Cybersecurity & Tech Democracy & Elections

In Praise of Chris Krebs

Susan Hennessey, Rohini Kurup, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, November 20, 2020, 3:11 PM

Krebs, the first director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was able to serve in a political position under President Trump without compromising his integrity. He made a significant contribution.

Christopher Krebs addresses reporters on Oct. 22 (U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security,;

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There are not many political appointees to emerge from the Trump administration with reputations enhanced by their service in it. There are any number who went in with strong reputations and damaged them irreparably. There are others—most notably former Defense Secretary James Mattis—who were able to hold down the fort for a time, making serious compromises along the way, before it became impossible to put off the inevitable clash with the president. There are the lucky few who slipped in quietly and managed to slip out just as quietly, often relatively quickly, before anything too terrible happened. And there are any number of officials in areas the president just doesn’t care about who have undoubtedly managed to do good work without anybody noticing. 

But there are not many examples of officials who entered the Trump administration to do high-stakes work on a matter at the center of public concern and who have been able to leave with their heads held high about a job well done. 

One of them is Christopher Krebs, who was fired on the evening of Nov. 16—by tweet, of course—for telling the truth about the cybersecurity of the American election. Krebs leaves office as the first director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), having accomplished something remarkable: a significant improvement in the security of American election infrastructure and coordination on election integrity matters between federal authorities and hundreds of state and local governments. He did this despite serving a president who, let’s be frank, did not want a secure election and actively sought foreign interference in it—and then proceeded to make serial claims of voter fraud that Krebs and his team had the temerity to rebut. 

Before Krebs’s firing launched CISA into the headlines, it’s safe to assume that most Americans had never heard of the agency. Established in November 2018 as an independent arm of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency was tasked with building national capacity to defend against cyberattacks and enhancing U.S. cybersecurity infrastructure. It has played an important role in protecting and improving election security over the past two years, coordinating with state and local governments to secure election infrastructure. This was important work, but it was relatively under-the-radar—a fact that may have helped Krebs avoid Trump’s wrath for as long as he did.

More recently, during the current presidential election, CISA established a “Rumor Control” website to dispel falsehoods swirling around the election process, and Krebs regularly tweeted from his official account to debunk claims of election fraud. 

While the Rumor Control site was not set up to troll the president, it ended up having something of that effect—since Trump was and remains the world’s principal source of election disinformation. The site lists several rumors spread by the president, such as “votes are being cast on behalf of dead people,” and then explains why they are false by linking to CISA’s risk assessment reports. 

And yet, eventually, the president did notice Krebs, and to be noticed by Trump doing good work on election security and telling the truth about it is, well, a death sentence for one’s government service—though it promises a certain martyrdom as well. By this point, Krebs wasn’t bothering to keep his head down any more. On Election Day, Krebs said that there were no major problems with the election process. “It’s just another Tuesday on the internet,” he told reporters in a private briefing. 

In a statement last week, even as the president was lyingly alleging all sorts of election irregularities, CISA added that the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” and “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” 

This statement was apparently the last straw. In his tweet firing Krebs, the president falsely declared that “[t]he recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud - including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, ‘glitches’ in the voting machines which changed votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more.”

And so Krebs rides off into the sunset, having accomplished something few others have managed: reputation-enhancing service in a political position under President Trump that did not compromise his integrity. He made a significant contribution.

To be sure, the work of securing U.S. elections is not finished. The fact that the 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history is more a reflection of the lousy state the country was in previously than it is a declaration of “mission accomplished.” But the gains of the past four years reflect a truly remarkable degree of success, far exceeding what anyone could have reasonably hoped for, considering what Krebs and his team were up against. The fallout from 2016 offered a glimmer of hope for election security—perhaps the enduring bipartisan interest in the subject among the public and on Capitol Hill would spur desperately needed federal funding, regulatory reform and comprehensive federal legislation. Those hopes faded quickly as the issue of election security became toxically politicized by the president and his allies. Yet even under these conditions, CISA was able to translate modest reforms—like the 2016 designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security—into real improvements. Administering a secure presidential election in 2020, or a secure midterm election in 2018, was in no way inevitable.

There’s another success story here—a more institutional and less personal one. It is essential that federal election security be both apolitical and yet also responsive to shifting policy concerns. The structure of CISA was designed to account for this tension and to protect itself from improper political interference. During his tenure, Krebs made a point of taking any political heat himself and shielding the career civil servants in his agency. As one of the few Senate-confirmed officials at the Department of Homeland Security, Krebs was able to assert unusual independence even within the agency. He also appears to have planned for the possibility of being fired as part of an effort to corrupt CISA and its work. While Krebs and his deputy director—both political appointees—were pushed out by the president, the number three official in the agency is a career member of the Senior Executive Service. This means that the new acting director is a nonpolitical actor who cannot be fired without cause, an essential protection in the volatile transition period. 

Remarkably, given the pressures he faced and the issues he worked on, Krebs was also able to preserve his personal credibility. Because of the asymmetric access to intelligence reporting and the president’s well-documented tendency to lie, one essential component of 2020 election security was officials who had broad, bipartisan credibility. Yet Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe is an overtly political actor who misrepresented intelligence, Attorney General William Barr has been similarly uncandid, and other officials have bowed to political pressure to mislead the public and Congress about election-related relative threats too. 

Yet Krebs, along with a handful of others—Christopher Wray at the FBI, Gen. Paul Nakasone at the National Security Agency and John Demers at the Justice Department’s National Security Division—have retained their reputations for telling the truth on foreign threats to the integrity of American elections. This credibility has proved critical in the days following the election, as Trump and others have pushed false claims of fraud. Krebs was able to tell the truth and to be believed even from within the Trump administration. 

The Trump era has seen a cycle of senior officials who seem to tell themselves they need to hold their fire in the face of Trump’s varied misconduct so that they will be there at some more important later date. This typically has ended in excessive compromise and self-deception. Krebs is the rare official who got it right. He didn’t pick fights, but preserved his reputation and credibility. And he was able to survive through Election Day, which was more secure for his efforts. And then, as the president’s lies became more direct and menacing, Krebs responded with the honesty and bluntness that got him fired. 

If he had played his hand differently, the world might look very different right now. If Trump had fired Krebs in the weeks before the election, rather than two weeks after it, the action would be far more alarming and consequential. Because the country is past the election, the danger is far lower. Plenty of people called for Krebs to speak out against Trump at earlier, more symbolic moments. Had he done so, a far less responsible, capable and honest individual might have been at the helm when it really mattered. 

The Trump era has been full of people who imagined their service indispensable to prevent horrible outcomes and became spokespeople for those horrible outcomes. Krebs is a person who held the tiller steady even as the captain went mad. 

It’s a job well done. 

Susan Hennessey was the Executive Editor of Lawfare and General Counsel of the Lawfare Institute. She was a Brookings Fellow in National Security Law. Prior to joining Brookings, Ms. Hennessey was an attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the National Security Agency. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Rohini Kurup is a J.D. candidate at the University of Virginia School of Law. Prior to law school, she worked as an associate editor of Lawfare and a research analyst at the Brookings Institution. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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