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New Network Takes Aim at Cyber Threats to National Security
November 14th, 2012 Posted by

Amidst a continuing increase in national security-related cyber attacks and intrusions targeting America, the National Security Division (NSD), in partnership with the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) and U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country, last week launched a new, nationwide program focused on combating cyber-based terrorism and state sponsored computer intrusions. 

Federal prosecutors from around the country convened at Justice Department headquarters from November 7-9 for the inaugural meeting of the National Security Cyber Specialists – or NSCS – network, to receive specialized training and discuss new strategies for combating cyber threats to national security.  The NSCS network, which consists of nearly 100 prosecutors from U.S. Attorney’s Offices nationwide and cyber experts from NSD and CCIPS, is a new tool in the government’s cyber tool kit and a critical part of the department’s efforts to better address cyber intrusions and attacks carried out by nation states or terrorist organizations.

Where attacks against America’s digital infrastructure were once primarily the work of criminal hackers and others seeking profit or acclaim, today, national security threat actors are also increasingly looking for opportunities to exploit cyberspace to achieve their objectives.  Numerous sophisticated state actors are known to be using the internet for espionage and cyber intrusions targeting America’s vital military and economic secrets.  And while terrorists have yet to launch a major cyber attack against this country, they have already used the internet to facilitate bomb plots  against the United States, and have exhorted individuals with cyber expertise to exploit U.S. cyber vulnerabilities — weaknesses they liken to the vulnerability of U.S. airline security before September 11.

Lisa Monaco, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said at a cyber conference last month in Seattle:

 “We often think of national security threats, like that of a catastrophic terrorist attack, as questions about prevention. But the cyber threat is not simply looming – it is here.  It is present and growing.”

The NSCS network is a creation of the Justice Department’s NSD, working in partnership with CCIPS, the Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Enforcement Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, and the U.S. Attorney community.  Recognizing the emerging cyber threat from nation states and terrorists, and building on the groundwork laid by CCIPS and the Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property coordinators in combating cyber crimes, last year NSD undertook a comprehensive review of its cyber-related efforts to determine how it could contribute most to U.S. efforts to combat cyber threats to national security. 

In April 2012, the division completed its review and charted short- and long-term goals, which included as a top priority the creation of a nationwide network of headquarters and field personnel trained and equipped to handle national security-related cyber issues.  In June of this year, NSD established the NSCS at Justice Department headquarters by bringing together individuals from across NSD and CCIPS to work collaboratively on cyber national security issues and to serve as a one-stop shop for prosecutors and agents around the country when they learn of national security-related cyber intrusions and for reporting from private sector entities.  The headquarters component of the network is intended to harness talent and expertise from across the Department to attack these problems from all angles and identify possible case overlaps and potential leads. 

To build upon the steps taken at headquarters, in July 2012, each of the 93 U.S. Attorney’s Offices designated one or more cleared attorneys to act as force multipliers, broadening the network’s reach.  U.S. Attorneys will also play a critical role in the network, leading the engagement of their particular districts.  Drawing on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force model, which has been successful in the counterterrorism realm, this network will improve the flow of national security cyber information to and from offices around the country.

To equip this large cyber cadre in how to best address these new threats, the department has developed and carried out extensive training.  Last week’s inaugural NSCS conference covered topics ranging from digital evidence, to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to current threat trends, to common challenges in combating national security cyber threats specifically.  Underscoring the importance of this mission, Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Assistant Attorney General Monaco, and others from the department and the FBI addressed the network throughout the three-day conference.  This event followed specialized training by NSD and CCIPS in October for all members of the NSCS network at Justice Department headquarters, and a more general training on basic cyber issues for approximately another 100 headquarters attorneys.

With the network built, the department will be able to accelerate some of the national security cyber work that has been ongoing since NSD’s cyber review.  In particular, the network will help strengthen partnerships between the department and agencies across the U.S. government, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and various elements of the Intelligence Community.  The network also will work particularly closely with the FBI’s National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force (NCIJTF) to help preserve all intelligence collection, prevention, disruption and response options for cyber national security threats.  NSD has already installed a dedicated liaison to NCIJTF.  In addition, the NSCS network will be increasing its outreach to the private sector to engage businesses and individuals in the cyber discussion and help prevent attacks and intrusions.  Through these private sector alliances, the network will gain a better understanding of private sector cyber security concerns.

Going forward, the NSCS network is focused on ensuring a whole-of-government and all-tools approach to combating cyber threats to national security.  The network will be working to bring investigations and prosecutions as viable options for deterrence and disruption as part of the government-wide response to these threats.  The network will also be advising and consulting other parts of the government in the use of additional tools to counter these threats.

As Assistant Attorney General Monaco stated last month in Seattle:

 “The diversity of cyber threats and threat actors demands a diverse response.  This nation has many tools – intelligence, law enforcement, military, diplomatic, and economic – at its collective disposal, as well as deep and diverse expertise.  The trick is in harnessing our collective resources to work effectively together.” 

Through the creation of the NSCS network, the department is ensuring that the full power of its collective resources is brought to bear against national security cyber threats.

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