Debate Moderators Don’t Know Much About National Security

Candidates are seldom pressed to discuss the biggest foreign-policy challenges a president will actually face.

The MSNBC debate moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow
The MSNBC debate moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Viewers of the Democratic presidential debates learned quite a bit this week—from Joe Biden’s views of school busing to Marianne Williamson’s plan to defeat President Donald Trump with love. But I’d bet the next president will be consumed by an issue not a single person mentioned: cyber threats.

Sure, the moderators asked a few candidates what they thought the biggest foreign-policy threat was. There was a question about Iran, lots of talk about climate change, and some China bashing. But in four hours, with enough presidential candidates to play two basketball games and so many moderators they had to take turns sitting in chairs, the foreign-policy parts of the debate seemed truncated at best.

Worse still was the mismatch between the challenges the next president will actually face and the foreign-policy topics the candidates were asked to discuss. Unfortunately, this is the norm for presidential debates, not the exception.

It doesn’t take a wonk with a Ph.D. to know which foreign-policy challenges should worry us most. It just takes a reader. Every year, the U.S. intelligence community issues a public threat assessment of the top dangers confronting the nation. Intelligence officials talk about their analyses in open congressional hearings, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence publishes an unclassified version of the assessment. You can get it on the internet. This year, cyber topped the threat list. It’s literally the first word, in all caps, under the first heading, which reads “Global Threats.” Intelligence agencies are often criticized for wishy-washy language, as in: We assess with moderate confidence that Country X may have Weapon Z but cannot rule out the possibility that it doesn’t. But their warnings about cyber threats couldn’t possibly be clearer.

Typically, the moderators of presidential debates are prominent TV journalists. But a review of past debates finds that—perhaps not surprisingly—intelligence officials are much, much better at identifying the foreign-policy issues that end up giving presidents long days and sleepless nights than debate moderators are.

In the 2000 presidential debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the big missing issue was terrorism. Not a single question asked about it even though terrorism was a huge concern for U.S. intelligence officials, and they had explicitly said so. The CIA warned in both its 1999 and 2000 unclassified threat assessments that terrorism ranked second on the list of threats to U.S. national security, just behind the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In March of 2000, six months before the first Bush-Gore debate, CIA Director George Tenet came before Congress and publicly warned that “there is not the slightest doubt” that Osama bin Laden and his allies were planning attacks, including against American targets. The FBI declared counterterrorism its No. 1 priority in its 1998 strategic plan, three years before 9/11. But the moderator Jim Lehrer did not ask about the terrorist threat. And so the candidates never had to explain what they might do about it.

The 2004 foreign-policy debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush focused, understandably, on terrorism, homeland security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the candidates also spent time responding to questions about Canadian drug imports and the draft. What was left out? A small country called China, despite its breakneck economic growth, military modernization, and increasing aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. Once again, the CIA was on to the threat, flagging China’s rise in its 2004 annual threat assessment several months before the debates began. How to handle China’s rise became a major focus of President Bush’s second term and now seems to be one of the few foreign-policy areas in which Democrats and Republicans actually agree.

In 2008, 2012, 2016, and again in the Democratic primary debates this week, the big miss has been cybersecurity. Intelligence officials have been sounding the alarm for years, but debate moderators still don’t seem to hear it. The 2008 intelligence threat assessment noted that the threat from cyberattackers — which included states like Russia and China, non-state organizations like criminal syndicates and terrorist groups, and lone Cheeto-eating hackers — was large, serious, and growing fast. Yet in the three 2008 debates, John McCain and Barack Obama were never asked what they would do to protect America’s military from cyberespionage or sabotage; how they would defend America’s critical infrastructure like dams, financial systems, and power grids from cyberattack; or how they would work with the private sector to stop billions of dollars of intellectual-property theft that threatened to erode America’s competitive advantage in the global economy.

In 2012, cybersecurity made a cameo appearance, but only because Barack Obama mentioned it in passing. The moderator Bob Schieffer never asked a question about the issue even though cyber threats that year vaulted to No. 3 on the intelligence threat assessment.

Lester Holt asked one question about cyber threats in 2016. But the three debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent more time on the crisis in Aleppo and “extreme vetting” of Syrian refugees than how to defend the nation from nefarious cyber activities waged by foreign powers and non-state actors. Meanwhile, those debates featured no questions about North Korea, even though the 2016 intelligence threat assessment prominently features a section on “Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation” that leads with the hermit kingdom. The assessment noted: “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs will continue to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests and to the security environment in East Asia in 2016.” The only mention of North Korea in the debates was an offhand comment from Trump: “China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.” When candidate Trump became President Trump, the danger that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program posed to American allies and the U.S. homeland quickly consumed his attention and has become one of the most important and enduring issues of his tenure so far.

Why are presidential-debate moderators so bad at picking the foreign-policy issues presidents will actually confront? Because journalists are trained to think about the present, not the future. Presidential campaigns, in which horse-race coverage dominates, only exacerbate that tendency. In the campaign world, the far future is day one of the next administration. Candidates love to declare exactly what they intend to do as the moving vans pull up to the White House. And debate moderators love to ask them.

Foreign policy often operates on much longer timelines. Containing the Soviet Union took decades. So did democratization in countries from Latin America to Asia. Even a “sudden” crisis is usually years in the making—whether it’s Brexit, the civil war in Syria, or North Korea’s nuclear program. In foreign policy, dangers gather and threats evolve. Today’s ally could be tomorrow’s adversary. That’s why intelligence threat assessments are designed to gaze over the horizon, assessing how current threats are likely to play out over time.

For better or worse, presidential debates are the voting public’s best opportunity to hear how a candidate thinks about the threats facing the country. Thursday night’s Democratic debate set a Nielsen ratings record, with 18.1 million television viewers and another 9 million online. They deserve a better-informed discussion.

Moderators can do better. Rather than dwelling on what’s in today’s headlines, why not read intelligence threat assessments and talk about the things that worry foreign-policy analysts the most?