FOCUS ON COUNTERINTELLIGENCE
Interview with FBI Assistant Director Dave Szady
Let’s start with the basics. What’s counterintelligence?
It’s much broader than just espionage–the traditional spy game. It also includes the protection of our critical national assets. And by that, I don’t mean the bridges, the railroad stations, the nuclear plants. I mean things like our country’s advanced technologies, its weapons systems, its military capacities–classified information and systems that are strategically important to our nation’s well-being. Counterintelligence, or CI, also involves protecting trade secrets and guarding against operations or disinformation campaigns that would disadvantage the U.S.
What’s the FBI’s role in counterintelligence?
We’re the lead agency for exposing, preventing, and investigating intelligence activities on U.S. soil. We run our own investigations and coordinate investigations of other agencies. Simply put, we’re on point to protect the U.S. from intelligence threats within our country. We’ve also got the lead on cases overseas involving potential espionage.
Why is counterintelligence the FBI’s #2 priority?
Because the threat is incredibly serious. It strikes at the heart of our national security–our political, military, and economic strengths; our position in the world; our future as a country. That’s why only terrorism, with its threat of direct attacks and bombings and mass casualties, ranks above it.
How has the threat changed since the end of the Cold War?
In the Cold War, the threat was what we call “symmetric.” It was predictable, clear, and geographically limited to the Soviet Union and the bloc countries. Today, the threat is “asymmetric.” It’s coming at us from a lot of different directions. It’s no longer just our traditional adversaries who want to steal our secrets, but sometimes even our allies. And how they go about it has changed. Embassies and consulates are still used as a basis of operations for intelligence services. But now foreign governments are also using students, visiting delegations, scientists, and false front companies to get at our secrets. And the threat is just as severe in places like Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, and Iowa as it is in New York or Washington, because the classified projects, the universities, and the corporations being targeted exist throughout the U.S.
Why is economic espionage now such a serious threat?
Economic espionage attempts to disadvantage the U.S. unfairly without legitimate competition. For example, the U.S. spends billions on research and development, and someone comes in and steals that research and tries to sell it, in some cases back to our own country. Billions of dollars can be lost, and anytime you impact our country’s economic viability in such a significant way you impact its national security. There’s also a lot of dual use technology or export-controlled technology that can be used for weapons of mass destruction or military systems. So it’s vital that the FBI prevent countries from stealing our trade secrets, our proprietary information, and our embargoed technology because it undermines both our economic and national security.
How has the FBI changed its Counterintelligence (CI) approaches in response to the evolving threats?
We’ve totally revamped our CI program in the last few years, in many ways mirroring what’s been done in counterterrorism. CI is now a nationally managed program focused on the highest priority threats, whether it’s proliferation or the penetration of our intelligence services. Intelligence itself–how it’s collected, what’s collected, how it’s managed and analyzed–is just as crucial to the success of counterintelligence as it is to the success of counterterrorism. So we’re working closely with the FBI’s new Office of Intelligence and our information technology experts to ensure that our intelligence capabilities are world-class. At the local level, we’ve asked our field offices to know their domains–to find out what corporations, research facilities, military bases, nuclear labs, and universities are in their areas; to establish relationships with them; and then to partner with colleagues in the intelligence community so they can be force multipliers in neutralizing the threats. We’ve also given every field office at least one dedicated CI squad to help them to all that. So it’s been a total change in our focus, with a new national strategy implemented locally, stronger partnerships, more sophisticated operations, and improved intelligence collection.
Are counterintelligence and counterterrorism efforts linked in the FBI?
Absolutely. In CI, if we’re dealing with a country that happens to be a state sponsor of terrorism, then it’s vital that we’re aware of what it’s doing in the U.S.–whether it’s raising money, getting false id’s, or running operations that might help those bent on committing terrorist acts. Sometimes, terrorists and foreign intelligence agents share methodologies. So we cooperate closely with the counterterrorism side of the house, share information, and run certain operations together when they crossover.
How do you work together outside the FBI?
In this age of asymmetric threats, it’s absolutely critical that the members of the intelligence community work as one unit, not as stove-piped entities. That’s why we’ve forged closer working relationships with the CIA, the military, and the National Security Agency, among others. Today, our agencies exchange personnel. We hold regular meetings. We communicate constantly–senior manager to senior manager, analyst to analyst. We share intelligence through our “pipes.” We run joint operations, where everyone has full and immediate access to the intelligence gathered. A year-and-a-half ago, the FBI had no CI task forces. Today, the CIA and the military sit on our CI squads throughout the country. Every one of our field divisions also has a CI working group that includes members of the intelligence community and even the private sector, and these groups link up at the regional level as well. So our CI program is stronger both internally in terms of how it does business and externally through it partnerships, and that’s making all the difference.