The tides appear to be turning in the US Government. The State Department, the Pentagon, and bipartisan groups in Congress increasingly support providing lethal military aid to Ukraine.
During a visit to Kyiv last month, Republican Congressman Will Hurd sat down with Hromadske to discuss this changing consensus in Washington. “I think the timeline on a decision of the lethal aid question is soon,” he said. He added that US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis have made it clear that Russia is one of the biggest threats to the US.
Hurd, who represents Texas’ 23rd congressional district, has an unusual background for a congressman: he spent nine years working for the Central Intelligence Agency with a focus on counterterrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. During his conversation with Hromadske, he also discussed Russian cyber warfare, countering of Islamic extremism, and US politics.
What is your interest in Ukraine in particular? And also, what could we expect from the Congress. There are talks about providing defense lethal weapons, there are talks about the Russian sanctions, so?
One of the reasons I’m here — this is my second time in Ukraine — because I think what is happening in Eastern Ukraine is terrible. It is not a separatist movement; it is a Russian invasion of a sovereign country. For me, what they’re doing when it comes to electronic warfare, we should be doing more working with Ukraine, the US and Ukraine should be doing more to counter the electronic warfare of the Russians. Now you can expect from Congress. There are only two countries that Congress has passed independent appropriations — that’s funds to another country — Israel and Ukraine. In our appropriations, we’ve allowed up to $50 million USD for lethal aid, and that is something that I know that this administration, the Trump administration, is reviewing the provision of aid. I believe things like Javelins are needed here to help with Ukrainian defense against Russian aggression.
What is the probability that it happened, because the talks are there in the air for a while? Now there is a new movement from the Pentagon.
So I think when the Trump administration came in, they had a number of issues to review across the world. Secretary Mattis, the head of the Department of Defense has been out here understanding these issues, our national security advisor H.R. McMaster has been out here. So I think the timeline on a decision of the lethal aid question is soon. I wish I had a more specific number to be able to give you, but I think when you look at what the Trump administration has done when it comes to foreign policy, a little bit more aggressive foreign policy, and folks like McMaster and Mattis have made it clear that Russia is one of our number one threats.
You mentioned cyber warfare and you used to work for intelligence, for the CIA. And when we look at all these reports, still we are lacking some evidence and there are always the questions that we can’t really prove the Russian involvement. Why is it like that? Why is there a failure to put the evidence? It seems like there are more rumors than evidence.
So when it comes to cyber attacks, the issue of attribution, being able to attribute the attack to someone… Now, being able to attribute that to the one hacker that was sitting at the computer is really hard. But being able to attribute it to the Russian SVR or the Russian GRU is actually not that difficult, because usually the infrastructure that is used in an attack, we’re aware of who created that infrastructure. And so when it looks to being able to name a specific Colonel in the Russian SVR that may be difficult, but knowing that it was the Russians, I think it’s been very clear on all of these major attacks. And that’s something we have to continue to press. One of the problems we have is: What is a digital act of war? That’s not a settled question. If you look to the UN and they say if you manipulate somebody’s electric grid, that’s an act of war. That happened here in Ukraine by the Russians doing a cyber attack on the utility grid, and there was no response from the international community, which to me is unacceptable.
What response from the US on that do you expect, because it’s still not really there, the response on the Russian attacks?
We should be establishing what our responses should be to certain types of behavior. We should be able to say, you should have certain red lines that say if this happens, this is going to be the response. And the response may not be a digital response. Two summers ago, when the Russians were involved in trying to influence the US elections, I had been saying from the very beginning, at a minimum, we should kick the Russian ambassador out of the country. So our response to behavior doesn’t always have to be in that same realm, but we should be thinking through what those issues are. For me, right now, the sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Ukraine, I think that has to stay until Ukraine is whole again.
President Trump recently again was speaking about building the wall with Mexico. You were speaking against that, and you are a Republican. How does this go together? And what is the probability of building this wall?
So I have 1300 kilometers of border the US and Mexico, more border than any member of Congress. And building a border from sea to shining sea is expensive and the least effective way to do border security. We should be thinking about a smart wall where we can use manpower and technology to determine what is or what isn’t coming across our border. It’s a fraction of the cost of building a concrete structure, and it’s more likely to happen. This debate is going to continue through December and we will see how it ends up.
Do you have support in your party? And how divided is your party? You’re a Republican, speaking against some of the policies.
Absolutely. This is the great thing about the United States government is that even though I am of the same party of the President, I agree when I agree and I disagree when I disagree. Nobody has ever said, ‘No, we shouldn’t be using technology to defend our border.’ And I think when you start seeing working prototypes of the type of technology that can be used, I think that’s going to ultimately change a lot of people’s minds.
We were following the tragedy regarding the hurricanes in Texas…and saw many people weren’t treated in the way they could. How would you explain, that the state wasn’t really ready, I mean the country?
I would disagree with the premise. I think that we were very ready. The level of coordination between the national, state, and local officials was pretty significant. The response was the exact opposite of the response for Katrina, for Andrew, which were major hurricanes. And then you have this followed up a week later by Irma. The ability and the planning that has gone in to federal, state, and local officials working together, the loss of life in these two instances was incredibly low, and part of that is because the level of cooperation at all levels of government in the US and the participation of the private sector and the NGO sector as well.
And if some things happen next, because there is the issue of climate, what else should be done? What are the lessons?
I think the lesson here is you have to think through these issues before they actually happen, and that has allowed for the coordination to work. My hometown of San Antonio, we weren’t hit by the storms form hurricane Harvey, but we were involved in coordinating support to the Texas Gulf coast. And nobody’s hair was on fire, everybody knew what their roles and responsibilities were and that’s why this proceeded the way it did.
You worked a lot on counter-terrorism in the Middles East and Pakistan. Now we are speaking about the time when there is a chance to defeat ISIS, but everybody says, especially when we talk to people on the ground that there is no strategy of what to do next because there could be terrorist attacks in other towns, even if the Caliphate is destroyed. With your experience, what should be done to deal with this issue, with the post-ISIS Caliphate?
We’ve defeated a number of terrorist organizations before but the ideologies still exist. I think when we look at terrorism we’ve got to think of it like influenza. We’ve never been able to get rid of influenza but it comes up in certain areas worse than other. We have to make sure there’s political stability in these regions where you see Islamic extremism grow. But we also have to do a better job at countering Islamic extremism as well. ISIS’ ability and their previous ability to push their message and hit hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, we have to be ready to defend against that kind of ideology. That’s something that governments and the private sector have to continue to work together, in order to make sure that that message doesn’t sink into the minds of young men.