This week, FishbowlDC interviewed CNN’s chief national security correspondent and Washingtonian Mom‘s “The Hot Dad,” Jim Sciutto.
Last year was a busy one for Sciutto, with the United States facing new national security threats at home and around the globe. Last year alone, he traveled to Ukraine to cover the crisis in Crimea and the country’s Eastern territories; to China with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and to Tehran as Iran began to implement the U.S. nuclear agreement. Sciutto, who joined CNN in September 2013, was previously ABC News’ senior foreign correspondent based in London.
The New York City native graduated from Yale, where he majored in Chinese history (props to a fellow history major), and is the author of Against Us: The New Face of America’s Enemies in the Muslim World. We asked Jim a wide array of questions, regarding everything from 2014’s emerging national security threats — like Putin, ISIS, and cyberattacks — to new challenges facing the media in its coverage of such issues.
ISIS is making the headlines right now, but in your opinion, who or what represents the greatest threat to U.S. interests right now?
From a terror perspective, U.S. officials consistently tell me AQAP and Khorasan Group remain the groups most capable of carrying out significant terror attacks on Americans. That said, they say lone wolf attacks are the most likely because they’re harder to track, if less ambitious. More broadly, I see China and Russia as the countries most likely to affect U.S. interests. At the core, our countries have different systems, different priorities and different worldviews. Unless our leaders find a way to reconcile those differences, conflict is a real possibility, and we’re seeing that play out today in Ukraine.
What do you think are the greatest challenges to covering national security issues today?
The biggest challenge is some government officials’ increasing reluctance to speak to the media, particularly in the intelligence area. This is partly driven by efforts to identify and prosecute leakers. But I think it’s also partly the result of a general and growing distrust of the media. Now, there are a lot of bad practices out there, but there are also lots of good reporters trying to do their jobs well. The best way to address the distrust is through relationships — and I have good ones with officials — and simply by doing good work. As journalists and media organizations, our reputations are our best currency.
Do you think the news media is adequately covering the myriad national security issues, or do you think there are angles important to the debate that aren’t being reported?
I believe that there are so many outlets covering so many angles that — in some ways — the world is better covered today than ever before. Now, that doesn’t mean that the best reporting gets the most attention or eyeballs. It can be drowned out by the cacophony of information and editorializing and (frankly) bad information out there. So, it takes an informed consumer to filter out the noise. And it takes us in the media helping consumers to do just that — and to understand the context of it all.
Given Putin’s recent address to the Russian people, do you believe sanctions are working? Moreover, how do you see this renewed rivalry playing out in Ukraine and beyond, given Putin’s description of Crimea as a kind of holy land and attempts to designate Eastern Ukraine as a part of “New Russia”?
Sanctions, aided by the fall in the price of oil, have clearly imposed severe costs on Russia. Whether those costs have changed Putin’s calculus isn’t clear yet, though there is some evidence of new outreach by Russia to the West. Still, we can’t underestimate the importance of Russia’s land grab in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Peace in Europe and beyond has relied on respect for borders and the settlement of disputes via negotiation and international institutions rather than military force. In Ukraine, Russia has upended that status quo. I really do believe that if and how the West and Russia settle this dispute — and it is far from settled — has enormous implications for Europe, the U.S. and the world.
With reports that China, Russia and several other nations have the capability of a cyber-attack that could knock out the U.S. power grid, what preemptive measures do you foresee the government taking to prevent such a catastrophe?
The experts tell me the best preemptive measure is defense. And I think U.S. companies and institutions are waking up to that fact. Offensive capability is also key but you have to be careful. No one wants to spark a vicious cycle of cyber-attack and counter-attack. In a way, we’re venturing back into ‘mutually assured destruction’ territory, deterring potential adversaries by letting them know you can hit them back just as hard or worse. But the MAD acronym still fits. The only way out is to agree on a new set of international norms and forums for avoiding cyber warfare, a kind of ‘cyber Geneva Convention.’
How do you think the proliferation of digital content directly from conflict zones — cell phone videos, bystander photography, etc. — has changed the way the media covers, and we digest, global affairs?
On balance, I have no doubt it’s changed coverage for the better. We are able to witness the news, even in the farthest corners of the world, more quickly and more vividly than ever before. To the extent that journalism is about shedding light on wrongs, digital media, CNN.com being a perfect example, has dramatically expanded that light — and dramatically reduced the ability of bad actors to commit wrongs in the dark. The challenge, as with the proliferation of news outlets, is filtering out the noise, disinformation, and — frankly — the fake stuff. There is lots of it.
On a lighter note, what are your favorite and least favorite places you’ve traveled to for work? And why?
That’s a really tough one because I’ve been lucky my job has taken me to so many neat places. But Mongolia is definitely up there. Its landscape, culture and people are, for me, just the definition of adventure. I went for the first time in 1997 to see a full solar eclipse on my birthday. I liked it so much I brought my family back last year to camp out in a yurt and ride horses. I even opened an account on the Mongolian stock market (but that’s another story).
I don’t have a least favorite country because I honestly do love traveling wherever it takes me. But I hated seeing Iraq and Afghanistan at war. I’ve seen visions of hell there that I’ll never forget.