Threat Assessment for Homeland Security: the calls are coming from inside the house

Panelists for "The Threat Assessment" at the Texas Tribune 2022 in Austin Texas
Panelists for “The Threat Assessment” at the Texas Tribune 2022 in Austin Texas. The Threat Assessment: Is our homeland secure?” Moderator (l): Robert Chesney, James Baker Chair and Dean of the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin. Speakers (l-r): Asha Rangappa, Senior Lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and Legal and National Security Analyst; Frank Figliuzzi, National Security Expert and Former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI; Juliette Kayyem, Faculty Chair of Homeland Security and Security and Global Health Projects at Harvard University.

Note: Robert “Bobby” Chesney moderated the discussion.

Note: This content is derived from live notes taken during the panel discussion; some text is therefore paraphrased. I take responsibility for any misunderstanding or misstatement.  

Note: “agencies” is presumed to be the various U.S. security agencies. The “Agency” is presumed to mean “the FBI.”

Note: caption content is taken directly from bios for speakers posted to the Texas Tribune Festival 2022 website.

Final note: I asked Juliette Kayyem and Frank Figliuzzi what it was like for them, on a personal level, to be committed to the rule of law and find themselves with the Lawbreaker-in-Chief at the head of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government.  Kayyem said that it was necessary to “put him out of my mind, get him out of my head” and focus on the work that needed to be done. Figliuzzi, speaking more to the continuing threat against democracy and the rule of law, said that the time he spends discussing the current threats and actions taken to enforce the rule of law inspires him to continue to work for justice.

Panel Discussion

Bobby Chesney: Let’s talk about domestic terrorism. After 9/11, the country focused on international and perhaps domestic terror was perceived as performed by outside enemy actors. Since January 6, how have national security perceptions changed and how has public perception changed about domestic terror?

Asha Rangappa: [There is a tendency for] the agencies to be reactive, and not proactive, slow to react and can suffer from blind spots. [The perception of violent actions done by one or two actors] after Jan 6 should not be seen as the actions of a lone wolf. We thought we knew what terrorism looks like. We now see that it can look like us!

Frank Figliuzzi: Bureaucracies move slowly; we did not see ourselves as the threat [and we saw the threat as others who did not look like us]. [Because of our perceptions about the source of homeland security threats], the “A Players” [for national security] were not in the domestic terror area of the agency. When terror became aligned with the Guy in the Oval Office [and with our prior] policy and funding decisions, this affected [the outcomes that] we got. We are playing catch up now, after the Jan 6 events.

Juliette Kayyem: [The malign influence flows from] the internet and social media. There are no lone wolves. They feed off each other. They meet online, [plan online, radicalize online]. Understanding and identifying that as a crime is difficult. They have a community of hate that is not being regulated. This community aligns with the Theory of Displacement [discussed on Fox by] Tucker Carson. In the year 2016, the U.S. Census noted [and I want to phrase this carefully] that American-born babies that were not White outnumbered American-born White babies. [These numbers do not include immigration statistics]. This took hold as a concern in various white nationalist groups; it animated them. And Trump catered to this, wanted it. Trump used messaging [that encouraged] stochastic terror, such as “Free Michigan”. What does that mean? It is just one example of Trump nurturing terror. And now [messages of violence] are being directed by Trump. Why does the media use a language of doubt about this messaging? Trump is not “flirting with QAnon” — Trump is right in there with [QAnon conspiracy symbols and ideas].

Bobby Chesney: Are you seeing more of a willingness to play outside the lines that are heading towards violence. This presents a problem: how does a free society that allows free association and freedom of speech, etc., respond [with regards to surveillance and regulation]? Also, it seems apparent that domestic terror is now interwoven with one of our political parties.

Asha Rangappa: A domestic terror ideology has been mainstreamed into a political party. Political activity [is becoming difficult to separate] from the terrorist ideology. This is a huge problem for law enforcement. FBI and politics do not go well together! And this [terrorist ideology] is represented in Congress by elected figures who are excusing violence. We have been seeing this increase during the last five years. [Law enforcement is said to be] “politically biased” and to be targeting individuals, based on their politics, when it is really their violations of the law. (Rangappa gave examples outside of the U.S. that she has seen in her work in the FBI, where in Columbia, narcoterrorism groups (see wiki for more on narcoterrorism ) tried to become part of the political establishment and were not accepted. But other violent groups were allowed into the political system, after renouncing their ideology of violence.)

Bobby Chesney: I have a question: Does terrorism really map onto one political party or is this more of a spectrum ranging from authoritarianism to terrorism. [Is this too broad a brush?]

Frank Figliuzzi: It’s hard not to do that, because if you do not come out against what is going on, you are in effect condoning it. [You condone the violence/terror] if you go on a network and you are asked to condemn an act [of violence/terror], and you [waffle] or walk your statements back the next day in social media. Freedom of association, speech, etc., are part of our American values. We do not want to be [surveilled] in public or on the internet [or on social media]. But how else can law enforcement “get to the right of Boom?” (i.e., how to stop a terror act before the violence occurs). In the past, we have been successful [stopping terror acts] by designating terror groups. The authorities do categorize outside terror groups, but we have no procedures in place to designate domestic terror groups inside America. The danger is that if you do that, it could later lead to designations such as “Antifa is a terror group!” — so be careful with this direction of thought.

Juliette Kayyem: When leaders are silent [about acts of terror], the terror groups feed off their silence. The Charlottesville [march] was a change because they had their hoods off. Is this because they thought there would be no consequences? Trump “both sides” [events like Charlotteville]. And Trump will not deny being involved in a cult. The followers hear the message that it is okay to consider violence to be an extension of politics. “Stop the Steal” is an example of how the line [gets crossed]. [Extremist groups] get oxygen from a political infrastructure that refuses to acknowledge that this is their cancer. But I have seen signs of change for good and I will discuss that later.

Bobby Chesney: Based on extremist groups’ tendencies towards violence, should we consider making changes in our statutes to limit speech?

Frank Figliuzzi: Well…social media platforms are not rising to the occasion. If they do not change quickly, the government should step in [to regulate]. What “social media companies” provide is neither social nor media. They operate more like our regulated utilities. It’s not “journalism” — and [content] defaults to basic instinct and a desire for affirmation. [For an example of a service that is regulated], the government regulates air carriers: for veracity; for policing itself to be secure and stable. [Another example would be] the ratings provided for films. We need something like that [for social media platforms], but Congress seems unwilling to go there.

Asha Rangappa: Social media [has equivalencies with] Big Tobacco. Their bottom line is incompatible with the public good. They make money from fostering groups that create radicalization: it’s their business model. Expecting them to self-change is unrealistic. Sue the hell out of them, as we did Big Tobacco companies, for the deceptive practices practiced against the consumers of social media. Another example [in government]: people who facilitate an insurrection should be removed from office. If they walk free and unaccountable, then [insurrection] works as a political strategy. Hit them where it hurts.

Juliette Kayyem at Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas
Juliette Kayyem at Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas. Juliette Kayyem is the faculty chair of the Homeland Security and Security and Global Health Projects at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also serves as a national security analyst for CNN. Previously, she served as President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. She spoke on a panel, “The Threat Assessment,” at the Texas Tribune 2022 in Austin Texas.

Bobby Chesney: But (as noted), if there is a regulatory mechanism, if you create an authority, they can use this power in unexpected/unintended ways. In fact, Trump has pressured for users to be allowed to force Twitter [to go against their current terms of service (TOS)].

Juliette Kayyem: I do not think [Legislature regulation] will happen. What other options could be used? I believe that Alex Jones is the sleeper case on this. [The lawsuits are] framed: Alex Jones monetization of horrific behavior [and harassment of the victims]. The libel cases are focused on Alex Jones’ behavior that took place [almost entirely] on social platforms. This will cost Jones a lot and (others on social media will take note of the outcome of the lawsuits). Social media is on trial with Alex Jones. The market does speak. Twitter’s de-platforming of Trump did more for deradicalization than many other actions. Twitter [essentially] decapitated a terror leader – this is meant as an analogy! But Twitter users wanted Trump off the platform.

Frank Figliuzzi: What happens when a platform refuses to do that? The analogies of airline and tobacco regulations apply. Facebook has 20-30K employees who work in security. FBI and Facebook work very closely together. But what about platforms that don’t have security staff in place? Remember that Big Tobacco came down in a large part because of whistleblowers. It could be the same for Twitter and Facebook — major lawsuits could follow [whistleblower testimony against social media platforms].

Bobby Chesney: How does this fit into a political group that is moving towards authoritarianism or towards a disrespect for the rule of law?

Juliette Kayyem: I am solely focused on violence as an extension of politics. The debate is: if the violence is removed, does the rest [of the extremism] go away? If you could excise violent MAGA and Trump, what would be the outcome? I believe it would be harder to sustain [without violent MAGA and Trump], but the problem is bigger than [the acts of violence].

Frank Figliuzzi: How do you disentangle the two? Politicians are using terms like “cultural warfare” and “battle”. [Look at Trump’s] last two rallies: the music, the arm raising, the religious tone with phrases like “battle for the soul” and “a war against Christianity”. This ends up as a domestic terror threat. The suggestion is that the government should be destroyed and rebuilt.

Asha Rangappa: We are seeing a domestic application of “active measures” [Russian covert destabilizing methods, see George Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Create chaos and pit groups against each other in preparation for a military act or simply to weaken the system. We see this taking place in other countries; for example, in India (see Russia and South Asia/India.) The techniques used with “active measures” work because they damage a society’s social trust. (Rangappa suggests “Bowling Alone,” a book by Robert Putnam, about the decline in social trust in America. Why does social trust matter? The loss of social trust degrades our participation in a functioning system [to pay taxes, be cooperative, interact with the greater society]. Lower social trust can assist demagogues to come into power. A despot does not care that you love him—just that you do not love each other. This is how authoritarians take control. How can we increase trust in an environment that is emersed in social media? Violence is a symptom of low social trust taken to an extreme.

Asha Rangappa at The Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas
Asha Rangappa at The Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas. Asha Rangappa is a senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a CNN contributor. Previously, she served as a special agent in the New York Division of the FBI, specializing in counterintelligence investigations. Rangappa has published op-eds in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and others. Rangappa spoke on “The Threat Assessment” panel at The Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas.

Bobby Chesney: What steps can be taken to be ready to deal with the future, to approach the 2024 election?

Frank Figliuzzi: You should look at the Mueller report. Two dozen Russians were indicted by the special council for their online operation, where agents interfered using social media [to distribute] propaganda. A quarter million Americans were following Russian social media accounts. This type of activity is far from over. [Enemy states] continue to spend millions on this type of activity—and it is not just Russia. It’s China, Iran, North Korea. The battle for the American Mind is quite real. The domestic threat cannot be separated from the foreign vector: it is hard to tell the difference and to locate the source of the threat.  But when a social media account [is paying for ads] with rubles, maybe [social media platforms taking those rubles should respond with concern.

Juliette Kayyem: [Our future includes] a Putin “scorched earth’ Putin threat of nukes. And we have some dysfunction with our government systems. They need support to keep elections safe and secure…but this is assuming Secretaries of State will not try to overrule voters. A delay [in vote count results] can create the vacuum where [doubt can be introduced] about whether the votes were counted honestly. Delays affect trust. [And in fact, there are risks.] For example, Putin only needs to suppress or change about 25K votes to change the results in a state like Michigan. Putin’s agents could hack a part of Michigan with a high percentage of one party of voters in a way that causes terror. If you can suppress 25K Democrats in a targeted area, you can win the state. But there are hopeful signs: the metrics suggest that ethical politicians, both Democrats and GOP, still have agency. Note the declining size of the [right-wing extremist] rallies. Notice that there is a degradation of the militia groups. Are right-wing movements growing or dissipating? (Kayyem thinks it is not increasing. In discussion after the event, she agreed that the DOJ’s actions to charge top-level players in militia groups involved in Jan 6 have had a powerful effect on dissipating the power of militias.)

Asha Rangappa: I agree with Frank. The spectrum of domestic/foreign is [tough to parse]. But if we can locate foreign agency, then our toolbox is much stronger to combat the threat. We have specific frameworks for what is war or if someone is being targeted. We need to be able to see this more clearly [and take actions against messaging threats]. For example, Biden recently put out factual statements, pre-bunking false narratives that Russia was planning to use against Ukraine. This made it harder for the propaganda to work on the pubic. Pre-bunking is early messaging to combat expected false narratives. Another example of this was to clearly message to the public that, due to an increase in mail-in voting during the pandemic, it would take a long time to count all the votes. Counter messages can defeat propaganda.

Frank Figliuzzi at the Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas
Frank Figliuzzi and Yours Truly (yes, I am a fan). I blurted out that he was my favorite nerd and (I think) he took that as the compliment that it was meant to be. Frank Figliuzzi is a National Security Expert and is a Former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the FBI, where he served for 25 years as a special agent. He is a regular columnist and contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. Figliuzzi also served as assistant chief security officer for General Electric. He is the author of “The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence.” Figliuzzi spoke on the panel, “The Threat Assessment,” at the Texas Tribune Festival 2022 in Austin Texas.

Audience questions for the panelists:

Question 1. A UT Austin student asked about how agencies protect against the risk of foreign investments, such as Saudi purchases, of our businesses and U.S. property.

Frank Figliuzzi: We have CFIUS (The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States). The Counterintelligence unit studies mergers with foreign agencies to assess what could negatively affect our national security.

Asha Rangappa: Private companies need to realize that they are national security actors. In fact, we all need to see our online actions as a potential threat to national security. Public-private partnerships need to fully understand the role they play; they can be targets for foreign governments.

Question 2. Before August 8, I was concerned about materials going to the Mar-a-Lago Club. The risk seems to be downplayed [by some]. Is the FBI overly concerned about the missing docs? Don’t regular people get investigated for stuff like this?

Frank Figliuzzi: Yes, we investigate people for this! The Agency oversees acts of potential espionage. Are there missing docs from folders that are marked as holding classified documents? Are they mixed into the materials obtained during the search or are there other missing items? We need to go forward to this right now.

Juliette Kayyem: Some polls show divisions in the public as to whether it was legally allowable for Trump to possess the docs. This situation affects [our relationship of trust with] our allies, for example, with the French president. The government’s message about the concern for these unsecured documents should be, “We are focused on your security.”

Question 3: The audience member said he has spoken about cyber security to small business owners who did not recognize the problem of being hacked. How do we ensure that everyone buys into the need for protection from hackers?

Juliette Kayyem: What the public needs to understand is that agencies are trying to stay “to the right of boom”. We cannot control all the external variables, but we must minimize harm.

Asha Rangappa: We should work to create a more resilient population and [more robust] systems. A well-designed system would minimize the harms caused by apathetic actors (Example: unvaccinated and unmasked population)

Frank Figliuzzi: To encourage investment in computer security, you must counter the attitude of “We don’t have anything anyone wants.” There are two types of people: those who have been hacked and those who just have not noticed that they have been hacked. A simple example of potential security harm: a bakery with a recipe for something that brings revenue for the baker. If the recipe is stolen and a competitor obtains it, that is bad for business. Also, a hacker can take down your business. And consider this scenario: the FBI shows up at your bakery and says, “You are a HOP point in your town from your bakery’s location.” (A “hop point” is a point of entry for hackers to invade multiple machines on a common network, creating the risk of damage for all users in the system.)  Everyone should take an interest in cyber security.

Question 4: A Facebook user, who follows the FBI Facebook page, said that when she reads the comments after the FBI posts [about people charged in relation to Jan 6 insurrection], they ask “Well, what about Antifa, why doesn’t the FBI arrest them?”

Frank Figliuzzi: There is violence by the political left. All lawbreakers and terror acts are wrong. But it is a false equivalency to compare protesters responding to excessive police force to a [violent, armed] attempt to take down the U.S. Capital on Jan 6.

Learn More:

  • “The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence” by Frank Figliuzzi. Available in hardback, Kindle, and with Audible, which is narrated by Figliuzzi.
  • “The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters” by Juliette Kayyem. Available in hardback, Kindle, and with Audible, which is narrated by Kayyem.
  • Robert Chesney and Steve Vladeck: The National Security Podcast

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