'Our friends are saying the U.S. doesn't have our backs'
Rep. Will Hurd, in his first term representing a western Texas district that includes San Antonio, is unique to Congress in several ways. Most notably, he is the only member to have worked as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency during the war on terrorism.
That service included tours in Afghanistan and India, in addition to time undercover in Pakistan. The experience gave him a national security focus, especially when it comes to American policies in the Middle East that he believes are misguided.
"We've got to change our policies, particularly towards Iran," Hurd said. "Right now, our friends are saying the U.S. doesn't have our backs."
After his time in the CIA, Hurd worked as a senior adviser to cybersecurity firm FusionX. He is chairman of the House Oversight Committee's panel on information technology, and takes a friendlier view on technology and privacy rights than many of his colleagues.
He is also one of just two black Republicans in the House, representing a district that is 71 percent Hispanic. Nonetheless, he said, their top concerns are common ones: national security, with an emphasis on Iran and cybersecurity.
"You read almost every week about some new, high profile attack," Hurd said, "and people are nervous, people are scared. Whether I'm in Fort Stockton in western Texas, or urban San Antonio, I get asked those two questions."
Washington Examiner: You're more strongly in favor of certain privacy protections than other members of Congress who emphasize security issues. How did your time in the CIA form your opinions in a manner that might be different from those of your colleagues?
Hurd: I've seen what bad guys are trying to do, not only in the CIA, but in building a cybersecurity company, and I understand the threat that's out there. I also understand there's a number of ways that you can protect against that threat, but also protect us at the same time. It's a perspective I'm glad I have.
Examiner: You often speak in support of encryption and against making any laws to weaken it. Do you think your colleagues who do support a law fully understand the issue?
Hurd: I think understanding encryption is a very difficult issue. I think that how these tools are used, what is the dark web, what is not, what is an indigenous messaging application of a certain service, understanding the differences between those things, and understanding how they can be used to keep us safe, and how bad guys are using it, is difficult.
I feel a lot of my colleagues are starting to understand it, think about it, and ask questions so that they better understand what's going on. But there is a knowledge gap for sure.
Examiner: Homeland Security Chair Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. Mark Warner have proposed a commission to talk about encryption. Do you support that?
Hurd: The commission is technically about the "going dark" problem. I think the problem is that law enforcement is talking past the private sector, and the private sector is talking past law enforcement. Having a group of people charged with trying to understand and refine the problem and come up with solutions that protect our civil liberties and keep us safe from bad guys, those should be the goals. I think this is a way to ensure the right folks are talking together.
Examiner: There's been disagreement between the Obama administration and Congress regarding the Department of Homeland Security's social media screening policy. The administration contends DHS has been allowed to screen social media accounts of visa applicants, but some media reports and some in Congress dispute that. Do you have an opinion?
Hurd: Anyone can look at social media, whether they were doing [that], I don't think they were. Another question is, how do you handle the volume? There's got to be a technical way to do that, I think the capabilities were there, but that wasn't part of the process.
Examiner: What do you think of the Obama administration's plan to admit 70,000 refugees in the next year?
Hurd: We've got to make sure we're doing absolutely everything to review those candidates. To go through the refugee process, it takes almost 18-24 months to get through. One of the areas we need to be looking at is asylum seekers in the U.S. They don't go through nearly the kind of process and vetting that we do in other parts of the government.
We passed a bill in the House saying that if you can't get information yet, they can't come in the country. It's not law yet, the Senate tried to move it, they're going to make another try at it. But to get it into law, the president is going to need to sign it.
Examiner: Various officials have said that the Islamic State has a "fake document industry" set up to provide passports to buyers. What does that mean for U.S. policy?
Hurd: The problem of ISIS starts in Iraq and Syria. I think the first step is for the president of the United States to call the director of the CIA and say, "Double the amount of human intelligence that's coming out of Iraq and Syria."
That would help our kinetic operations and military, it would help us better understand plans and intentions, who are the document makers, how they are doing it and how do we stop it, to prevent it from moving across boundaries.
The Europeans also need to do a better job of sharing information among themselves. I was on a task force that looked at the flow of foreign fighters, and one of the things we found was that some our European allies are only checking one in every three travel documents for authenticity, and they aren't sharing information about prospective terrorists among themselves. Checking these documents is an important step.
Examiner: If you were the president, how would you go about dealing with Syrian President Bashar Assad, and al Qaeda's al-Nusra Front in that country?
Hurd: The problem in Syria starts with having some sort of political solution to what's happening on the ground. I think a political solution can't include Bashar al-Assad. He's responsible for killing hundreds of thousands and the millions of refugees, because he's gassing his own people.
The problem is, because we've allowed the Russians and the Iranians to operate within Syria basically with impunity, we can't go in because they would see that almost as an act of war. We can't go the way we'd like to go in. It starts with telling Russia that Assad cannot be a viable long-term solution, and to stop bombing the rebels we are supporting and training.
Right now, our friends are saying the U.S. doesn't have our backs. We've got to change our policies, particularly towards Iran. A lot of our Sunni partners think this administration has pivoted to Iran, and that's adding fuel to an already complicated region.
I learned in the CIA to be nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys. Right now, I feel like we're doing the exact opposite.
Examiner: Could toppling Assad add fuel to the fire?
Hurd: Here's the thing. This is going to be a long-term issue, but we can do it with a small footprint. After 9/11 happened, I was one of the early employees in the Counterterrorism Special Operations Division at the CIA. We supported the invasion of Afghanistan.
In December of 2001, when Kandahar fell, the Taliban's effective capital, the U.S. had killed two-thirds of al Qaeda leadership and pushed the Taliban out of the country, and we did that with 400 Americans on the ground, 300 special forces, 100 CIA.
We did it because we were working with groups like the Northern Alliance and Pashtun groups. The framework exists in Syria, but we've got to work with the right people, make sure we have their backs and not let the Russians come in and bomb them.
Examiner: What do you think of Secretary of State John Kerry's admission that the more than $100 billion in Iranian assets the U.S. is unfreezing are going to be used, in part, to fund terrorism?
Hurd: Look, this is what everybody's been saying. The fact that he admits it, at least he knows reality, but the fact they thought that and allowed this plan to go forward, is unacceptable to me.
The Iranians are one of the biggest state sponsors of terrorism, and they did it under sanctions that were pretty strict. Now they're going to be flush with cash, we can only imagine what they're going to be able to do in Syria and Iraq and other places. To me, it's crazy that knowing that, they still went forward and advocated this deal as a triumph.
Examiner: Donald Trump has said that as president, he would seek to ensure Iran continues to abide by the terms of the deal. What do you make of that?
Hurd: The Iranians have already violated the agreement. The United Nations has said they've violated their treaties. The Iranian government, for almost four decades, has lied to and misled the U.N.'s [International Atomic Energy Agency]. They misled the U.N. Security Council.
So to think the Iranian government is going to change its spots, it's an indication of a worldview that is not based on reality.
Examiner: Your district has a composition different from most Republican districts. What do you think matters most to your constituents right now?
Hurd: I've done over 200 meet-and-greets and town halls over the last year, and there are two questions that get repeated at every single event. One is about Iran, which gets asked in a number of different ways, and the second is about cybersecurity.
Everybody has been impacted by an issue like having a credit card stolen, or they know someone whose identity was stolen.
Examiner: What priorities do you think Republican voters should keep in mind in voting for a presidential nominee?
Hurd: I think when you look at issues across the country, the number one issue is national security. I think you need someone who can understand macro trends across the world, someone who will be a great commander in chief, someone who can keep us safe, make sure our enemies fear us and our allies trust us. Those qualities are high on my list in who I'm looking for as the next president.