Top US spy-catcher: The alarm is ‘blinking faster and brighter’

On July 18, 2018, Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, compared the cyber threat the U.S. faced to the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks.

“Here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say the warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said.

On Monday, the U.S. top counterintelligence official intensified the warning.

“The lights are blinking faster and brighter,” William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, or NCSC, said during the unveiling of the agency’s new strategy to address espionage, cyber and other threats.

He was referring specifically to nation-state cyber threats to critical infrastructure, such as energy, financial and telecommunications enterprises.

SIGN UP TODAY for J.J. Green’s new national security newsletter, “Inside the SCIF.” The weekly email delivers unique insight into the intelligence, national security, military, law enforcement and foreign policy communities.

Evanina said improvement in detection capabilities has led to a better understanding of the thinking, skill sets and operations of adversaries.

There are several, different venues where pitched battles between U.S. counterintelligence personnel and foreign actors are raging in the shadows.

Influence operations are a major concern.

He pointed out that foreign adversaries could take the failure of the voting app in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and “pour gasoline on it.”

His concern is that a well-oiled disinformation machine — like the one Russian intelligence deployed in 2016, or that of another capable actor such as Iran — could explode the Iowa app collapse into a wave of doubt about the security of election infrastructure in the U.S.

Another, and more chilling, example was China’s theft of Americans’ personal information.

Evanina used Monday’s Justice Department indictments of four Chinese military officers in connection with allegedly stealing sensitive, personally identifiable information belonging to 145 million Americans in 2017 from credit agency Equifax, to wipe away doubts about why Chinese intelligence did it.

He said it was all about artificial intelligence.

“What are they going to do with all of that (stolen information)? A.I. They will use bank records, hotel and travel records, genetic data, credit records and card numbers to train their artificial intelligence algorithms,” Evanina said.

According to retired CIA official Douglas H. Wise, “The Chinese want to own us,” and, “The Russians want to destroy us.”

Lamenting the many cyberattacks, influence operations and arrest of spies making the news, Evanina enlisted the public’s help in eliminating what he called “noise.”

“With the private sector and democratic institutions increasingly under attack, this is no longer a problem the U.S. government can address alone. It requires a whole-of-society response, involving the private sector, an informed American public, as well as our allies,” Evanina said.

But how do you get the public to buy in?

Evanina acknowledged that there is difficulty persuading some people to see the often-concealed threats that stealthy nation-state actors, such as China’s intelligence services, perpetrate on social media networking sites.

Referring to efforts to recruit Americans to act as spies, Evanina reinforced the need for more public awareness with the stunning statement: “By the time they approach you, they already know everything about you.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up