has planned for them to happen. And when they don't happen, it's because someone has counterplanned against him.

Rep. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his chief of staff (Michael Kelly) plot in "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody’s plan. It doesn’t. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they're doing it with less information than they need.

That's been a key lesson I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.

Democrats fear Grover Norquist's Monday meetings, the message discipline across Fox News and talk radio, and Focus on the Family. Republicans believe the press corps is out to get them and Hollywood has dedicated itself to providing crucial air support. People are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities.

But they’re not. This city may be rife with plans, but no plan survives first contact with Congress. Nothing will disabuse you of the myth of scheming faster than listening to key congressional staffers speculate on the future of a bill. Communication between various political actors -- a crucial ingredient in any serious plan -- is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don't really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they're interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and parses what they just heard with all the intensity of a 13-year-old boy analyzing a hallway conversation with a crush.

And in a way, that’s a strength. Human beings like to think otherwise, but we’re not very good planners, at least not when matched up against reality.

I almost feel bad for the Chinese hackers. Imagine the junior analysts tasked with picking through the terabytes of e-mails from every low-rent think tank in Washington, trying to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, trying to make everything fit a pattern. Imagine all the spurious connections they’re drawing, all the fundraising bluster they’re taking as fact, all the black humor they’re reading as straight description, all the mundane organizational chatter they’re reading.

They’re missing our real strength, the real reason Washington fails day-to-day but has worked over years: It’s because we don’t stick too rigidly to plans or rely on some grand design. That way, when it all falls apart, as it always does and always will, we’re okay.



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Sarah Kliff · February 25, 2013

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