Monday, November 18, 2013

Guardian: Cyber-attacks eclipsing terrorism as gravest domestic threat – FBI

Counter-terrorism chiefs urge Congress to resist altering controversial surveillance programs except 'at the margins'

Spencer Ackerman in New York, Thursday 14 November 2013 13.06 EST

FBI director James Comey listens to Homeland Security secretary Rand Beers testify before a Senate panel. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

The threat of a major terrorist attack inside the United States is lower today than before 2001, three of the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officials testified on Thursday.

But the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center urged Congress only to change controversial surveillance programs at the “margins".

A devastating, 9/11-style attack is “more likely now to be overseas than it is in the homeland”, Rand Beers, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a Senate panel, “but that is not to say we should drop our guard in any way”.

Testifying for the first time since becoming FBI director in September, James Comey told the Senate homeland security and government affairs committee that cyber-attacks were likely to eclipse terrorism as a domestic danger over the next decade.

“That’s where the bad guys will go,” Comey said. “There are no safe neighborhoods. All of us are neighbors [online].”

Comey said the threat to online networks in the United States, to include business and government data, came from disparate actors with different motivations, from spies to “hacktivists”, which he likened to an “evil layer cake”.

Cyber-security concerns eclipsed those about terrorism in a hearing dedicated to updating the Senate on domestic threats. Beers and Comey urged Congress to pass new cyber-security legislation expanding government access to private-sector data, ostensibly to redress vulnerabilities in business and other non-governmental networks.

Senator Tom Coburn, the top Republican on the panel, sounded skeptical, arguing that private firms ought to have the opportunity to voluntarily comply before being compelled to turn over that data. But Coburn agreed with Beers that any such legislation ought to provide legal protections for companies compelled to disclose proprietary or customer data.

Beers said legislation ought to be “carefully crafted” to avoid “a total blanket liability protection”, which he said would potentially violate civil liberties.

Congress created similar protections for telecommunications and internet providers in 2008 when it expanded the government’s powers to spy on Americans’ foreign communications with non-individualized warrants.

Comey, Beers and NCTC director Matthew Olsen testified that al-Qaida’s ability to attack the US was diminished, but not eliminated. “The risk of a spectacular attack in the homeland is much smaller than it was before 2001,” Comey said.

But all three individuals said the threat of copycat attacks from self-radicalized individuals – so-called “lone wolves” – remained, and they said the agencies had difficulties in preventing them.

Self-radicalized terrorists do not necessarily “hit the trip wires”, Olsen said. Comey urged Americans to report what they considered suspicious activity: “Listen to that feeling in back of your neck.”

Even though the threat of a major domestic terrorist attack has receded, all three government officials warned Congress against rolling back the sweeping bulk surveillance authorities granted to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent one.

Comey, who in 2004 resisted a warrantless surveillance effort that collected Americans’ email data, told the Senate panel he could accept changes around the “margins” of surveillance powers, but “don’t make changes at the expense of core capabilities”.

Beers, who will soon leave the Department of Homeland Security after five years, echoed intelligence officials who have resisted surveillance reforms beyond increased transparency to Congress.

“Make sure you are comfortable with the oversight,” Beers said, “but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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