Slideshow: Who's Who In U.S. Intelligence
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Two top intelligence officials last week warned that tech-savvy terrorists are using the Web to recruit for, plan, facilitate, and even accelerate their criminal acts. Their comments set the stage for what's likely to become a heated national debate over wiretapping the Internet.
James Clapper, the new U.S. director of national intelligence, and Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, gave a sobering account of the growing use of the Web by violence-prone adversaries. Their statements take on added significance in light of the Obama administration's push for legislation, being drafted now, that would force communications service providers to establish the capability to intercept and unscramble communications traveling over their networks. Clapper and Mueller spoke at the Bipartisan Policy Center's State of Domestic Intelligence Reform conference.
In his first public presentation since taking over as director of national intelligence in August, Clapper pointed to the "ever-growing popular use of online social media and blogs by violent extremist groups" and said that virtual communities have become as important as physical communities in fostering the radicalization of young people.
Clapper cited two challenges: "Always ensuring appropriate protection of privacy while still allowing for the proper dissemination of U.S. persons' information necessary to uncover and disrupt threats to the homeland. And second, ensuring that the U.S. government has the necessary legal and policy framework to allow discovery of critical information across departmental and agency data sets." You can read a transcript of his remarks here.
Consistent with the mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Clapper's speech emphasized the need to integrate intelligence data and, as appropriate, share that information across intelligence and law enforcement agencies. He described the FBI as the country's primary agency for conducting counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations within the U.S.
FBI director Mueller was even more blunt in his portrayal of the Internet as a medium for those who would wreak havoc on America. "The Internet has become a primary platform for communication," he said. "It has also become a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, and for terrorist recruiting, training, and planning. It is a means of social networking for like-minded extremists...including those who are not yet radicalized, but who may become so through the anonymity of cyberspace. In other words, the Internet has become a facilitator, even an accelerant, for terrorist and criminal activity."
Despite that growing threat, Mueller noted the challenge of meeting court-ordered communications "intercepts" during FBI investigations. In some cases, communications providers are unable to provide the electronic communications sought in a court order, in part because they're not required to build or maintain the capabilities to do so.
"Critical laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994, when we moved from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cell phones, but of course, technology has expanded exponentially in the past 16 years," Mueller said. "We want to ensure that our ability to intercept communications is not eroded by advances in technology—technology we all rely on to communicate." You can read Mueller's speech here.
We're fast approaching a point that will determine how, and how effectively, U.S. intelligence agencies will be able to tap into the din of terrorist chatter that travels over 21st century networks. According to the New York Times, new wiretapping legislation, described as "sweeping" in scope, will be submitted to lawmakers for action next year.
The challenge is to enable the mission of the U.S. Intelligence Community without compromising the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. Clapper and Mueller both voice a strong commitment to meeting that requirement. Says Mueller, "If we safeguard our civil liberties, but leave our country vulnerable to a terrorist attack, we have lost. If we protect America from terrorism, but sacrifice civil liberties, we have also lost. We must work to strike that balance, every day, in every case."
Seeking balance in the form of legislation will get contentious. Security expert Bruce Schneier, the chief security technology officer for BT, has already denounced the White House plan, and many of his readers are similarly critical and skeptical.
The status quo carries its own risks. Clapper says the number and pace of terrorist attempts in the U.S. by al-Qaida and its affiliates were at an all-time high during the past year. Among all the tough choices, inaction may be the worst.