A report published recently has concluded that FBI even after being a top notch crime fighting organizations needs to pull up its socks. It needs faster reforms to transform itself into a threat-based, intelligence-driven organization.
In the 26/11 terror assault on Mumbai, Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley was left free by FBI. The report noted that Headley had previously come to the attention of US law enforcement authorities but FBI officials repeatedly concluded that Headley did not pose a threat at the time.
In December 2007, Headley’s Moroccan wife accepted to US officials at the US embassy in Islamabad that her husband was a terrorist. But the FBI investigation did not start until 2009.
“One of the main lessons from the Headley case is that absent an intelligence effort across the US Intelligence Community to understand the connections among cases and complaints across field offices, relevant intelligence may fall by the wayside,” report said.
Headley had previously worked as a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, following two heroin trafficking arrests.
“The Headley case raises the important question faced by all intelligence agencies – certainly important to the FBI – of how to scan and assess voluminous amounts of collected information strategically and identifying valuable intelligence leads,” the report said.
“Still, more than a decade after 9/11, the FBI must prioritize empowering and equipping its analytic cadre to make these connections with cutting edge technology, to minimize the risk of the FBI missing important intelligence information,” it said.
In the Headley case, it was the effort of an analyst who was able to connect him to an ongoing plot in Denmark. The report noted, “he conducted his activities with all the skills of a trained intelligence operative-able to travel to and from the United States, Pakistan, and India with relative ease and eluding authorities.”
The FBI had no information on Headley’s connections to Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT) until they were provided with clue later in 2009. In Chicago, National Security Letters helped the FBI track David Headley and better understand his involvement in the Copenhagen plot directed by Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda’s chief of external operations and the head of the Pakistani extremist organization, Harakat ul Jihad al Islami.
FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”
The FBI’s new foreign influence task force is sharing information about online trolls with technology companies as part of the bureau’s behind-the-scenes effort to disrupt Russian and other foreign influence operations aimed at U.S. elections, FBI and Justice Department officials say.
FBI Director Christopher Wray set up the task force last November as part of a broader government approach to counter foreign influence operations and to prevent a repeat of Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election in part by orchestrating a massive social media campaign aimed at swaying American public opinion and sowing discord.
“Technology companies have a front-line responsibility to secure their own networks, products and platforms,” Wray said. “But we’re doing our part by providing actionable intelligence to better enable them to address abuse of their platforms by foreign actors.”
He said FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”
The task force works with personnel in all 56 FBI field offices and “brings together the FBI’s expertise across the waterfront — counterintelligence, cyber, criminal and even counterterrorism — to root out and respond to foreign influence operations,” Wray said at a White House briefing.
Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general, said on Monday that the FBI’s unpublicized sharing of information with the social media companies is a “key component” of the Justice Department’s to counter covert foreign influence efforts.
“It is those providers who bear the primary responsibility for securing their own products and platforms,” Hickey said this week at MisinfoCon, an annual conference on misinformation held in Washington, D.C.
“By sharing information with them, especially about who certain users and account holders actually are, we can assist their own, voluntary initiatives to track foreign influence activity and to enforce their own terms of service,” Hickey said.
The comments come as top U.S. security officials from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on down warned about continued attempts by Russia and potentially others to disrupt the November midterm elections.
Coats said on Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies continue “to see a pervasive message campaign” by Russia, while Wray said Moscow “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”
But the officials and social media company executives say the ongoing misinformation campaign does not reach the unprecedented levels seen during the 2016 election.
Hickey, of the Justice Department’s national security division, said that the agency doesn’t often “expose and attribute” ongoing foreign influence operations partly to protect the investigations, methods and sources, and partly “to avoid even the appearance of partiality.”
Social media, technology companies
Social media and technology companies, widely criticized for their role in allowing Russian operatives to use their platforms during the 2016 election, have taken steps over the past year to crack down on misinformation.
In June, Twitter announced new measures to fight abuse and trolls, saying it is focused on “developing machine learning tools that identify and take action on networks of spammy or automated accounts automatically.”
In April, Facebook announced that it had taken down 135 Facebook and Instagram accounts and 138 Facebook pages linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm indicted in February for orchestrating Russia’s social media operations in 2016.
The company did not say whether it had removed the pages and accounts based on information provided by the FBI.
Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum last month that the social network has moved to shield its users against fake information by deploying artificial intelligence tools that detect fake accounts and instituting transparency in advertising requirements.
Tom Burt, vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, speaking at the same event, disclosed that the company had worked with law enforcement earlier this year to foil a Russian attempt to hack the campaigns of three candidates running for office in the midterm elections.
He did not identify the candidates by name but said they “were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint.”
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confirmed late last month that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network, raising questions about the extent to which Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 elections.
Wray stressed that the influence operations are not “an election cycle threat.”