“No Easy Answer”: Counterintelligence at Home and Abroad with former FBI Officials Bill Priestap and Holden Triplett

On this week’s episode of The Burn Bag, we talk  counterintelligence with Bill Priestap, former Head of Counterintelligence at the FBI, and Holden Triplett, former Director of Counterintelligence on the National Security Council. Priestap and Triplett give an overview on counterintelligence, highlighting how it has changed over the past 20 years, and what types of operations the FBI has worked to respond to. They discuss the FBI’s role in thwarting espionage along with outlining what coordination looks like between the FBI and other agencies, such as the CIA in addressing these foreign threats. Priestap and Triplett highlight how extensive efforts are by foreign adversaries to recruit Americans to spy on their own country, and what the general threat of this has and does look like. Both dive into some modern day challenges, giving us a look at corporate espionage, the controversy behind Confucius Institutes, and developments around cyber-espionage. We wrap the episode with a discussion how we can address domestic threats, as evident in the January 6th insurrection and similar threats.

On general counterintelligence:

“I think there’s a lot of a lot of misconceptions about what it is or is not. Let me start with the most basic form, and that is the idea of, it’s basically efforts to counter the activities of hostile foreign intelligence services. Just like its name, its name implies, but what does that really mean. Well, I think it might be helpful to take a step back for a second. If you think in terms of there’s all these nations around the world, and they’re all jostling with each other for influence of power. Some nations are simply trying to retain their place in the world. Sometimes some nations are trying to expand their place some nations are actually interested in conquering other nations, regardless of what the particular nation is trying to do though, what they all have in common is they love to keep apprised of what other nations are doing.”

“I’d argue that over the last 20 years especially the whole intelligence and counter intelligence realm has absolutely exploded. And so today it’s not just about state secrets, either obtaining another nation state secrets or trying to stop somebody from obtaining yours. Today it’s about seeking advantages in every important area of life…”

On the FBI’s role regarding espionage:

“The FBI is the primary investigative agency for the federal government. So when you have crimes that are so violations of US law but they might happen outside the actual territory of the United States. That’s still the FBI is territory in terms of they are supposed to do that investigation. So often it gets a little bit complicated where you have many cases they’ll have an intelligence piece as well as an investigative piece if that’s domestic that’s purely the FBI, if there’s if it’s overseas, then it gets a little bit more complicated, some of which I can’t really get into today.”

“There’s often a whole lot more going on than actually becomes public.”

“In my mind success is retaining whatever advantages we have to retaining our state secrets not letting them out the door and a government sense, retaining our intellectual property and trade secrets and what other ever other information, our businesses possess that gives them an advantage, globally, over businesses from other countries.”

On coordination between the FBI and CIA:

“Agencies are set up in different ways, And you know at the end of the day, the CIA’s main job is to provide intelligence to policymakers, the FBI his main job is to mitigate threats right to stop these threats and so as a result of that sometimes different missions, there’s different aims and how they would do that.”

“And so there’s all sorts of ways that that is coordinated really kind of top to bottom, from a leadership level to kind of the ground, workers, again I can’t get into the details of how exactly that works. But I can assure you that it’s certainly in these areas in the intelligence world and counter intelligence, we really are, shoulder to shoulder in terms of looking at problems and try to work out solutions.”

On the extensiveness of the American citizen recruitment process by foreign governments:

“Obviously China is really kind of at the vanguard of this, where they’ve made advances that simply just weren’t possible without having kind of the speed with which these, these changes advancements are making without doing this type of espionage.”

“Cyber is a wonderful example of that where it’s given people, really a lot of access to individuals information that just would not have been possible from a resource standpoint, you just can’t avoid that many people, but I really want something that don’t I really try to emphasize with with individuals is to understand that there’s very few sort of brute force cyber attacks that happen, they’re almost always hybrid, someone is involved, a person on the inside either wittingly or unwittingly, either they are, they’re falling for some spoofed email or they’re being socially engineered, or they’re cooperating in some sort of way that may never come to light.”

On the role of intelligence agencies around universities:

“Certainly the universities were always producing a significant amount of science and technology, information or new research and development that we’re doing that was of interest to the Soviet Union or to other countries out there, and they were absolutely targeting universities.”

“And the idea is that China is heavily targeting universities for a number of things, not just for some sort of research but trying to police discourse on campus, they’re looking to recruit, current students and professors in order to kind of control, conversations, certainly about China, or about different types of spheres and some universities where they kind of feeder universities to the government they’re looking to recruit people early so that they have their kind of clutches into them before they get into government space.”

On the success of foreign intelligence agencies recruiting college students:

“And so people really need to understand, universities, you know, the point isn’t that these people are all threats by any means and the vast, vast majority of them are not are here for one reason and that’s to learn and to be part of the community, but they are extremely vulnerable, and so not recognizing that vulnerability is a major mistake. So, thinking about how to protect them, how to prevent them from being exploited is where universities really need to be right in regards to how How successful have they been I, I think anybody in the US who, who thinks they have an answer to that, I guess.”

On corporate espionage:

“There’s even more that the government knows about that we’re not reading about every day.”

“The government has very limited resources overall against the scope or the size over this threat. And so it can only identify so much. It can only work and investigate so much. How many other things are going on that nobody is paying attention to? How damaging is that to our country?”

How can businesses wrangle this problem:

“It can get misdiagnosed as a cyber problem. So an individual, an employee, uses their employee access to take in information, happen to do it from a computer where a lot of this is stored and then it says “Oh we have a technical issue” right? So that’s a misdiagnosis of the issue unfortunately.”

“So we’re starting to see that we’re getting close to the tipping point where companies realize that they’re not going to get very far with just doing cyber security or just doing facility security. They’re going to need to understand the access that their employees have and how to protect them from being exploited.”

On espionage harming COVID-19 response:

“There’s a whole number of countries that use their intelligence services to prove their makeup and getting information, and use it to pull in more information on COVID-19 or the vaccine.”

“If the vaccines weren’t going to be sold but were just going to be given away anyway, well, there’s an awful lot of good will that can be derived when you’re giving something as important as a vaccine to a country what have you. If it was our vaccine and we’re not selling it, but we’re giving it away, we’ll lose all the good will we would have garnered on our own deciding to give it away. My attitude is, even if they want it for humane purposes, they’re still doing activity that is absolutely harming us. It’s strengthening them and harming us. It’s unacceptable.”

Greater threat of foreign prosecution:

“I think China has been detaining individuals for a long time. And it has very little to do with any type of violation of Chinese law despite how they may portray it.”

“If a foreign country unjustly detains one of our citizens, that to me, is beyond serious. I don’t have the answer, I’m not in government in regard to what the appropriate response is, but it certainly deserves one.”

On solar winds and cyber space warfare”

“One of the reasons it’s so attractive is because it’s cost-effective. Another is that attribution can be extremely difficult. You don’t actually have a person you can physically get your hands on…I think this presents a number of issues not just for the FBI and the U.S. government, but for all governments. This is extremely difficult to protect against.”

On the FBI response to domestic partisan attacks:

“This is something that has been a tried-and-true method of the Soviets before them. The Russians, and the Chinese use this as a way to sow discord in the United States. They look for these divisions. They look for these ways in which they can further that divide and accentuate it. And that, in their mind is undermining the efficacy of our system.”

“To me, the government isn’t the answer. This is a broader societal problem that our adversaries are looking to exploit. But at the end of the day, the American people have to fix this problem.”

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