Commentary – Recent Congressional Testimony: Worldwide Threats to the Homeland

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

As we gleaned very little useful information from the most recent presidential debate, it is worth taking a look at a more serious forum to understand how the US government perceives today’s most pressing threats. On September 17th, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified about “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland” to the House Committee on Homeland Security. Wray acknowledges the “unique and unprecedented challenges” brought about by COVID-19, as well as important “aggressive and sophisticated threats on many fronts,” but in his opening statement he focuses on five main topics: cyber, China, lawful access, election security, and counterterrorism. This article reviews the FBI Director’s depiction of these topics and provides additional characterizations of them, based on recent reports, legislation, and strategic guidance.

Wray discussed a “diverse array of threats from [US] cyber adversaries,” including state-sponsored cyber intrusions, economic espionage, and the increasing sophistication of cyber-crime. While Wray highlights ongoing work on cyber issues, he can only hope that these efforts will be enough before “we have some truly apocalyptic cyber crisis.” The Trump administration released a National Cyber Strategy in 2018, containing four pillars: protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence. These are the exact same pillars as the National Security Strategy released in 2017, tailored to address the cyber realm. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last month finding that since the National Cyber Strategy’s release, “it is still unclear which executive branch official is ultimately responsible for not only coordinating implementing of the strategy, but also holding federal agencies accountable once activities are implemented” (GAO-20-629). The constant jostling within federal agencies to determine who is ultimately responsible for emerging, high-priority threats is not a new theme. In just one relevant and timely example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General recently found that DHS is failing to coordinate efforts to defend against terrorism aimed at food, agriculture, and veterinary systems. The root cause? The DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) is directed, via the Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act, to carry out the relevant program, but CWMD believes the DHS Secretary has not clearly delineated this authority to CWMD. Whether it is agroterrorism, cybersecurity, biotechnology, unmanned aerial systems, or the host of other fast-emerging threats the US faces, federal agencies need to improve their ability to absorb and act on a newly-assigned mission.

Wray also argues that “the greatest long-term threat to [the US’s] information and intellectual property and…economic vitality is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China.” Understanding and countering this threat has become increasingly important in the wake of a Department of Justice indictment that found the Chinese government has sponsored hackers to target, in part, US labs working on COVID-19 vaccine research. Though the indictment is from July 2020, the two men had been involved in illicit cyber activities for more than a decade, targeting a wide range of industries in multiple countries. They most commonly targeted the high-tech manufacturing, engineering, software, pharmaceutical, and defense industries. Yet even as the US needs to take a firm stance on a host of issues related to China, the need to cooperate on issues such as biosecurity and infectious disease has never been greater. Rather than pulling out of international institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the US should leverage international partnerships to increase transparency on health security issues and bring multilateral pressure to bear where appropriate.

A third issue of concern to Wray is lawful access, which refers to law enforcement’s inability to access data that utilizes end-to-end encryption, even with a warrant or court order. The Department of Justice and FBI have argued for years that this inability to access encrypted communications has led to a “decline in [law enforcement’s] ability to gain access to the content of both domestic and international terrorist communications.” Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) even introduced Senate Bill 4051, the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to access encrypted data. The bill was introduced in June 2020 and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it now sits. Opponents of bills like this argue that the characterization of the issue as a balance between privacy and security is disingenuous, and, in fact, private, encrypted communications are a matter of security. Strong encryption serves many security functions: preventing cyber intrusions into critical services, protecting financial and health information from cyber criminals, and keeping constitutionally protected speech safe from abuses of power. An additional argument against lawful access is practical: if law enforcement is granted a way around encryption, that method will eventually be identified by nefarious cyber actors and exploited.

A fourth issue the Committee expressed great interest in is election security. The lead organization for election security is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA, formerly NPPD) within DHS. Wray characterized the FBI’s role as “working closely with…federal, state, and local partners, as well as the private sector, to share information, bolster security, and identify and disrupt any threats.” In a recent example of this collaboration, the FBI has worked with Facebook and Twitter to remove accounts created as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. In his testimony, Wray confirmed that Russia is primarily trying to influence the 2020 election through “malign foreign influence,” with fewer attempts to target election infrastructure than were seen in 2016. Russia is not the only actor targeting US elections; the National Counterintelligence Security Center Director recently stated that China and Iran were similarly looking to influence the election.

The FBI also recently issued guidance for the public on combating foreign influence in the election. This guidance focuses on applying critical thinking to information you see online before sharing it—by considering where information comes from and who is posting it and why before sharing that information. Additionally, in 2017, the FBI stood up the Foreign Influence Task Force to “counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States.” The Task Force’s mission is to increase communication and coordination within the FBI and with its partners, through investigations and operations, information and intelligence sharing, and relationships with the private sector.

The final topic, and that which consumed most of Wray’s testimony before the Committee, was on counterterrorism. According to Wray, the greatest terrorist threat to the US today comes from “lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” The FBI distinguishes between two groups within this threat space: (1) domestic violent extremists (DVEs), whose ideological goals stem from domestic influences (e.g., racial bias, anti-government sentiment) and (2) homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), who are radicalized in the US but inspired ideologically by foreign terrorist organizations (e.g., the Islamic State). Wray points out that 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. The top threat from DVEs comes from what the FBI calls racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists, or RMVEs. While this moniker can apply to any flavor of racially or ethnically motivated extremism, in practice the threat is largely emanating from white supremacist ideologies. Though Wray provided clear and measured statements during the hearing, politicians’ grandstanding and attempts to score political points on this issue underscored how leaders’ rhetoric can only serve to inflame the issue of domestic violent extremism.

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