FBI Official Outlines Threats to US National Security

By: Antonia Ward, Reporter

Photo Credit: CNN

Mr. Steinbach focused his discussion on the paradigm shift that occurred within the organization post-9/11, a shift that changed the overarching activities of the FBI from reactive to preventative and proactive. Likening this to his own experience in countering violent bank robberies at the time of 9/11, he discussed the idea of actively preventing terrorist attacks as requested by then President George W. Bush to simply reacting to them. He stressed the incredible agility and technical knowledge required by FBI employees in responding to terrorism and intelligence threats. He did acknowledge, however, that there were two major challenges still to be overcome.

Information sharing across borders with different countries, especially those in Europe, was one such issue that will no doubt continue to be affected by the recent Brexit decision. Mr. Steinbach explained how different laws, cultures, and privacy expectations create major problems when attempting to share and exploit information, especially regarding ISIS foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. If such individuals are able to enter Europe, their chances of subsequently entering the United States rise drastically, creating a major challenge that the counterterrorism branch is still addressing and is exacerbated by the lack of cohesion between European countries themselves. Mr. Steinbach also highlighted collaboration with the private sector, heightened by the ever-increasing scope and speed of the cyber threat as another key challenge for the FBI.

In focusing on the terrorism and counterintelligence landscape, Mr. Steinbach’s talk mentioned five key issues: nation states, terrorism, criminals, hacktivists, and insiders. He stressed, without question, that nation states were “the biggest strategic threat to the US.” The main problem, it seems, is that these traditional state actors are engaging in asymmetric activities. Drawing parallels with the popular TV show “The Americans,” he emphasized the clever use of non-state assets, highlighting the 2010 scandal and discovery of the Russian spy ring in New York. Such challenges are intricate and tricky for counterintelligence operations, as they typically involve a number of different individuals, from businessmen and women to tourists and students on visas. Mr. Steinbach also commented on the holistic approach many other states take in challenging their adversaries in the nation state setting, which leads to increasingly asymmetric activities. Furthermore, with national states embracing comprehensive counterintelligence practices, ranging from human to technical and cyber means, the job of the FBI only becomes more complex.

Regarding terrorism, Mr. Steinbach mentioned two trends that are shaping the landscape: anonymity provided by the Internet, and social media driving radicalization. Steinbach talked at length of the problem of the smartphone which, he stated, provided “24/7 radicalization” as opposed to a static computer device that could not be carried constantly in one’s back pocket. He also expressed concern at the fast-evolving pace of the Internet, particularly social media encryption on apps such as WhatsApp that make the job of the FBI harder. Steinbach emphatically differentiated between domestic and international terrorism, an interesting and often misunderstood point. For the FBI, domestic terrorism revolves around groups Steinbach labeled as “distasteful,” like the Black Panthers and the KKK, which cross into criminal activity. These groups are in juxtaposition to domestic nationals who enter international groups including ISIS, al-Qa’ida and, The Shining Path.

The issue of technology also seems to be one of concern in the criminal sphere, especially online overseas theft, with Steinbach stressing that in the next three years $2.1 trillion will be lost from cyber theft and $400 billion a year is currently lost to the theft of trade secrets.

Steinbach’s discussion similarly emphazised the transformation of hacktivists from online “graffiti artists” to actors who possess the technical sophistication of many nation states, particularly regarding Distributed Denial of Service attacks.

The last threat vector—insider threats—was hardly surprising given that the United States is still reeling from the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning revelations. Steinbach estimated 50 percent of business loss came exclusively from insider threats and stealing of information.

Questions from the audience revolved around outreach programs and assessing the domestic extremist threat, however cybersecurity seemed to dominate the discussion throughout the evening. It was a theme that penetrated every issue on the threat landscape Mr. Steinbach discussed, making it clear that cyberspace remains a key focus for the FBI.

Ending his discussion, Steinbach, who retires at the end of February, emphasized the key threats emanating from Russia and China, and proposed two key pieces of advice going forward: better information sharing and engaged leadership. Overall, the discussion provided the audience with a nuanced assessment of the threats the FBI faces in both counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and the main trends that are likely to pervade into the future.

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