HIG: Using Science and Research to Combat National Security Threats
Remarks as delivered.
Thanks Sam. I have to say, this facility is spectacular. I’ve been in here before, but it really is exceptional. I want to thank the HIG for inviting me here today. The work that they do is so important on so many different levels. But the research component of the HIG—and the value that collective work brings to all of us—are often overlooked. And I think that highlights the importance of this particular symposium.
Sam mentioned collaboration. The HIG is a model of collaboration and information sharing. They train together, they work together, and they share best practices and expertise with partners both here at home and overseas.
And I want to thank everyone here today for their work, their support, and their dedications to keeping people safe.
Today, I’d like to talk about the diverse and ever-changing counterterrorism threats that we face. I’ll also talk about the importance of multi-agency cooperation in defeating those threats—the kind of cooperation that’s already happening here today. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about why the HIG’s research is so important to our collective mission.
Counterterrorism remains the FBI’s top priority—but the threat has morphed significantly since the last time I was in government.
We still confront threats from large, structured organizations like al Qaeda, planning large-scale attacks over long periods of time. We now also face groups like ISIS, who use social media to recruit and spread their propaganda, to lure people in, and to inspire them to attack wherever they can, in whatever way they can—something they can do all too easily and all too remotely.
Our challenge is finding those right here in our backyards who are actually responding to that propaganda.
Unfortunately, there is no single path to radicalization. There’s no single profile of those individuals and there’s no easy way to reveal who might actually be ready to take action. These are not professionally trained operatives with careful educated plans. Far too often, they’re unstable, erratic, prone to acting quickly and unpredictably. They’re shifting from large-scale weaponry and sophisticated bombs to easily acquired weapons—small arms, knives, and vehicles. They’re crude, but nimble, and often very lethal.
They’re striking at what some refer to as “soft” targets. Soft targets like we saw in Las Vegas and where I spent the afternoon Friday. Of course the term “soft targets” is intelligence community jargon, and I will confess to you that it is a term that I have always despised. What we mean when we say soft targets is that they’re striking out at people who are just innocently living their lives. People at concerts, people in cafes and clubs, people just walking down the street.
The terrorists of this stripe present very different challenges for us to identify and track. The same can be said for domestic extremists who pose their own threat of violence and economic harm, often by chillingly lethal lone offenders. With Twitter groups—if not lone wolves—greater agility in planning and execution and much tighter windows from inception to attack, our own need and the need of everybody here to be alert and nimble is only intensifying.
Unfortunately, with the additional factor of default encryption on our devices and the apps we use and in our communications, it’s even more difficult to ascertain where they are, who they’re working with, and what they’re planning to do—even with a court order.
How do we stay ahead of this constantly shifting threat? We need to keep finding new, innovative ways of thinking and fresh perspectives. We need to keep finding new ways of what we know, what we still need to know, and how all that connects to the bigger picture.
As I said, today we’re contending with everything from technical blind spots to the sheer volume of arguably more compact threats and this tightening and compressed windows of time in which to act. We’ve got to find new ways to prioritize the information, new ways to sort it, new ways to search it, and new ways to share it. We’ve got to find new ways to exploit social media. We’ve got to keep using intelligence to connect the dots, and then put it all into context and drive operations.
We’re working hard every day to build on our relationships with our federal, state, local, and international partners. I will say on a personal note, that in returning to public service, one of the things that I noticed quickly was how much that partnership concept has grown in the last 10 to 12 years. It’s much more a part of the DNA of the whole intelligence community in a way that I think those that can see it grow little by little, year after year, may not appreciate, but I can see the before and after progress very clearly.
Take an example like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which of course have been around for a while, but I think those have really come a long way themselves. They are in many ways our first line of defense against terrorism. You’re talking about collaboration of highly trained and committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT members, specialists, and dozens of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. If somebody sees something, that information moves far more quickly than it used to, to those who need it. That’s the way it has to be.
We need other partnerships too. We’ve got to keep building relationships of trust with the communities we serve so that they know we have their best interests at heart and that we’re working hard every day to keep them safe. We need to earn their trust and to encourage them to contact law enforcement when they see something that seems not right. We need them desperately to alert us to what they’re seeing and what they’re learning so that we can intervene before homegrown terrorists emerge to kill innocent people.
The reality is that most homegrown terrorists aren’t entirely unknown. There’s usually a family member or a friend or someone in the community that saw the radicalization happen and knows about it and sees that transformation underway. We need those people to raise their hands and speak up.
To combat the diverse and evolving threats that we face, we need to continue strengthening our efforts to integrate intelligence and operations.
At the FBI, we have a course at Quantico called the Basic Field Training Course. For the last few years, agents and analysts have trained together from day one. That means that they can hit the ground running, together, when they graduate from Quantico. The HIG follows a similar model. The HIG is filled with people from both the intelligence and defense agencies doing incredibly important work. Mobile Interrogation Teams with their range of experts, interrogators, intel analysts, linguists, and scientists, work together to collect intelligence to prevent terror attacks and to protect national security.
They train together so they’re on the same team and they speak the same language, which makes them that much more effective and more efficient when they deploy. They continue to lead the way in developing the best methods to get intelligence from those who don’t want to share it. They develop a rapport with challenging subjects to better detect deception and to better understand cultural differences. These science-based techniques give us more of the nuances and the details and in many cases more reliable information that can help us stop the next terror attack.
The HIG uses that research and shares it with their partners across the intelligence community and law enforcement communities as well as with our key foreign partners. Sometimes that information will help with a criminal case. Sometimes it’ll help our nation’s leaders better understand another country. Sometimes it will uncover a terrorist or spy threat. Sometimes all of the above. The HIG has also developed a highly sought-after interview and interrogation training program for the intelligence community.
To date, the HIG has trained personnel from more than 50 government agencies. In this most recent fiscal year, the HIG trained 800 students across multiple agencies, including 90 foreign partner participants—including folks from both Canada’s Security Intelligence Service and Britain’s MI5. The HIG training and research units and also work closely with the staff of FLETF—the Federal Law Enforcement Training Facility in Georgia—and Fort Huachuca—the military training facility in Arizona.
The HIG is also working with the FBI Training Division at Quantico to incorporate research-based concepts into the FBI’s own interview and interrogation curriculum. We need to support the HIG and discovering better science-oriented techniques to elicit and exploit actionable intelligence. These strategies are and must be based on validated research and sound science. They’ve got to be consistent with the rule of law.
When you join the government, you’re trained that the rule of law is the bedrock of this great country and you take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. As a nation of laws, we’re judged not just by our ability to defend the nation from terrorism, but also by our commitment to defend the rights and freedoms that we all enjoy. That’s why commitment to the rule of law and civil liberties is at the core of what we do, it needs to be our spine.
Some have suggested that there’s a conflict between protecting national security and preserving civil liberties.
I reject that notion. There shouldn’t be a conflict. We’re sworn to protect both. We need to care deeply about both in every investigation, in every interrogation, and every program. We need to respect the authority given to us under the rule of law and the Constitution.
Our shared mission remains the same—to keep our citizens safe from crime and terrorism. The American people I think rightly expect us to understand the threat environment across all fronts, both foreign and domestic. They expect us to be looking around the corner to see what’s coming next, and the only way we’re going to be able to do that is to join forces.
The threats are bigger than any one of us. It doesn’t matter which agency is the lead. What matters is we work collectively doing everything we can to keep people we serve safe from harm. We at the Bureau know all too well that we couldn’t do any of what we do without our large and growing team of partners. Our greatest weapons against terrorism are unity and teamwork. Unity and teamwork between the FBI and the military; between law enforcement and the intelligence community; between federal, state, and foreign partners; between the public and private and academic sectors; and between all of us and the citizens we serve.
Unity and teamwork built on collaboration and connection and the idea that together we’re infinitely smarter and stronger than any of us are individually. You can call it interagency cooperation, you can call it information sharing, or you can call it collaboration. The label is frankly less important. What matters is positive results. Sometimes the positive result is a successful prosecution in the courtroom. Or it may be the diffusion or disruption of a plot. A lot of the time the best successes achieved are ones the public never learns about.
I think anybody we serve within this space knows we don’t do it for the credit and we shouldn’t. I will tell you, we know. We understand those successes and I want to thank you for the work you’re doing. We’re honored to work beside you. Thank you for having me here today, and I hope you have a great conference in this spectacular facility. Thank you.