Terrorism and cyber security: these are the two most impending dangers to the United States homeland as expressed by the witnesses at today's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing on Threats to the Homeland. The witnesses included Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Rand Beers, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James B. Comey Jr., and the Director of National Counterterrorism Center within the office of the Director of National Intelligence Matthew Olson.
The three witnesses placed great reverence in the potential threats to our nation's cyber security. As Director Comey stated, "all of our lives are connected to the internet." The internet, according to Comey, connects everyone globally and makes all of us next door neighbors. "This is where the bad guys will go," he went on to say. On the bright side, Secretary Beers commented that since 2009, 10 billion cyber threats and crimes have been thwarted. However, threats are always evolving and the US must continue to be vigilant. Each panelist noted that despite executive orders given by President Obama and the progress that has been made on these orders, Congress must pass some type of comprehensive cyber security legislation to allow each agency to better perform their jobs.
Legislation would help by allowing for higher security in the private sector as well as additional hiring capabilities within the agencies according to Beers. Comey commented on how damaging the sequester has been to the FBI and that they have had to significantly cut down the number of their employees. They are not hiring new employees and this problem will continue to worsen if inaction persists.
Terrorism is the next greatest threat. There are two issues concerning terrorism - homegrown terrorism and terrorism abroad. The Boston Marathon bombing is a prime example of homegrown terrorism. Comey stated suspects just like those who carried out these horrific attacks in Boston do not subscribe to any particular organization, just a broad jihadist ideal. They are able to access propaganda on the internet and self-educate. Olson stated attacks such as the Boston bombings indicate that there is no warning to such acts and the counterterrorism community must coordinate together to prevent them from happening. These three agencies are able to coordinate together quite well in fact. Beers noted that the FBI is great at investigation while DHS deals more with outreach and prevention. They are able to collaborate and coordinate in various capacities depending on the threat or the event.
When asked by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) if the threat level is higher today than it was in past years, the answer was astoundingly and unanimously no. Mr. Olson stated the treat level today is much lower than in previous years and in fact, a major attack of 9/11 proportions is unlikely. The threats are now more dispersed with cells popping up in the Middle East and Africa which is why the US needs to focus on attacks overseas. Comey stated "we took the fight to them" indicating our global efforts to combat terrorism has, for the near future, secured our homeland safety. Mr. Olson noted, however, that there is a global jihadist effort and the leaders of al-Qaeda are leading an ideological movement against the west. He warned of training locations in places such as Syria and other regions where governance is poor. Comey seconded this notion of poor governance harboring terrorism and stated that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is our greatest terror threat.
The most interesting portion of the morning's hearing came when Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) relentlessly pressed Director Comey on the attacks in Benghazi and the capture of terrorists. Her first concern was why no one has been brought to justice yet for the attacks on our diplomat post in Benghazi? Since the hearing was public, Comey could not get into direct specifics but he stated it is a top priority at the Bureau and the capture of al-Libi in Libya is a testament to their restlessness in pursing justice.
Next Sen. Ayotte pressed Comey on the interrogation and detainment process following al-Libi's capture stating that he was on a boat and interrogated for seven days, not brought to a facility such as Guantanamo. She asked if seven days was long enough to gain intelligence from a high profile member of al-Qaeda and what the protocol going forward will be in detaining terror suspects. Comey, again, could not speak of the specifics of the interrogation but noted that the more time they have to interrogate, the better.
Ayotte brings up an important issue for the Obama Administration because if future high profile terror targets are captured, are they going to be held on ships? This is something the Administration is still dealing with as they wish to close down Guantanamo. She also inquired about Miranda Rights for terrorists in which Comey replied, "the more flexibility we have in delaying [Mirandizing], the better."