In his first live public appearance since being dismissed by the Trump White House, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Russ Travers, warned that the U.S.’s intelligence and counterterrorism communities are confronted with a number of dangerous threats, and not all of them from foreign sources.
Travers joined Schar School of Policy and Government Distinguished Visiting Professor Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, Wednesday night for an hour-long discussion hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. More than 380 viewers from around the world tuned in to the online event that was marred by an ill-timed thunderstorm that knocked out power in parts of the Washington, D.C., region. As such, Travers appeared on screen in his parked car, giving the espionage-like aura of communicating from the proverbial “undisclosed location.”
“As we look to the future, we are going to see things like ‘deep fakes’ and computer-generated techniques to build weapons,” Travers said. “All of these things we are going to have to consider here in the next four to five years. It seems to me that the threat is—in some ways—offsetting some of those tremendous gains that we’ve made [since 9/11].”
Travers discussed the efforts and challenges faced by America’s counterterrorism experts today, and what changes and accommodations the NCTC—designed to be a central conduit of terrorism intelligence in the wake of 9/11—needs to fulfill its mission.
The technological changes that have come to the NCTC have been immense while the budget and resources have been continually cut with no public debate, Travers said. He described the agency’s efforts as collecting “several Libraries of Congress worth of information” every day, citing an observation by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Without the computer systems to analyze and store that information, NCTC is falling short, he suggested.
Terrorists, too, are becoming more technologically sophisticated, posing a greater risk to various facets of our nation’s cybersecurity efforts.
“We never worried about terrorists using cyber to conduct attacks, to damage networks, to damage critical infrastructure, or what have you,” said Morell, reflecting on his time as acting director of the CIA. “If Russ is worried about it, then I’m worried about it.”