David Sanger promotes the press in Vermont visit

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WESTON — New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger didn't have to tell Sunday night's Weston Playhouse audience to turn off cellphones — this tucked-away town, population 564, doesn't receive much if any reception.

But that hasn't stopped the wired world from interrupting the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's annual summer vacation in Vermont.

Sanger knew he'd be speaking at several local stops about his new book, "The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age," a 384-page hardcover just released by Penguin Random House.

But with President Donald Trump taking to Twitter seemingly any and every hour of the day and night, Sanger has found himself in the center of the news even when he's not covering it.

Hours before Sunday's lecture, Sanger tweeted congratulations to Times colleagues Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman, who broke a front-page story on the fact that chief White House lawyer Donald McGahn has cooperated extensively with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump and possible ties to Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

"For those wondering how deeply reported American journalism has reshaped our understanding of the Trump administration, this story is as good a place to start as any," Sanger wrote.

The reporter, who lives and works in Washington, D.C., and has a second home in Weston, began his Playhouse talk by promoting the need for a free press.

"More than any point in my three-and-a-half decades at the Times, I have seen how centrally important heavy-duty investigative nonpartisan journalism is to the American people," he said. "The reason the president so attacks the press is that he's uncomfortable with the idea that the press is the arbiter of facts."

Sanger said Trump similarly dislikes scientists reporting on climate change, economists reporting on tariffs and trade agreements, and the special counsel reporting on election interference.

"It's not just us," the journalist said of his peers. "That's the essence of the Trump approach."

Sanger said many of the president's critics have complained his newspaper favors such terms as "false statements" rather than "lies."

"The word 'lie' loses its impact if you're using it too often," he said to laughter.

But Sanger added that the word also implies a judgment of intent.

"Our job is to remain pretty studiously nonpartisan," he said. "That doesn't mean you don't investigate aggressively. It's quite critical that we keep doing what we're doing — and we do it without a deeply partisan agenda."

Sanger went on to discuss his new book, which tells how Russians have hacked into not only the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee but also networks at the White House, State Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff — "the culmination of a decade of escalating digital sabotage among the world's powers."

Sanger believes such technological threats rival the advent of gunpowder, biological weapons and the atomic bomb. His book offers example after example, from North Korea's seemingly movie-scripted hack of Sony Pictures to, less reported, Russians breaking into Pentagon computers by leaving USB flash drives laden with malware in public areas of an American military base.

"You'd think, after all this, that we would have learned our lesson," the Washington Post wrote in its review of "The Perfect Weapon." "Yet the most disturbing theme of Sanger's book is the degree to which policymakers and the public remain oblivious to the threat."

Sanger said the danger would only get worse.

"Nuclear weapons are really expensive to get going — it takes millions if not billions of dollars in investment," he told a capacity crowd. "Cyber is remarkably cheap. It doesn't take much more than a good group of young programmers, some beer, Red Bull and pizza. You can take some code that exists and formulate it into all kinds of new weapons."

Sanger hopes through reporting, more people will understand the ramifications.

"We're not debating it in part because cyberattacks have gotten wrapped up in the Russia question and the Mueller investigation," he said. "That's not a good place to be. We keep getting surprised. We've got to completely reconceive where our vulnerabilities are. We certainly need to get our heads around this between now and 2020."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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