FBI Official Reports No Reduced Terror Capability, Wariness With Encryption, Utility of Cooperation with Muslim Community

A top FBI official, Michael Steinbach, the Executive Assistant Director of the Bureau’s National Security Branch, expressed today his agreement with recent testimony by Director James Comey that the Islamic State’s terror capabilities remain the same as they did in 2014.

Testifying at the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Mr. Steinbach maintained that the success of the US military in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State has not diminished the terror group’s ability to strike here.

Mr. Steinbach was following up on testimony in which he noted that “preventing terror attacks remains the FBI’s main priority.” He detailed the three main types of threats which the FBI sees. There are those enabled by the guidance of extremists, those directed explicitly by terror groups, and those inspired by the acts of terrorists.

Asked by the chairman of the subcommittee, Rob Portman, R-OH, if these “lone wolves” are the biggest threat, Mr. Steinbach replied simply “yes.”

Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, asked Mr. Steinbach whether it was his estimation that the FBI has the appropriate tools it needs online. She referenced a bill recently voted down in the Senate that would have given FBI field agents the ability to issue National Security Letters, and inquired whether or nor he thought they were needed.

“We need a robust set of tools,” he replied. “We need those tools in the online space.”

Mr. Steinbach also commented on the difficulty of discerning who is just passively consuming extremist content online and who might be disposed to acting on it.

Mrs. Ayotte asked him if the Orlando shooter was consuming that content, to which he replied characteristically, “yes.”

Earlier, Mr. Steinbach had identified the two challenges he says the FBI has to overcome. The first is volume; the sheer amount of data intercepted by the Bureau leaves identifying communications they find worrisome a difficult task.

The second is encryption.

“[Encrypted] apps make communications more secret than before,” explained Mr. Steinbach, and asked that the public keep open a conversation on the value of encryption versus the value of national security.

“We need to continue to have conversations on that,” he opined. “Without the ability to see those communications, we’re dark, we’re blind.”

Mr. Steinbach also cited the increasing alacrity of what he called the “flash to bang” of radicalization.

“Many of the cases [begin] with an online anonymous moniker…[and a] concerning trend is the speed to which they mobilize.”

While in the past he said it took months or years, it now often takes days or weeks.

Claire McCaskill, D-MI, asked the Executive Assistant Director what percentage of leads are generated from Muslim communities. While he said that the FBI does not categorize who tips, he noted that field officers do work closely with mosques, and added that there is “quite a bit of communication back and forth…at the foundational level.”

“I will say,” he went on, “we get a lot of information and assistance from those communities.”

Mrs. McCaskill followed up by asking if the Muslim community is helpful.

Mr. Stein praised religious communities in general, calling them “overwhelmingly…helpful,” and said there is not an adversarial relationship with the Muslim community.

“We couldn’t do our jobs without them.”

by Marlon J. Ettinger