— -- The man leading FBI efforts to stop ISIS-inspired attacks in the United States is “imploring” Congress to help give authorities access to some of Americans’ private communications, noting there are perhaps thousands of people in the country secretly feeding on ISIS propaganda each day.
In certain cases, the FBI has no way of monitoring, or even knowing about, conversations among ISIS followers, and that “is troubling,” FBI counterterrorism chief Mike Steinbach told lawmakers today.
“With its widespread distribution model and encrypted communications, [ISIS] is afforded a ‘free zone’ by which to recruit, radicalize, plot and plan,” he said.
For the potential radicals the FBI does know about, authorities are taking no chances, Steinbach said, referring to the incident a day earlier that left a Massachusetts terror suspect dead.
In that case, an FBI agent and Boston police officer approached 26-year-old Usaama Rahim in a parking lot early Tuesday morning. But when Rahim allegedly pulled a large knife on them and wouldn’t drop it, they opened fire.
Rahim had expressed a desire to attack law enforcement officials, and he was placed under 24-hour surveillance by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, sources told ABC News. An associate was arrested overnight.
“The [terror suspects] that are out there … we are monitoring them very closely for any type of action, any type of overt steps,” Steinbach said. “And when we see those, we’re not taking the chance.”
But it’s becoming increasingly “problematic” for authorities to see such action and those kinds of steps, Steinbach indicated.
“We’re past going dark in certain instances,” Steinbach warned. “We are dark.”
At issue is the public’s growing desire to keep personal communications private, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. government surveillance programs.
Responding to market demands, companies are building mobile devices and software that encrypt communications so deeply that the companies themselves can’t access a person’s communications, even when a federal judge orders it, authorities have warned.
“I think it’s a tremendous threat to the homeland,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which was hearing testimony today from Steinbach and other U.S. counterterrorism officials.
Steinbach said the U.S. public needs to have “an honest conversation” – without “the rhetoric” – about how far technology companies should go with their encryption software.
“This is not a conversation about national security at the expense of privacy,” Steinbach insisted. “We’re not talking about large-scale surveillance techniques. We’re talking about going before the court … [suggesting] there’s a terrorist, and showing that burden of proof.”
But as U.S. law stands right now, only specific “telecommunications providers” are required to assist law enforcement, and those providers are “a small subset of the companies that are out there that provide communications services these days,” Steinbach said.
“We are imploring Congress to help us seek legal remedies towards that,” Steinbach told the House panel, noting that private companies themselves are also part of the solution.
While “urgently” asking for lawmakers’ help, Steinbach said there are “hundreds, maybe thousands” of people inside the United States following ISIS propaganda online.
Since the beginning of this year, ISIS has published 1,700 pieces of “terrorist messaging,” including videos, pictorial reports and online magazines, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center John Mulligan testified.
In all, an estimated 200,000 people receive the ISIS message each day around the world. It starts with about 2,000 “core” propagandists posting on Twitter and elsewhere, and then another 50,000 people “re-Tweet” and further distribute that messaging, according to Steinbach, citing a Brookings Institution report issued in March.
It’s “a new era where terrorism has gone viral,” McCaul said in opening his hearing.
More than 200 Americans have joined ISIS or attempted to travel to Syria to join terrorist groups there, Steinbach said.