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3/25/2015
02:30 PM
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FBI Threat Intelligence Cyber-Analysts Still Marginalized In Agency

Despite good progress, 9/11 Review Commission says that analysts could have a greater impact on FBI counter-terrorism activities if they had more domain awareness, forensics capabilities, and were more empowered to question agents.

FBI threat intelligence analysts, a position created post-9/11, have proven their worth to counter-terror operations, but their impact has been limited by a lack of domain awareness, insufficient computing technology, and a lack of status within the Bureau, according to a report released today by the FBI 9/11 Review Commission. While the analysts are providing agents with tactical input, they are not yet participating in any strategic way.

Part of the intelligence analysts' job description, as described by FBIAgentEdu.org, is cyber-forensics and cyber-surveillance -- investigating computer evidence at crime scenes, retrieving information secured on info systems, and using linguistic and decryption technologies to decipher high-priority intel.  

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The Commission credits the Bureau with making a lot of progress to this point. Ten years ago, the FBI changed its focus, "re-aligned its intelligence and law enforcement missions and re-invented itself into a threat-based organization." This includes threats to critical infrastructure -- both physical and logical components, and the control systems that combine the two. 

The Bureau tripled the size of its intelligence workforce and creating more definitive career tracks for these staff members. However, what these cyber-threat intelligence analysts have not been given are opportunities to develop the sort of domain intelligence that traditional FBI agents have -- and this is where the Commission thinks the Bureau needs to improve.

For example, the report cites the example of Nidal Hasan, a US citizen and US Army Major who shot 13 people to death and wounded 32 others in 2009 at a Soldier Readiness Center in Texas, after learning he would be deployed to Afghanistan. In 2008, before this attack, it was known that Hasan was having email conversations with Anwar Al-Aulaqi, a Yemen-based al-Qa'ida operative.

As the report explains, "Despite the fact that an active-duty US Army Major was e-mailing a known al-Qa’ida ideologue and facilitator who was the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation, the e-mail generated little concern in the context of what the Webster Commission termed a 'crushing' volume of data."

An analyst with both access to the data and more background knowledge of the threat would have a better time helping identify the most important pieces in that "'crushing volume of data,'" but as the report states:

"Intelligence analysts embedded in counterterrorism squads were valued for the tactical intelligence support they provided for the cases, but domain intelligence needs to be enhanced to identify plots in the relevant field offices’ area of responsibility and intelligence analysts must be empowered to question special agents’ operational assumptions."

To improve that going forward, the Commission recommends the FBI "increase opportunities for sabbaticals and academic training, detail assignments to other agencies, temporary overseas duty tours, and outreach to scholars on core national security issues. The purpose of these trainings and assignment opportunities is to facilitate innovative thinking and, therefore, better enable the FBI’s intelligence analysts (IAs) to identify emerging threats."

Similarly, the Commission found that the cyber division was more segmented, put in a support capacity, and underfunded, so that when new threats hit, they weren't given new resources to respond, and just had to shuffle those resources around.

The Commission reviewed the case of David Headley, a US citizen who helped plan an al-Qa'ida attack on a Danish newspaper in 2009 and provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance for the Lashkar-e-Taiba attack in Mumbai in 2008. In Headley's case, there were a variety of leads that pointed to him, but they were spread across a variety of agencies that collect such data. It highlighted weaknesses in the information sharing, computer system integration, and data analysis capabilities across the U.S. Intelligence Community, and how the sheer volume of data compounds the problem. As the report states:  

"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. 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."

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
3/26/2015 | 4:42:26 PM
Very disturbing...
It's tragic to read about the credible threat intellegience that could have prevented US Army Major Nidal Hasan from killing 13 people. Will more be done in the future? I hope so. But, sadly, I'm not holding my breath.
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