Tag Archives: FBI

FBI director calls tech giants’ stance on strong encryption ‘depressing’


FBI Director James Comey told an audience he thinks the government should have a back door to gain access to secure devices. (Holly LaFon/MEDILL NSJI)


WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday criticized tech giants including Apple and Google for opposing so-called “back doors” in security software for government agencies to access encrypted phones, computers, and other devices.

The tech companies along with academic experts and advocacy groups wrote a letter to President Obama on Tuesday opposing statements by administration officials who have come out strongly against more robust encryption on consumer products. In fact, some officials have advocated that tech companies stop selling encrypted products altogether unless the government has a way to decrypt the data.

The letter makes the case that weakening products’ security would only make them more vulnerable to “innumerable criminal and national security threats.”

But Mr. Comey, addressing the Cybersecurity Law Institute at Georgetown University, said the FBI faces increasing difficulty in unlocking encrypted devices – and those who signed the letter were either not being fair-minded or were failing to see the societal costs to universal strong encryption.

“Either one of those things is depressing to me,” he said.

Citizens’ privacy interests and public safety are coming closer to “a full-on collision,” he said. Acknowledging “tremendous societal benefits” to encryption, Comey said the inability of law enforcement officials to gain access to encrypted devices when they have probable cause and strong oversight threatens public safety.

“As all of our lives become digital, the logic of encryption is all of our lives will be covered by strong encryption,” he said. “Therefore all of our lives … including the lives of criminals and terrorists and spies will be in a place that is utterly unavailable to court-ordered process. And that to a democracy should be utterly concerning.”

However, tech companies and encryption advocates argue in the letter that creating back doors would also pose an economic threat to the companies, especially in light of the Edward Snowden leaks.

“US companies are already struggling to maintain international trust in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Introducing mandatory vulnerabilities into American products would further push many customers – be they domestic or international, individual or institutional – to turn away from those compromised products and services,” the letter said.

What’s more, critics – including many lawmakers – who oppose efforts to weaken encryption say that creating a system in which government agencies have access to secure data would also create vulnerabilities exploitable by criminal hackers and other governments.

Comey acknowledged the business pressures and competitive issues involved, but urged tech companies to find a safe way to cooperate with government needs to access information.

“Smart people, reasonable people will disagree mightily, technical people will say it’s too hard,” he said. “My reaction to that is, ‘Really? Too hard? Too hard for the people that we have in this country to figure something out?’ I’m not that pessimistic.”

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Whistleblowing in the FBI: problems lie deeper than confusing legal boundaries

WASHINGTON — Former FBI agent Michael German thought the agency had the information it needed to see the 9/11 terrorist attacks coming. In the aftermath of the attack, German reported a cover-up of a failed counterterrorism investigation that infringed upon people’s civil liberties in unprecedented ways.

Yet when German raised these concerns, the Department of Justice inspector general failed to investigate, he said. He also said the IG Office failed to protect him from official retaliation within the FBI, including possible surveillance, resulting in the 16-year veteran resigning in 2004.

“I tried to challenge the system from within, but they don’t like that,” German said in an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union. “They made it very uncomfortable so I finally realized it was time to work on the outside.”

German’s case became one of the most visible examples of the challenges facing whistleblowers in the intelligence community. In addition to a legal framework that makes it incredibly difficult for whistleblowers to come forward, a more subtle influence lurks beneath the surface: a culture that views whistleblowers as traitors, not reformers.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office released last Thursday found that, despite recent efforts to extend whistleblower protections to FBI employees, they remain exposed to retaliation for reporting wrongdoing.

Under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, federal employees are generally protected from retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, entitling them to pursue legal recourse should they face retribution. However, FBI employees were excluded from these protections, and in 1998 the Department of Justice established separate guidelines that were meant to protect whistleblowers within the agency.

Yet the guidelines permitting FBI agents to disclose wrongdoing are unclear, according to the GAO report. For example, FBI employees must report wrongdoing only to a handful of designated officials. As a result, more than half of the 62 cases reviewed by the GAO were dismissed without review.

According Steven L. Katz, formerly counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and an expert on federal whistleblowing law, those in the FBI face much deeper issues than simply unclear legal guidelines. Instead, intelligence agents are a part of a culture that targets whistleblowers and punishes their behavior.

“When someone raises concerns, do you throw them overboard, or do you sit down with them and thank them?” he said. “The FBI throws them overboard.”

Katz argued that the GAO report fails to reflect the human aspect of the FBI in making it difficult for whistleblowers to come forward, focusing instead solely on the regulations that govern whistleblowing activities.

“The agencies are full of people, not just processes,” Katz said. “It’s the people who screw up because the laws look perfect on the books.”

According to Katz, other government agencies have faced similar problems with whistleblower culture. Last year, a series of attempted break-ins at the White House prompted Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to resign. A report released after the incident found that the Secret Service was “too insular,” ignoring the warning signs made plain by the attacks.

“In the agencies where you have a law enforcement culture, where power is might, people tend to transfer that culture of enforcement that’s outward facing inwards,” he said.

In 2012, President Barack Obama released Presidential Policy Directive 19, which established whistleblowing protection for those in the intelligence community. Elements of the directive were codified under the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY2014, but the guidelines of the directive aren’t permanent and can be easily reversed by a different president.

The result adds up to a climate that, while improving in some key ways, remains hostile to the act of whistleblowing. In an organization that possesses some of the nation’s most important classified information, the threat to the success of the FBI is intimately tied to the future of the country itself, as the 9/11 attacks demonstrated.

“You want the FBI to be effective, and so to help them be more effective you’d expect them to have better protection against retaliation from reporting problems,” said David Maurer, director for GAO’s homeland security and justice department. “It’s ironic that they have less whistleblower protection than the rest of the government.”

Retaliation against whistleblowers remains problem in FBI

WASHINGTON—Former and current FBI agents Wednesday said the agency needs a “culture shift” to stop retaliation against whistleblowers, especially an improved reporting process to better protect those reporting alleged abuses.

Their recommendations came on the heels of a Washington Times report that an agent received an email last August explaining he or she could face retaliation for revealing a potential abuse, or blowing the whistle, to a supervisor.

Whistleblowers reveal corrupt practices, such as waste or abuse of authority, typically to a superior within their government agencies or organizations.

Whistleblower protection laws, which were most recently updated in 2012, shield government employees from retaliation if they report corruption to a superior. The 35,000 people the FBI employs do not receive those same protections, however, according to critics (They are protected under the law, right, just not in practice?).

“This ought to be cause for anybody to scratch their head,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. During the hearing, professionals familiar with the FBI’s reporting system provided testimony about its flaws.

Stephen Kohn of the National Whistleblowers Center outlined numerous cases in which whistleblowers had to leave their positions at the FBI after making whistleblower retaliation complaints. Their cases took too long to resolve within the Department of Justice or their work environment became too hostile, Kohn said.

“The Department of Justice’s program for protecting FBI whistleblowers is broken,” said Kohn, a lawyer who represents agents in these cases.

Former FBI special agent Michael German, who was a whistleblower, said the FBI’s policy is not conducive to whistleblowing. Currently, all employees are expected to report corruption to a Special Agent In Charge.

“I can’t overstate how difficult it would be for an agent to break protocol and report directly to an SAC,” German said, adding that it would be uncommon for an agent to approach such a high-ranking official. Reporting to a more direct supervisor would be more logical, he said.

The FBI does not protect reports made to direct supervisors against retaliation, Kohn said.

The Department of Justice has thrown out many FBI retaliation investigation cases on the basis that the agent did not report to the designated superior.

The Government Accountability Office’s David Mauer said its January report on FBI retaliation complaints found that in one year, the DOJ threw out a majority of retaliation cases for this reason.

All FBI employees are expected to report to one of nine agency officials, including the director of the FBI and the attorney general, Mauer said.

Another concern with FBI retaliation cases is the length of time the Department of Justice spends resolving them. Some of these cases last eight to 12 years, effectively ruining promising agents’ careers, Kohn said.

Mauer, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice, said the agency made similar findings. Timelines for these cases were very inconsistent, he said.

“DOJ took the longest for those cases where it found the FBI had retaliated against the whistleblower,” said Mauer.

The GAO report recommended a policy change that would ensure retaliation complaints were resolved within a specific, consistent timeframe.

Kohn, German and several lawmakers at the hearing agreed that the agency’s work does not automatically necessitate its own class of whistleblower protection policies.

“The details of the national security issues almost never have to go in front of a court,” Kohn said. “If they did, the federal courts have very good procedures for guarding secrets.”

Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, described the need for a “culture shift” within the FBI. The agency’s associate deputy director, Kevin Perkins, said he shares this vision.

“Whistleblowers are a critical element of a functional democracy,” Perkins said. “We share the desire for the process to be improved and expedited.”

The FBI and counterterrorism

FBI directors decided years ago that they would take a different approach in the fight against terrorists; rather than anticipating a court case during their investigation of suspects, as they had done for decades, the FBI would proceed with the understanding that these cases may never go to court, because of their sensitive nature, but nevertheless their agents would act as though they might someday. Partly as a result, FBI agents have had an outstanding record of clean interrogations and have rarely been accused of mistreating suspects who are in their custody.

Nevertheless, the FBI’s counterterrorism world is complicated, as a recent ACLU case demonstrates, and it may be undergoing some changes. The ACLU “is seeking records from more than two dozen FBI offices around the nation about the collection and use of race and ethnicity data in local communities,” according to CNN.

ACLU attorneys are concerned about the possibility of racial profiling, particularly since an FBI guidebook describes maps of “’so-called ‘ethnic-oriented’ businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.” The lawsuit raises questions – first, whether or not the FBI agents are continuing to maintain their rigorous legal standards during investigation and whether they would be able to use the evidence in a courtroom. And, second, about the FBI’s ongoing campaign to solicit information from local Arab-American communities.

Nobody has been more concerned about the rise in homegrown terrorism than Arab-American business leaders in cities like Detroit, with its large Arab-American population, and, as they have explained to me, would gladly help the FBI ferret out suspects within their midst. However, the business leaders would like to be treated as friends and allies during the search for terrorists – rather than as mere interpreters or, even worse, as suspects themselves.

The relationship between Arab-American leaders and FBI agents has been tense since 9/11, and the ACLU case is likely to make things worse. It is now up to the FBI to tamp down the controversy over their investigative techniques and to maintain support among Arab-American leaders and others who may be able to help identify people who will someday become radicalized. The FBI has enjoyed high standing in the counterterrorism world, and now they are being put to a test.

How far will the U.S. go to fuel the war in Afghanistan?

WASHINGTON – Some of the characters are new, but the scene in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is one of déjà vu. This past April’s riots were the second time in five years that the United States was left in the uncomfortable position of watching as a president of the small Central Asian country was ousted amidst allegations that U.S. fuel contracts supplying a major logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan were funneling millions of dollars to Kyrgyzstan’s presidential family.

Even before the most recent overthrow, the House National Security Subcommittee was looking into contracts in the region, which is renowned for its corruption. Now, the subcommittee has undertaken a full-fledged investigation, focused on the contracts at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, while the Department of Defense moves to open up bidding on the suspect contracts.

“Let’s be honest: At many times throughout our history, the United States has closely dealt with unsavory regimes in order to achieve more pressing policy or strategic objectives,” Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said in his opening remarks at the investigation’s first hearing in April. “The United States will have to work hard to restore our credibility in (the Kyrgyz’­) eyes, beginning with transparency regarding U.S. fuel contracts at Manas.”

The F.B.I. collaborated with the Kyrgyz government on an investigation in 2005, when accusations that the son of then-president Askar Akayev was improperly benefiting from U.S. fuel contracts. That FBI report was never made public, but an independent investigator for the Kyrgyz told The New York Timesthat he suspected the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, simply took over the same business model, installing his son, Maksim Bakiyev, as the beneficiary.

Now, the anti-corruption interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva is opening its own investigation, focused on six subcontractors allegedly controlled by Maksim Bakiyev.

“Whatever the Pentagon’s policy of buying warlords in Afghanistan, the state of Kyrgyzstan demands more respect,” Edil Baisalov, chief of staff for the interim lead, told ­The Times in April. “The government of Kyrgyzstan will not be bought and sold. We are above that.”

The closely linked companies at the center of the allegations are Red Star and Mina Corp., which provide enormous amounts of Russian jet fuel to power U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Together, the companies have received more than $1 billion for fuel sales over the past six years.

The fact that companies’ director of operations, Charles “Chuck” Squires, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former defense attaché to the U.S. embassy in Bishkek raises some eyebrows. Except in the case where a presidential directive makes an exemption for national security concerns, military contracts are subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the law that outlaws bribery in U.S. business transactions overseas.

“If this were a commercial setting, an investigator would probably start by studying whether there really is an arm’s-length relationship between Red Star and Pentagon contractors,” Scott Horton, an expert on accountability in military contracts, said in his written testimony to the House committee. “If not, an investigator might quickly conclude that it is a shell interposed to provide a buffer between the procurement officers and companies controlled by the president’s family.”

The hearing witnesses consistently hit the refrain that the U.S. embassy delegation was unnecessarily close with the Bakiyev regime. The essential question is whether this was a State Department blunder, or if it was part of a larger policy of currying favor with the regime to ensure the future of the Manas air base.

In February 2009, in what was widely seen as a quid pro quo, Bakiyev announced plans to close the Manas base on the same day that Russian President Putin announced $2.15 billion in aid to the country. Later, Bakiyev flipped when the U.S. agreed to pay $17 million more in annual rent for the base.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense moved to open up bidding on the contracts to the Manas base. Meanwhile, the United States and Kyrgyzstan have been in intense negotiations over taxes on fuel being imported to the base.

In impoverished Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. air base and its connected contracts make an easy whipping boy for disgruntled citizens whose country was ranked 128 out of 149 for corruption by World Audit in 2009.

But in business environments like that of Kyrgyzstan, it may well be that only countries connected to political elite will be in a position to meet U.S. needs.

“Allegations like these are an inevitable by-product of working in this part of the world, where corruption is just the way business is done,” said Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the region for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question is, were these contracts illegal, or were they simply unethical? There are only a few places you can get oil from – you’ve got to have a refinery – and it’s predictable that the bigger companies, the ones with elite connections, are going to be the ones that can get the best deal for the U.S. government.”

Republican Peter King calls for Times Square news leak investigation

Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY), a senior Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter to the Department of Justice Thursday requesting an investigation into news leaks related to the attempted bombing in Times Square and subsequent arrest of a suspect, Faisal Shahzad.

According to a copy of the letter sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, King stated that from “the abundance of meticulous details reported by the media, it seems evident that classified information was repeatedly leaked to the media as the investigation unfolded.” He listed a series of examples, including a breaking news report from the Washington Post saying the attempted attack had international terrorism ties, a Fox News Channel report about an investigation in the suspect’s hometown in Bridgeport, Conn., and a news item that the suspect was a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani descent.

King claimed these leaks present “a dangerous pattern that could undermine the entire investigation, risk lives of law enforcement officers, and jeopardize the ability to achieve convictions.” He also stated that the “systemic leaking” is “deeply troubling and criminally negligent,” and he listed several reasons why investigations are routinely kept confidential, including protecting the  safety of witnesses, and not disclosing progress to targets of investigation.

While King referred to leaks, he did not mention the amount of speculation that surrounds this and other incidents as investigators search for suspects and motives and journalists aim to uncover  developments.

On Sunday morning, shortly after the bomb was discovered,  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there was no evidence that the bomb attempt was anything other than a “one-off” event.  Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, also suggested “the odds are quite high that this was a lone wolf.”

King himself speculated that the car bomb was a possible retaliation by Islamic terrorists because it was found near the headquarters of Viacom, the company that owns the Comedy Central network that recently censored an episode of the cartoon show “Show Park” depicting the Prophet Muhammad.  Displaying an image of Muhammad is considered offensive by many Muslims.  King said the “South Park” theory was “one possibility out of a hundred.”

King called on Holder and the Justice Department to “initiate an investigation to ensure this never occurs again.”  Even as King sent that letter,  Pakistani security officials and news reports claim that the suspect may be linked to the Pakistani Taliban and a Kashmiri Islamist group.

Full text of King’s letter:

May 6, 2010
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 5111
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I am writing today to request an investigation into the leaking of classified and sensitive information pertaining to the investigation of Islamic jihadist Faisal Shahzad.  Due to the abundance of meticulous details reported by the media, it seems evident that classified information was repeatedly leaked to the media as the investigation unfolded.  Disturbingly, Shahzad nearly escaped to Dubai – perhaps as a result of the leaks – which only served to endanger the lives of law enforcement officers and civilians.

According to a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on May 4, 2010, on our about Monday, May 3, 2010, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Connecticut-based (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) met with the individual who sold Shahzad the Nissan Pathfinder SUV used as a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) during the attack in Times Square.  During this meeting, the individual was shown a sketch and six photos and positively identified Shahzad as the buyer of the Pathfinder.

Throughout the afternoon of May 3rd leaks from the Administration provided details of the ongoing investigation, which, after the arrest, turned out to be accurate.  For instance, at 2:26 p.m., a breaking news alert from the Washington Post cited Obama Administration officials characterizing the investigation as a terrorist plot with international links.  At 6:01 p.m, Fox News Channel reported that law enforcement authorities were investigating aspects of the case in Bridgeport, CT, the residence of Shahzad.  Later that evening, at 7:01 p.m., Fox News Channel reported that law enforcement authorities had identified a person of interest and that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan. Also, television stations were alerted and in the early evening sent their trucks to the neighborhood where Shahzad lived, apparently to cover his arrest.

Later that evening, at 11:45 p.m., Customs and Border Protection (CBP) arrested Shahzad at John F. Kennedy International Airport onboard Emirates Airlines Fight 202 en route to Dubai attempting to evade capture.  Shortly thereafter, at a press conference in the early morning of Tuesday, May 4th, you revealed that Shahzad was indeed a naturalized American citizen of Pakistani descent, confirming the Fox News Channel report five hours earlier.

One of many leaks, this illustrates a dangerous pattern that could undermine the entire investigation, risk lives of law enforcement officers, and jeopardize the ability to achieve convictions.

As you stated during your press conference Tuesday morning, this investigation was fast moving.  That said, had Shahzad been watching news reports on May 3rd that the FBI was in hot pursuit of a Pakistan born naturalized American citizen residing in Bridgeport, CT it could well have caused him to attempt to evade capture by going to the airport to leave the country.  In any event, I find this systemic leaking to be deeply troubling and criminally negligent.

As the top law enforcement officer in the United States, I am sure you are aware that investigations are kept confidential for several important reasons, including protecting the integrity of the investigation, protecting the safety of witnesses, and not disclosing progress to targets of investigation.  It is particularly troubling and disturbing that all evidence indicates that these leaks could only have come from sources within the Administration who had special access to the most sensitive details of this investigation.  You are responsible for the security of classified and sensitive information pertaining to ongoing terrorism investigations.  Therefore, to protect the lives of law enforcement officers and ensure the integrity of future investigations, I request you immediately initiate an investigation to ensure this never occurs again.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at 202.226.8417.



Member of Congress


What's domestic terrorism anyway?

CHICAGO — What’s a domestic terrorist? Is it Joe Stack, who crashed his plane into an IRS office in February? Is it Scott Roeder, who was recently convicted of shooting a doctor who practiced late-term abortions last year? Is it Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995?

Agreement on a precise definition is hard to come by.

“Terror’s a weapon, and it’s used by a variety of actors,” said Thomas Mockaitis, a history professor at DePaul University and author of the book “The ‘New’ Terrorism: Myths and Reality.” “Criminals use terror. It’s a weapon used to spread fear. Governments use it, insurgencies use it and what I call extremists use it.”

In 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act defined domestic terrorism as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

“[That definition is] useful to a point, but to some degree, a street gang in Chicago could engage in the same behavior, and it really isn’t a terrorist group,” Mockaitis said.

But Mockaitis said the federal government doesn’t use one particular definition.

“There are between nine and 15 [definitions], depending on the agency, and they tend to be so broad they become almost anything.”

The ACLU criticized the law’s definition in 2002, saying it was expanded to allow the federal government more investigatory leeway.

“The definition of domestic terrorism is broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations,” the ACLU wrote on its website. “Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island and WTO protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to being investigated as engaging in domestic terrorism.”

One expert said the pursuit of political gain is a defining attribute of domestic terrorism.

“I think that most people would say that terrorists have a political philosophy,” said Charles E. Tucker Jr., executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University.

Tucker said domestic terrorism has been a problem in the United States for at least a century. But he said the line has blurred between terrorism and organized crime.

“Once upon a time, we referred to these domestic folks as anarchists,” he said.

Mockaitis said the biggest domestic threats right now are hate groups, militias and individual actors. The FBI calls these individuals “lone offenders,” though Mockaitis said members of this category are more “sociopaths” than terrorists.

“In every society, you’ve got disgruntled people,” he said. “The question is who mobilizes them for what purpose?”

15 years after Oklahoma City, experts say domestic terrorism isn't spreading

CHICAGO — The Hutaree. The Fort Hood shootings. Jihad Jane. As more plots conceived by Americans are uncovered and more incidents of mass violence by Americans are committed, it may appear that we’re becoming our own worst enemy.

But 15 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, the most lethal act of terrorism in U.S. history until 9/11, experts say homegrown terrorism is not on the rise.

“I think it makes a nice headline or sound bite for a politician, but there’s just no clear evidence of any trend line here,” said Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Huq said the Fort Hood shootings could be better attributed to an individual psychological breakdown than to the perpetrator’s connections to a Yemeni cleric, for instance, distinguishing the shootings from an act of terror.

Charles E. Tucker, Jr., who is executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, said rates of domestic terrorism have either remained constant or even lowered.

“We’ve had organized crime in this country for years,” he said.

Like Huq, Tucker questioned the definition of domestic terrorism, citing mob violence and gang warfare as other crimes that could be included in this category.

“I’m unimpressed with the fact that we have a new group and we’ve put a different label on them,” he said.

The USA PATRIOT Act defines domestic terrorism as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

According to the FBI, 345 of the 481 terrorist acts in the United States from 1980 to 2001 were domestic. There were 24 incidents of domestic terrorism from 2002 to 2005, after the foreign terrorist attack on 9/11.

The FBI recognizes different categories of domestic terrorists, including eco-terrorists, lone offenders and sovereign citizens.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a report last year warning that the election of the first African-American president, the potential for increased regulation of firearms and the poor economy could fuel rightwing extremist groups. The report, titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” drew comparisons to the rise in extremism in the 1990s under similar political and economic circumstances.

“To the extent that these factors persist, rightwing extremism is likely to grow in strength,” the department wrote in the report.

Tucker said one of the best strategies to combat this kind of terrorism is to show the perpetrators to the world.

“It’s hard to look at them and not see them for how ridiculous they are,” he said.

Timothy McVeigh, who was found guilty in the Oklahoma City bombing and executed in 2001, became “a tragic, comedic figure” for his perceptions of the government that led him to violence, Tucker said. He said he wondered if McVeigh would have blown up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building if he had known that would be his legacy.

“Would he have actually lit the fuse?” Tucker said.

Involving local authorities, privacy experts in the quest to share criminal information

WASHINGTON – Law enforcement authorities are using a new program aimed at “connecting the dots” in crime-fighting by streamlining and sharing information across a broad network of states, counties and local jurisdictions. And unlike many other federal data sharing and mining programs, this one enlisted civil liberties experts to ensure privacy protection.

Rolled out in three increments in 2008, National Data Exchange – or N-DEx – was designed to bring the FBI into the national incident-based reporting system, a long-established program in which all data collected on a single crime goes to one repository.

But the Justice Department program has become more than just reporting a bank robbery in California that may be of interest in Texas, said David Larson, chief privacy officer in the FBI. It is a vehicle through which the FBI and law enforcement agencies across the country can share case documents that contain incident, arrest, booking, incarceration, and, coming in October, parole and probation data. Investigators can trace identifying clues like aliases, height, weight and tattoos, detect hidden relationships among suspects and pinpoint geographically where and to whom they are linked.

“It takes information already in existence and brings it to one place in a way that cuts down the amount of effort and search time required,” said Jeff Lindsey, National Data Exchange unit chief. “Each increment is designed to add different capacities, different access points and higher, more efficient levels of capability to the folks that use searches.”

Those that can access these searches include authorities within the Department of Justice like the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Prisons, along with the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, as long as they have all been properly vetted. Analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center also can access information from N-DEx if necessary.

About 1,300 law enforcement agencies currently contribute data to N-DEx, and that number is expected to “increase significantly” in the next year, Lindsey said.

Taking a novel approach

With the number of people who can access and contribute to this system potentially doubling within the next several months, privacy is a real concern, officials say. But the FBI privacy officers behind N-DEx tried not to leave too much room for unanswered questions. They were among the first privacy officials in a federal agency to directly engage the American Civil Liberties Union before the program was implemented.

“We’ve got nothing to conceal. We want to show it to them,” said Damon Villella, supervisory special agent with N-DEx.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, said he had first heard of N-DEx in 2004 when it was still an idea swirling around the Justice Department. He said because it was a law enforcement tool as opposed to a general surveillance system, it was a “reasonable investigative method.”

“We appreciated the fact that it was not going to contain intelligence information, and instead, it was going to be a compilation of information that law enforcement was already collecting,” he said.

But while the information itself does not pose a threat, Calabrese said, how the information is analyzed can be cause for alarm. In many cases, the FBI is relying on local privacy laws to safeguard the information provided by and used by state and local jurisdictions.

“The real solution is a national data privacy law that controls how much information is collected on people who aren’t suspected of any crime and what’s done with that information,” he said.

He said analysis that tries to predict criminal behavior based on patterns before any crime happens is a new worry that comes with advanced technology.

“There are analytic tools that help you visualize already-existing data that can be very useful,” Calabrese said. “There are also data mining tools that can essentially purport to find crimes before they take place; in other words, they look for patterns based on innocent behavior that can lead a person to commit a crime – that is a concern.”

Working with forces on the ground

Though the first two increments of N-DEx have been deployed over the last two years, there has been no formal auditing process or feedback from local law enforcement agencies. Officials said individual agencies using the program probably will be audited after the final increment is implemented in October.

While there are some police departments like Virginia Beach, Va., which is in the process of getting connected to N-DEx, others like Tucson, Ariz., have been using a data mining program called Coplink for years.

And officials say that, while the advanced technology has made their jobs go faster, it is also building much-needed collaboration between local and federal authorities to root out crime and terrorist threats.

“At the state level, it’s basically the first time it’s been done – where the feds are having information going bi-directionally instead of just going to the feds,” said Tucson detective and Coplink administrator Cindy Butierez. “We’re starting to work really well with them.”

But while the ability to share additional information is helpful and can generate new leads for officers across the nation, Butierez added that the system is only as good as what agents collect.

“I think the biggest thing is just making sure that we maintain our ability to communicate and talk one-on-one,” she said. “You’re supposed to follow up and call the agency and get a formal report, because nothing in that system calls for probable cause.”

In other words, officers are not allowed to make an arrest or act upon criminal data until formal procedure is followed. And technology like N-DEx cannot completely replace the need for communication between police units, several officials said.

“The ultimate tool is still the analyst or investigator,” Lindsey said. “They still have to put together and interpret the data delivered to them in a way that is going to make them successful.”