You Can’t Hack a Steakhouse
What China doesn't get about how Washington works.
Last week, we learned that the Chinese government had hacked into the computers of some of Washington’s most prominent organizations — law firms, think tanks, news outlets, human rights groups, congressional offices, embassies, and federal agencies — not to steal intellectual property or unearth state secrets, but rather to find out how things get done in the nation’s capital. According to the Washington Post, hackers were "searching for the unseen forces that might explain how the administration approaches an issue … with many Chinese officials presuming that reports by think tanks or news organizations are secretly the work of government officials — much as they would be in Beijing." In other words, it appears that Chinese hackers have a lot of time on their hands and don’t know much about Washington. There are probably instances where a massive database and a fancy algorithm can tell you what you need to know about a place, but D.C. isn’t one of them.
"They’re trying to make connections between prominent people who work at think tanks, prominent donors that they’ve heard of and how the government makes decisions," the Post reported one informed expert as saying. "It’s a sophisticated intelligence-gathering effort at trying to make human-network linkages of people in power, whether they be in Congress or the executive branch." Well, it’s possible to use espionage to learn the inside thinking at one of Washington’s prestigious think tanks. Or you could just attend any of the dozens of daily seminars, issue briefings, and the like in town, raise your hand, and get a direct answer to almost any question. You might even get a free bagel and a cup of coffee.
In Washington, you don’t need a satellite to find out who is raising money for whom. Just look at the co-host list of an invitation to any fundraiser. And if the Chinese really want to get a look at where the power decisions get made, send an undercover eater to see who’s dining with whom at the Four Seasons for breakfast, Tosca for lunch, and the Palm or Oceanaire for dinner. And here’s a secret in Washington the Chinese haven’t hacked into yet: Actual decision-makers will meet with the actual experts and affected parties in order to make as informed a decision as possible. Shhhh. Don’t tell the Chinese.
Right now, it’s a good bet that the Chinese hackers are sifting through millions of emails in which tons of people are saying sensible things, making all sorts of predictions, and maybe even revealing what they think about how and why a particular decision was made. But often the talk isn’t connected to any particular decision — and it isn’t always well-informed. Washington is a cacophonic symphony of gigantic plans, dueling facts, eager ideals, and petty pursuits. To understand it, you have to be able to hear it all at the same time and also understand that the music never stops. Beijing will blow a circuit board trying to make sense of all this.
Maybe the Chinese don’t understand that a literal transcript of what is said in Washington does not tell the real story. It never has. It never will. People are always saying something here. All we do is talk. At any given time you can find someone saying anything you want to hear — on any given side of any issue — from missile defense to agricultural policy. That doesn’t happen in Beijing. And that’s part of the reason it’s so easy to be busy and yet so hard to be productive in D.C. It takes time to know who is relevant to a decision, to understand that person’s history and how he or she approaches an issue. That’s extremely important and not always easy to figure out.
Our decades of experience tell us that it’s the nuance and fragments of information that form the mosaic of Washington politics and power. Reading what a single perceptive reporter overhears when strolling through the Speaker’s Lobby during the last vote in the House of Representatives on a Thursday afternoon can be every bit as useful as what a hundred reporters write after a briefing by Jay Carney at the White House. Often it’s better to have a short sidebar conversation during a chance encounter at a dinner or cocktails with a 20- or 30-something staffer on a key congressional committee than a courtesy meeting with a member of Congress or a cabinet secretary.
Finding the right people is important. But more and more, Washington has become a place that rewards what you know rather than whom you know. Sure, friendships and political affiliations make introductions easier and some meetings friendlier, but really hearing what was said and accomplishing something afterward requires real work and a lot of relevant, persuasively presented information. And though Washington always gets a bad rap, the people who make decisions that matter really do take their independence, transparency, and integrity seriously. While inside deals and doing favors are the commonplace caricature, they don’t represent how Washington really works today.
The Chinese apparently spent gigantic amounts of resources plumbing the depths of computer systems inside the Beltway. Maybe that’s because the mindset in Beijing is much more about top-down governance. But a lot of what moves the federal government originates in state capitals, places like Sacramento and Raleigh. The discerning Washington insider listens closely to what’s said outside the Beltway to find out what’s likely to happen next in D.C.
The Chinese government’s worst mistake was to imagine that it could find out anything worth knowing by reading things that were written down, electronically or otherwise. If anyone were writing down anything useful in the first place, WikiLeaks stopped all that. The fact is, you don’t have to spy — you can just ask. You don’t need to peep through the keyhole to follow the political maneuvering in Washington; just walk in to any good steakhouse and look around.