Insights from DHS Intelligence & Analysis

October 29, 2021 9:00 AM to 9:45 AM

On October 28, John Cohen, Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), joined INSA’s Vice President for Policy Larry Hanauer for a virtual Coffee and Conversation focused on DHS Intelligence and Analysis’ (I&A) mission, domestic terrorism threats, and department’s priorities.

Mr. Cohen began by emphasizing the complex nature of threats facing the U.S. and how the terrorist threat environment is particularly challenging because modern threats often do not fit into the neat boxes that the Intelligence Community relies upon to classify them. Reflecting on the ODNI report released in March, Mr. Cohen reaffirmed his concern about domestic violent extremism (DVE). He stressed, however, that DVE is not solely a domestic challenge. The threat is fueled by online content that is often promoted by foreign actors or terrorist groups who are specifically targeting individuals in the U.S. that are vulnerable to committing acts of violence.

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DHS’ I&A plays a large role in addressing and countering DVE and have focused on structural changes, including hiring more people, to take on this threat. There is also a large cultural change going on within the organization as much of the information that may provide an indication of an emerging threat is publicly available. Analysts, who are traditionally used to relying more on covert collection, need to be trained to take advantage of the barrage of information publicly available on social media and other websites.

Regarding the use of social media, Mr. Cohen explained that foreign adversaries are utilizing these platforms to sow discord and disrupt U.S.’ relationships with allies. Much of the playbook that is currently being used can be traced back to the KGB’s actions during the Cold War. However, in modern day, the digital and physical worlds are now intertwined and thus, the U.S.’ adversaries are leveraging online communication platforms to influence the American people. Considering how to mitigate these strategies, Mr. Cohen explained that there needs to be a “whole of society” approach.

Due to strong counterterrorism efforts in the wake of 9/11, foreign terrorist groups have been forced to evolve, including incorporating the use of online platforms to inspire lone wolf attacks. A top DHS I&A priority is analyzing publicly available information and providing unclassified reports to local units that can take action. The greatest challenge in this work is making sure that analysts and collectors can differentiate between constitutionally protected speech and potential threats. Mr. Cohen emphasized that personal political beliefs do not influence the objective analysis of threat related information and that decisions are solely made on whether the collected intelligence is inspiring or motivating acts of violence.

DHS is interested in leveraging the analysis and research taking place in the private sector, especially projects related to online activity. They also are exploring how AI/ML can be used to identify when narratives are being introduced, as well as which ones are most likely to inspire acts of violence.

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