FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday called the work of Chinese military officials accused of hacking into the computers of American corporations and a labor union "burglary," and promised the the bureau would keep up its efforts to bring more accused cyber spies to justice. Comey stopped short of announcing any new indictments, but he said that the FBI was aggressively pursuing investigations against other criminal hackers and that he wants to send agents overseas to work directly with foreign governments on more cyber espionage cases in other countries.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department announced indictments of five officials for a years-long campaign of stealing companies' proprietary data and giving it to Chinese companies. "We're not going to put up with this," Comey told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in his first appearance since being confirmed as FBI director last September. "We're going to treat these as seriously as someone kicking in your door to steal your stuff, to steal your ideas, to steal your identity." Comey described cyber security and crime prevention as a top priority for the FBI.
Officials said earlier this week that Russian hackers are the likely next target of federal prosecutors. For several years, the Obama administration has put Chinese and Russian cyber spies and criminals at the top of its list of worst offenders in what officials describe as a relentless campaign targeting American businesses for the benefit of those countries' own industries. Estimates on the true cost of cyber-espionage range widely, but are generally believe by experts and officials to be in the tens of billions of dollars annually. In announcing the indictments this week, a Justice Department official said the Chinese spying had led directly to the loss of American jobs.
Comey rejected comparisons between the kind of intelligence gathering that the United States does when it spies on foreign corporations and the alleged actions of the Chinese hackers, whom the U.S. accuses of providing pilfered material to Chinese companies in order to give them an advantage in business negotiations and in global markets.
Comey put nation-on-nation espionage, in which governments spy on each other in order to understand what the other is doing, in a separate and acceptable category. The Chinese actions, he said, are no different than if "someone kicked open Alcoa's front door and walked out with file cabinets." Alcoa is one of five U.S. companies named in the indictment, along with the U.S.' largest steel union, as victims of a hacker unit that officials believe is directed by China's People's Liberation Army.
Comey said that a significant portion of the detective work that led to the indictment came from the FBI's counterintelligence personnel, who work largely "in the shadows." The indictment, handed down earlier this week, was remarkable for the level of specificity it contained about what the Chinese hackers are alleged to have stolen, including prices for solar equipment, designs for nuclear power plants, and emails between company personnel and their attorneys. The indictments also contained photographs of most of the hackers, which a former senior U.S. intelligence official said was meant to send a message to China.
"We're telling them, ‘You think you're good at spying on us? We've got photos of your guys.'" The former official said that including of photographs in an indictment is "completely extraneous" as a legal matter, and was meant to emphasize the Americans' spy-hunting prowess to the Chinese.
While Comey devoted a significant portion of his remarks to this week's Chinese spying case, he also emphasized that counterterrorism remains a top issue for the FBI. He said he's particularly concerned about the "progeny" of Al Qaeda that are spreading radical ideology via the Internet and about jihadis who've gone to Syria, where they've received training in terrorist tactics and made connections in the broader global terrorist network.
Comey said that foreign individuals are being trained in terrorism in Syria and then returning to their home countries, and that these people pose a direct threat to the United States homeland.
"There will be a terrorist diaspora out of Syria," Comey said.
The FBI has a plan for countering that threat, Comey told senators, but added that it's not one he could discuss in an open session. Comey agreed to meet with lawmakers privately to discuss the classified actions the FBI is taking to prevent terrorist attacks against the U.S. by jihadis coming out of Syria.
Touching on other hot button national security topics, Comey said that the FBI doesn't use a form of administrative subpoena known as a national security letter to collect information about Americans in bulk. That question has taken on new importance in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting American's phone records in bulk without any connection to a crime or an open investigation. Comey said that the FBI only uses national security letters as "building blocks" to gather records and evidence for particular investigations.
As to another controversial surveillance tool, Comey said a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to collect Internet communications and data from major tech companies "is extraordinarily valuable to keeping the American public safe." Some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates have questioned whether intelligence-gathering under section 702 of the law should be reigned in and whether it violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions on unreasonable searches.
"I do not have concerns about its legality or constitutionality," Comey said.
Mandel Ngan / AFP