FBI Director: Pandemic Ignites ‘Aggressive, Sophisticated Threats on Many Fronts’

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AP/Michel Spingler

Hostile foreign actors, violent extremists, and domestic criminals are taking advantage of the “unique and unprecedented” impact the Chinese coronavirus pandemic is having on the FBI workforce to wreak havoc in the U.S. on several fronts, the bureau’s director, Christopher Wray, warned Thursday.

In written testimony prepared for a hearing on worldwide threats facing America hosted by the House Homeland Security Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray explained:

While the COVID-19 [coronavirus disease] pandemic has presented unique and unprecedented challenges to the FBI workforce, I am proud of their dedication to our mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.

Hostile foreign actors, violent extremists, and opportunistic criminal elements have seized upon this environment. As a result, we are facing aggressive and sophisticated threats on many fronts. Whether it is terrorism now moving at the speed of social media, or the increasingly blended threat of cyber intrusions and state-sponsored economic espionage, or malign foreign influence and interference or active shooters and other violent criminals threatening our communities, or the scourge of opioid trafficking and abuse, or hate crimes, human trafficking, crimes against children.

Christopher Miller, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), who testified alongside Wray, warned in his written remarks that the pandemic may provide terrorists with ample chances to evade authorities and carry out attacks.

He wrote:

The COVID-19 pandemic may fuel greater instability and degrade humanitarian conditions in several parts of the developing world, providing terrorists with opportunities to undermine local governments and expand their safe havens.

Terrorists have recognized the potential opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic and have accelerated attacks against over-extended security forces, used propaganda to blame the outbreak on their enemies or characterize the disease as divine punishment, and moved to undermine civilian confidence in the ability of local governments to care for civilians.

While testifying, Wray indicated that Russian and Chinese hackers pose a “very, very real threat” to U.S. coronavirus research on therapeutics, vaccines, and testing technology.

The director wrote:

Our data is not the only thing at stake here — so is our health, livelihood, and security. The FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case approximately every ten hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China.

Hackers backed by U.S. rival China are currently targeting American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting vital Chinese coronavirus research to gain “a competitive advantage,” the director testified.

Working from home during the pandemic has rendered Americans “increasingly vulnerable” to online criminal activity at the hands of “multi-national cyber syndicates” and “nation-state adversaries,” Wray declared.

“The scope of our cyber threats has changed, the impact has deepened, and many of the players have become more dangerous,” he added.

Wray also noted that foreign adversaries are engaged in efforts to disrupt the U.S. response to the virus, with Russian actors disseminating disinformation on the upcoming presidential election and the potential coronavirus vaccines to “mislead, sow discord, and, ultimately, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values.”

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