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The FBI’s cybersecurity brain drain has long-term implications

As the Trump administration grapples with cybersecurity concerns in the upcoming elections, it is also facing the loss of four top cybersecurity experts from the FBI. These exits could have a potentially long-term impact on strategy decisions for the division. POLITICO’s Eric Geller joins Alison Stewart for more.

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  • ALISON STEWART:

    This past Thursday, the Trump administration’s top intelligence and security officials held a rare unified press briefing at the White House. Their message: the government will not tolerate interference in upcoming elections. But there is a new problem developing as high level cyber security experts leave the FBI. Joining us now from Washington D.C. is reporter Eric Geller who covers cybersecurity for POLITICO. So Eric, how many security expert agents are we talking about? And at what level?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    So these are the people who are in charge of the largest groupings at the FBI — the divisions and then the branches that sit on top of that. So there is a cyber division that was created at the beginning of the last decade — about 15 years old at this point. And recently, the head of that division along with his deputy left and his boss also left the head of the branch that’s on top of the cyber division. So these are the officials who have set strategy. These are the people who decide where resources are going to be spent how agents are going to be utilized in the field. So we’re talking about kind of high level turnover. And right now, there aren’t people in place to sort of decide how to shape that mission going forward.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Has there been an explanation for this brain drain?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    So this is, it’s interesting. This is sort of a function of coincidence. Agents have to retire at the age of 57. And all, for the people that we wrote about in our recent story, joined the FBI as agents in the 90s. And so there was a hiring boom in the 90s. The FBI expects some of these retirements to continue as these agents reach that age. They can also start to retire when they turn 50, if they’ve been serving for 20 years. They get their retirement benefits starting at that point. So this is not unusual per say and it does happen in other parts of the FBI. What is unusual is to have so many at the same time. And also this particular moment is not a great one for the FBI to sort of lack that strategy.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    The short-term impact and the long-term impact on cybersecurity?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    So the short-term impact is probably minimal. The investigations in the field are going to continue, the agents have their marching orders. They know what they’re supposed to do. The long-term impacts could be more problematic. So you might see initiatives that the FBI wants to undertake — large operations that they want to undertake where maybe they need to get high level sign off. That’s the part that we’re talking about, those strategy decisions could be delayed.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    What are we to know about who might fill those positions and who will have a say in who fills those positions?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    So typically, those decisions are made by the deputy director in consultation with his or her top aides. The only person right now that I’ve heard who’s rumored to take over the cyber division is the person who’s currently in charge of the cyber investigations in the New York field office, which is sort of considered the premier field office — you typically see a lot of folks from New York promoted up to those senior management roles. So we’re going to have to see what happens — whether or not the person who’s picked is somebody who has experience with cybersecurity and knows kind of the techie stuff or whether they’re an experienced leader, perhaps from another field, maybe they have leadership skills but they don’t necessarily know cybersecurity too well. So we are going to have to see what is the caliber and also what does the background of the people who were brought in to take on these roles.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    FBI Director Ray completely knocked down the idea that the Trump administration is, specifically President Trump’s positions about the FBI had anything to do with these folks leaving. First of all is that true? And will it have an impact on recruitment?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    It’s a great question. I think right now the mission is still such a draw for FBI agents that this isn’t going to have a huge effect on recruitment. The private sector pays triple sometimes even quadruple an FBI executive salary for these people who knows cybersecurity. So I think that’s more a factor. The lure of a private sector job when you have kids who are about to start college, for example, you need to be able to afford those expenses. So I would say those factors are probably much more at play.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    So that’s where those agents are going — they’re going to high paying private sector jobs?

  • ERIC GELLER:

    That’s right. You can sort of see how the private sector is increasingly waking up to the need to hire these folks and a lot of them do come from the FBI.

  • ALISON STEWART:

    Eric Keller from POLITICO, thanks for sharing your reporting.

  • ERIC GELLER:

    Thank you.

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