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Hillary Clinton Comment Suggests Progress in Tech Versus ISIS Talks

Told that recent Silicon Valley-Obama Administration meetings were a dud, Clinton responded: "That's not what I heard."

Andrew Burton / Getty

Late in Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate, NBC News journalist Andrea Mitchell challenged how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described a recent high-level meeting between Silicon Valley and members of the Obama Administration to discuss the threat of domestic terror.

The veteran Washington, D.C., journalist heard that leaders of the intelligence community had been rebuffed by Silicon Valley. “They got flatly turned down. They got nowhere,” Mitchell said to Clinton during the live broadcast.

“That’s not what I heard,” Clinton shot back, with a sly, inside-the-Beltway tone. “Let’s leave it at that.”

Clinton’s campaign staff declined to elaborate. But our own reporting suggests the presidential hopeful was right. The session was respectful and constructive — an open-ended brainstorming session, held in the out-of-the-way locale of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in San Jose, six sources, including two who were in the room, told Re/code.

“I called my dad on the way back home,” said one of the session’s participants, who arrived at the meeting with a great deal of skepticism. “I’m thinking, this is the happy, utopian story of government … where there’s a really hard problem and government comes out and says, ‘Here’s the really hard problem. Assemble a bunch of really smart people and ask for help [to solve it].'”

It wasn’t all Kumbaya before the session. For the last year, FBI Director James Comey has blasted technology companies for making encrypted and un-crackable smartphones widely available, making it harder for law enforcement to track down criminals and terrorists. Politicians, including Clinton, called on online social networks to shut down terrorists’ accounts so they couldn’t be used to plan or provoke violence. Republican front-runner Donald Trump even suggested getting Bill Gates to “close up” the Internet.

Against this backdrop, technology leaders including Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki agreed to meet with top Obama Administration officials to talk about domestic terrorism.

Much of the two-plus-hour-long session focused on social media and its role as a propaganda tool for violent extremists such as the Islamic State, according to sources. Federal officials sought Silicon Valley’s input in figuring out how to make it harder for terrorists to turn the Internet into a powerful recruitment tool to radicalize and spur followers to violence. The discussion was made more urgent by the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead.

A representative of Facebook discussed how it deals with users who have expressed suicidal thoughts on the social network — giving friends the tools to flag a troubling post and responding in a variety of ways that include offering to connect the user with a friend or a trained professional, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. The government discussed whether this approach might be helpful in identifying people who are showing signs of becoming radicalized, said one person in the room, confirming an account in The Guardian.

Encryption was one area where a clear consensus has yet to emerge. Tech leaders asserted that encryption is here to stay, while law enforcement representatives describe it as an obstacle to protecting against the next attack. The discussion was characterized by one person in the room as “agreeing to disagree.”

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook talked about the White House’s lengthy review of encryption, in which it concluded that law enforcement and the intelligence community cannot have back-door access to information without creating an opening for criminals or foreign governments.

But the issue is far from settled. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the government has yet to reach a consensus on the question of unbreakable encryption. And Congress might simply step in with bills that call for technological back doors, because it gives the impression the U.S. government is doing something to combat terrorism.

Clinton said the session was a promising beginning to the conversation about how to deal with the threat of domestic terror attacks “consistent with privacy and security.”

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