FBI Director Warns Congress of Evolving Terrorism Threats

September 17, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — The FBI’s director acknowledged Thursday that the risks of terrorism and other attacks against the United States are evolving so fast that his agency has difficulty managing them.

Cyberattackers threaten the next presidential election, COVID-19 vaccine development and U.S. industries’ best research into new products, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional committee during a hearing.

In addition, the ease of organizing attacks through the Internet has empowered individual terrorists to become more deadly, Wray said. They sometimes are called “lone wolves.”

“The greatest threat we face in the Homeland is that posed by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons,” Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee.

The committee called the hearing amid reports that Russian infiltrators are trying to disrupt the Nov. 3 election to help President Donald Trump and Chinese hackers are trying to steal or damage coronavirus vaccine data. The Chinese military is reportedly supporting the cyberthieves.

Wray said there was undeniable evidence of both the Russian and Chinese aggression.

“We are opening a new Chinese counterintelligence investigation about every 10 hours,” Wray said.

Some of the investigations focus on efforts by the Chinese to steal intellectual property developed by U.S. corporations for their products, he said. 

The Russians are trying to influence the election in their favor because they perceive the U.S. government as “an anti-Russian establishment,” he said.

The challenges from foreign and domestic adversaries are complicated by increasingly sophisticated encryption technology that blocks the FBI’s access to their telecommunications, Wray said.

The dilemma can be greatest with radical lone wolves, who can be motivated to action within weeks after formulating their plots while leaving no traceable emails or other communications, he said.

“This really underscores the need for a national cyberdirector,” said Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I.

Christopher Miller, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, described international threats from al Qaeda, ISIS and Iran.

Despite recent successes such as the assassination in January of al Qaeda leader Qasim al-Raymi and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, the U.S. and its allies should not expect the attacks to produce long-term protection for them, Miller said.

“Time and time again, terrorist groups have absorbed similar losses only to reconstitute by exploiting local instability, adapting their tactics and waiting out [counterterrorism] pressure,” Miller said in his testimony.

In addition to the terrorist groups, “Iran’s intensified use of violence and militant allies to expand its influence in the Middle East heightens the overall threat to U.S. and allied interests,” Miller said.

Interspersed between the witnesses’ comments were criticisms by several lawmakers about a no-show by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who had been subpoenaed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

“Instead, we have an empty chair — an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration’s dereliction on so many of these critical homeland security issues,” Thompson said.

Wolf claimed to have a schedule conflict. He was meeting Thursday with Senate Homeland Security Committee staff about his nomination for promotion to secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. 

The only member of the committee who defended Wolf was Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. He implied Democrats subpoenaed the Homeland Security secretary to use him as an example of their complaints about the Trump administration.

He called the subpoena a “political stunt.”

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