Federal Times Blogs

Prosecutors worried that bill would derail undercover inquiries

Bookmark and Share

Remember the 1997 movie, “Donnie Brasco,” based on the true-life tale of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the mob?

Now try to imagine the film if Donnie (played by Johnny Depp) had to give hitman Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) written notice of his right to record their every encounter as the investigation proceeded. Chances are pretty good that this climactic bust (parental discretion advised) wouldn’t have happened:

YouTube Preview Image

That, in essence, is the alarm being sounded by prosecutors over a House-passed bill that would require federal officials to advise people of their right to record phone conversations and in-person meetings under certain conditions–such as when they are the target of a criminal investigation. For the record, here’s the actual text:

“A notice of an individual’s right to record conversations with [federal] employees shall be included in any written material provided by an Executive agency to the individual concerning an audit, investigation, inspection, or enforcement action that could result in the imposition of a fine, forfeiture of property, civil monetary penalty, or criminal penalty against, or the collection of an unpaid tax, fine, or penalty from, such individual or a business owned or operated by such individual.”

In its original form, the bill by Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., contained an exemption for federal criminal probes. By the time it passed the House last week as part of the “Stop Government Abuse Act,” the exemption was gone.

Should the bill become law, the advance notice requirement “would virtually undermine all undercover criminal investigations” by “announcing the existence of the investigation and blowing the cover,” Robert Guthrie, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), warned last week in a letter to House members before the bill passed.

In an emailed response to FedLine this week, Jenkins said the amended version of her bill “seeks to strike that delicate balance between government accountability and law enforcement. While the right to record would apply to undercover investigations, nothing in the bill would require law enforcement officials to notify the specific individuals of that opportunity.”

NAAUSA’s concerns remain, Bruce Moyer, the group’s counsel, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The sparring over the measure is probably academic. As passed by the House, the Stop Government Abuse Act bundled Jenkins’ bill with two others that would limit employee bonuses during a sequester and make it easier to fire Senior Executive Service members accused of serious wrongdoing. The combined legislation is given little chance of passing the Senate.


Tags: , , ,

How hackers infiltrated federal agency

Bookmark and Share

In addition to the standard two forms of identification, offer letter and contact information, new hires at the U.S. Department of Education are required to bring along a certificate of completion for cybersecurity training course.

A recent internal investigation shows why that training is probably a pretty good idea.

In a previously undisclosed probe into a 2011 “spear phishing” campaign, hackers targeted senior staff and managed to break through the department’s security protections to steal data from the department.

Much about the incident, which was described in documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request by Federal Times, remains classified, including how much data and what sort of information hackers took.

One of the hackers used an email address — arne.duncan[at]ymail.com – to infiltrate the department’s security protections.

You can read for yourself the summary of the investigation by the technology crimes division of the department’s Inspector General, which passed along its findings to the FBI. That memo can be found here.

Federal Times recently reported on the incident, but the Education Department declined to comment. Still, there’s a lesson in all of this. Even if the name on an email address seems familiar, government employees ought to make sure the sender’s address is legitimate.

And call the IT department if you’re unsure.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comey nomination draws positive reaction from two FBI employee groups

Bookmark and Share

President Obama’s choice of James Comey to head the FBI has been welcomed by two groups representing key elements of the bureau’s workforce.

The FBI Agents Association had previously backed a former special agent—House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.—for the job. But in a Friday statement issued shortly after Obama formally nominated Comey,  the association’s president, Konrad Motyka, said the former Justice Department official has an “outstanding reputation” among agents.

“We believe that Mr. Comey understands the centrality of the special agent to the bureau’s mission of protecting our country from criminal and terrorist threats,” Motyka said. “We look forward to meeting with him soon and working with him on the wide array of challenges facing our country.”

Also reacting favorably was the FBI Intelligence Analysts Association. While the association does not make endorsements, “we deeply admire his [Comey's] moral courage, vigorous defense of the Constitution, and unqualified belief that ‘intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in the country,’” the organization, whose president is Daniel O’Donnell, said in a release today. “Mr. Comey also demonstrated his unwavering dedication to protecting the American people during the implementation of the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act (IRTPA) in his previous role as deputy attorney general.”

If confirmed by the Senate as the next FBI director, Comey would replace Robert Mueller, who is retiring.

Tags: , , , , ,

Contract executive convicted in snooping case

Bookmark and Share

One morning in August 2011, the vice president of an information technology contractor for the federal government awoke, checked his BlackBerry and noticed something strange.

Overnight, as court records would later go on to describe, someone had sent an email from the unnamed executive’s work account to a former employee.

An internal investigation soon led to a federal probe by the FBI and the General Service Administration’s Office of Inspector General.

Now, nearly two years after that unusual email, the former employee, Robert Edwin Steele, 38, stands convicted by a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., of 14 counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer.

In announcing the conviction Friday, federal prosecutors said Steele worked at multiple companies in government contracting, resigning from one known only as “Company A” in December 2010.

But after leaving the company and while working for another contractor, prosecutors said Steele continued sifting through his old employer’s records. All told, he accessed the company’s internal system more than 79,000 times from December 2010 to early September 2011, authorities said.

When sentenced in July, Steele faces up to one year in prison on two misdemeanor convictions and five years on each of 12 felony convictions.

Tags: , , , ,

SILVER SCREEN FEDS: Stan Beeman, FBI, ‘The Americans’

Bookmark and Share

FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

Silver Screen Feds returns this week with an in-depth look at a major character from this year’s best new TV show: the Cold War spy drama “The Americans.” I’ve enjoyed watching the gifted, flawed FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman unfold over this show’s premiere season. And after watching its May Day finale, I decided that Beeman is too complicated to shoehorn into a narrow “best” or “worst” category, so I’m going to examine both sides of his character. MAJOR SPOILERS for the first season follow.

“The Americans” primarily focuses on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB agents who have been living undercover in Northern Virginia for decades, posing as husband and wife and raising two children while spying for the Soviet Union. As the show begins, right after President Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Beeman and his estranged family move in next door to the Jenningses.

Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich, who we previously profiled as the CDC scientist in “The Walking Dead”) is extraordinarily good at the spy game, often thinking three moves ahead of his adversaries. Early on, he catches a Soviet embassy clerk named Nina selling Russian caviar to the black market, and uses that information to turn her into a double agent. Beeman’s new mole begins feeding him valuable information on what is going on inside the rezidentura, allowing him to identify hidden Soviet spies and a sleeper cell of collaborating Americans.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , ,

FBI joins forces with Metallica to solve fan’s murder

Bookmark and Share

Composite sketches of the suspect in the Harrington case.

In one of the least-likely team-ups imaginable, heavy metal band Metallica is working with the FBI to solve a murder. The FBI today launched a multimedia campaign — including a video PSA with Metallica singer James Hetfield — to try to find the suspected killer of Virginia Tech student and aspiring teacher Morgan Harrington.

Harrington disappeared after attending an October 2009 Metallica concert at the University of Virginia. She was last seen trying to hitch a ride after the show, and her Pantera t-shirt was found nearly a month later, the FBI said. Harrington’s skeletal remains were found in a Virginia farm in January 2010.

The FBI says DNA evidence links Harrington’s suspected murderer to a sexual assault in Fairfax, Va., and released composite sketches of the alleged assaulter. A group called the Jefferson Area Crime Stoppers is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Harrington’s killer, and Metallica has kicked in another $50,000.

Hetfield’s PSA video is below, and after the jump find a recording of Metallica’s 1988 song “…And Justice For All,” which seems oddly appropriate for this story.

YouTube Preview Image

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: ,

FBI nabs $74 million cybercrime rings

Bookmark and Share

Law enforcement agents across a dozen countries joined forces to bring down two international cyber crime rings suspected of causing $74 million in losses to more than 1 million victims, the FBI announced Wednesday.

Two individuals from the northern European country Lativa were arrested Tuesday and indicted on charges filed in Minnesota, where the two allegedly created a phony advertising agency. Peteris Sahurovs, 22, and Marina Maslobojeva, 23 claimed they represented a hotel chain that wanted to purchase online advertising space on the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s news website, according to details about the indictment in a news release.

Dubbed “Operation Trident Tribunal,” the coordinated effort included officers from the United States, France, Canada, Germany and other countries and zeroed in on the scareware scams, where malicious software is sold as legitimate computer software.

Investigators seized more than 40 computers, servers and bank accounts throughout the United States and several European countries, following scareware scams investigated by FBI offices in Seattle and Minneapolis.

Here are some FBI tips on how to spot scareware:

  • Scareware pop-ups may look like actual warnings from your system, but  some elements aren’t fully functional. For instance,  you may see a list of reputable icons—like software companies or security publications—but you can’t click through to go to those actual sites.
  • Scareware pop-ups are hard to close, even after clicking on the “Close” or “X” button.
  • Fake antivirus products are designed to appear legitimate, with names such as Virus Shield, Antivirus, or VirusRemover.

Tags: ,

Some FBI cyber agents lack adequate skills, report finds

Bookmark and Share

A review of the FBI’s efforts to mitigate national security cyber incidents found that some field agents tasked with investigating these cases lack the technical skills and expertise to effectively do their jobs.

The redacted version of the report, released Wednesday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, examined the ability of the FBI-led National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force to defend against attacks on U.S. computer networks and efforts by the FBI field offices to investigate these attacks.

Of the 36 agents interviewed in 10 of the FBI’s field offices, 13 said they do not have the technical skills required by the agency’s Cyber Division to investigate national security cases. In addition, 5 of the 36 agents said they didn’t think they were “able or qualified to investigate national security intrusions effectively,” the report said.

Only 18 of the 36 agents had prior experience in computer networking, and some had never heard of the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force, which serves as the headquarters for the FBI’s cyber intrusions operations.

In nearly half of the 10 offices reviewed, agents said they were assigned to cases that “exceeded their technical abilities.”

A policy that requires field agents to rotate every three years to gain experience often puts inexperienced workers on cases left behind by skilled agents.

FBI agreed with the IG recommendations to address these issues. The agency has written draft information sharing protocols and will review the rotation policy, among other things.

Tags: , ,

Collins: Cheating scandal casts shadow on FBI

Bookmark and Share

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is keeping pressure on the FBI to reform in the wake of a cheating scandal. Collins sent FBI Director Bob Mueller a letter Oct. 7 that said he should immediately punish those who cheated on an important exam on domestic investigations rules and privacy, and force any cheater who wasn’t fired to retake the exam.

Collins also wants the FBI to conduct a department-wide review to find out if there were any other cheaters that weren’t identified by an inspector general investigation. Mueller last month said disciplinary actions are being taken against cheaters and promised to follow up on any other allegations of misconduct

Justice IG Glenn Fine released a report Sept. 27 that found dozens to hundreds of FBI agents and other employees — including the former assistant director in charge of the Washington field office and two of his special agents in charge — cheated on the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG) exam. Some allegedly improperly collaborated on the test, others allegedly shared answer sheets, and others may have hacked into the FBI’s computers to obtain answers.

Collins said the scandal indicates the FBI doesn’t take the DIOG seriously:

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , ,

FBI threatens to sue Wikipedia for using seal. Really?

Bookmark and Share

Just try it, FBI. We could use the publicity.

In what would be the stupidest potential lawsuit in almost a month, the FBI is threatening to sue Wikipedia for posting its official seal online.

The FBI appears to be concerned that no-goodniks could pull the seal from Wikipedia to make phony badges and documents. But seriously, FBI, the cat’s already out of the bag on this one. Heck, even the FBI’s own site has decent JPGs of the seal that can be found by anyone with rudimentary Google skills.

Wikipedia’s response letter leans heavily on the snark, and refers to the FBI’s “creative editing” and “strategic redaction of important language” in the law it cites. But Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation sums the whole episode up perfectly when she spoke to the New York Times: “I have to believe the FBI has better things to do than this.”

Tags: , ,