The FBI and the National Security Threat Landscape: The Next Paradigm Shift
Remarks prepared for delivery.
Thanks, Richard. It’s great to be here with all of you.
If you’d told me two years ago that I’d be back in the world of law enforcement and national security, much less standing in front of the Council on Foreign Relations, sharing my thoughts as FBI Director, I would have been more than a little skeptical. And my wife would have burst out laughing. She and our two grown kids spend a fair amount of time rolling their eyes at me and shaking their heads. There’s nothing like your loving family to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.
But in spite of their amusement—and amazement, for that matter—I am in fact here today to talk about the national security threat landscape from the FBI’s perspective. I want to focus, in particular, on the multi-layered threat posed by China. And I want to talk about the need for stronger than ever partnerships—with law enforcement, with the intelligence community, with all the different communities we serve, and with our partners in academia and the private sector. Because the reality is that the threats we face today are too diverse, too dangerous, and too all encompassing for any of us to tackle alone.
Paradigm Shift Since 9/11
I left DOJ’s leadership back in 2005. At the time, we were still building our national security capabilities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And we’d made a lot of progress. But in coming back now as FBI Director, I can see firsthand the incredible strides we’ve made toward keeping people safe from all kinds of harm, from an increasingly wide array of bad guys.
To my mind, it’s a little like seeing the child of an old friend—one you haven’t seen in years. And you think, when did this baby, this child, become a young adult? How did that happen so fast? And of course, the next question is, how did I get so old?
Putting my advancing age aside, the world is remarkably different now. 9/11 was a game-changer in so many terrible ways—not just for the United States and our own national security apparatus, but for the whole world. Those attacks blew apart any notion of separation between foreign and domestic threats—any notion that such attacks only happened to other people, in other countries.
I remember standing in the jam-packed command center with then-Director Mueller the afternoon of the attacks. In the period that followed, I remember meeting with the families of victims of those attacks, and absorbing their shock and heartbreak face-to-face. And though none of us could have foreseen where we would be today, we all knew the world had shifted around us.
And now we face yet another paradigm shift in the way we view the world.
Changing Threat Landscape
The nature of the threats we face is evolving—criminal and terrorist threats are morphing beyond traditional actors and tactics. We still have to worry about an al Qaeda cell planning a large-scale attack.
But we also now have to worry about homegrown violent extremists who are radicalizing in the shadows. These folks aren’t targeting the airport or the power plant. They’re targeting schools, sidewalks, landmarks, concerts, and shopping malls, with anything they can get their hands on, and often things they can get their hands on pretty easily—knives, guns, cars, and primitive IEDs. They’re moving from radicalization to attack in weeks or even days, not years, online and in encrypted messaging platforms, not a camp or a cave.
On the cyber front, we’re seeing hack after hack, and breach after breach. And we’re seeing more and more what we call a “blended threat,” where cyber and espionage merge together in all kinds of new ways.
We still confront traditional espionage threats, with dead drops and covers. But economic espionage dominates our counterintelligence program.
More than ever, the adversary’s targets are our nation’s assets—our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China.
China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation any way it can, from a wide array of businesses, universities, and organizations. They’re doing this through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, and through a variety of actors working on behalf of China.
At the FBI, we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our 56 field offices, and they span almost every industry or sector. The activity I’m talking about goes way beyond fair-market competition. It’s illegal. It’s a threat to our economic security. And by extension, it’s a threat to our national security.
But it’s more fundamental than that. This behavior violates the rule of law. It violates principles of fairness and integrity. And it violates our rules-based world order that has existed since the end of World War II.
Put plainly, China seems determined to steal its way up the economic ladder, at our expense. To be clear, the United States is by no means their only target. They’re strategic in their approach—they actually have a formal plan, set out in five-year increments, to achieve dominance in critical areas.
To get there, they’re using an expanding set of non-traditional methods—both lawful and unlawful—weaving together things like foreign investment and corporate acquisitions with cyber intrusions and supply chain threats.
The Chinese government is taking the long view here—and that’s an understatement. They’ve made the long view an art form. They’re calculating. They’re focused. They’re patient. And they’re persistent.
Overlaying all these threats is our ever-expanding use of technology. Next-generation telecommunication networks, like 5G, and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Cryptocurrencies, unmanned aerial systems, deep fakes—a lot of stuff I wasn’t particularly focused on when I was in the private sector is suddenly blinking red right in front of me, in front of all of us.
And we grow more vulnerable in many ways by the day.
Taken together, these can be called generational threats that will shape our nation’s future. They’ll shape the world around us. And they’ll determine where we stand and what we look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now.
How We’re Addressing the Threat
Our folks in the FBI are working their tails off every day to find and stop criminals, terrorists, and nation-state adversaries. We’re using a broad set of techniques, from our traditional law enforcement authorities to our intelligence capabilities.
We’ve got task forces across the country, with partners from hundreds of local, state, and federal agencies. We’ve got task forces targeting everything from terrorism to violent crime to cybercrime to crimes against children to crime in Indian country—you name it.
We’ve got legal attaché offices stationed around the world to focus on joint investigations and information sharing.
We’ve got rapid response capabilities we can deploy at a moment’s notice, for any kind of crime or national security crisis.
And on the nation-state adversary front, along with our partners, we’ve got a host of tools we can and will use, from criminal charges and civil injunctions to economic sanctions, entity listing, and visa revocations.
But we can’t tackle all these threats on our own. We’ve got to figure out how to work together, particularly with all of you in the private sector. We need to focus even more on a whole-of-society approach. Because in many ways we confront whole-of-society threats.
Importance of Private/Public Partnerships
It’s clear to me that the next few years will be very much defined by the progress we make with private/public partnerships.
One of the things I’ve found most pleasantly surprising since coming back to the government is the state of our partnerships. I’ve spent much of the past 20 months visiting all 56 of our FBI field offices across the country. In each office, I’ve been meeting with all our employees, to get a better handle on the work they’re doing in the trenches.
But I’ve also been meeting—in one state after another—with our partners in law enforcement and the communities we serve, and in academia and the private sector. And while I hear about the same threats and the same concerns everywhere I go, I also hear about how much more effectively we’re working with our partners across the board, with whole new levels of teamwork.
And that’s just what we need to keep building on, every day.
In our country, the vast majority of our critical infrastructure and intellectual property is in the hands of the private sector. You own it, you run it, you’re on the front lines. You know the risks, you know the weak spots, and you’re much more likely to see emerging threats coming down the road.
Nation-state actors are also targeting academia—including professors, research scientists, and graduate students. They seek our cutting-edge research, our advanced technology, and our world-class equipment and expertise.
That’s why it’s so important for us to keep these lines of communication open. We’ve got to share as much information with you as we can, as quickly as we can, through as many channels as we can. And we’ve got to create the mechanisms for you to share information with us, so that we have a better understanding of what you’re seeing and what you’re worried about. We’ve got to keep building trusted relationships with all of you, so that you know—with confidence—that we’re here to help.
I hope we can keep this forward momentum going. I really do believe it’s the only way we can maintain and strengthen our firm footing as the world continues to shift around us.
I look forward to continuing the discussion with Richard, and with all of you.