Q&A with the FBI's Ralph Boelter

The FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism discusses collaboration with security professionals, evolving threats and future challenges
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Monday, April 23, 2012

WASHINGTON—As director of the FBI's Minneapolis field office, Ralph Boelter never missed a meeting of the local InfraGard chapter. He was also an active member of the Twin Cities Security Partnership, a collaboration between the FBI, local law enforcement and private sector security professionals in the Minneapolis area. That is to say, he understands the value of the FBI's collaboration with private sector security leaders.

Now in Washington, Boelter brings that understanding to his role as the FBI's assistant director of counterterrorism. Security Director News spoke with him recently to learn more about opportunities for private sector security leaders to collaborate with the FBI. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

SDN: Joint Terrorism Task Forces are a collaboration between the FBI and law enforcement. Are there opportunities for private security leaders of major companies to collaborate with the JTTFs?

Boelter: I know there are a couple of companies that we have a very close relationship with in that regard, like transport companies, but I'm not sure they have full membership on the JTTF. I wouldn’t think so, but I'd have to double check on that.

But are there opportunities for private security leaders to be involved with JTTF if they want to be, or does the FBI have to approach a company?

Yes, it would have to be a managed effort. So I think very selective companies, airlines for instance—we have a very close relationship with the major airlines in the country.

The fact that a large amount of the country's critical infrastructure is managed by these private corporations and overseen by security professionals makes it essential that the FBI collaborate with the private sector.

There's certainly a relationship, to be sure, with the FBI and DHS.

How about ITACG [Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group]? From what I understand, it's a program that brings law enforcement leaders from all over the country to Washington to discuss counterterrorism efforts with the FBI. Tell me about ITACG and whether there are opportunities for private security leaders to participate in the group.

It’s a group of, as I understand it, local law enforcement leaders. We have national representation from various regions in the country. For instance, the sheriff from Hennepin County in Minneapolis is a member of ITACG. They're brought into the fold. They have clearances and … they come together on a monthly basis and meet here in Washington, and discuss and share their views from the ground level and kind of get our take on things on the national level. I believe that's run out of NCTC—the National Counterterrorism Center.

So you don't know if there are any plans to expand the clearance opportunities and career opportunities to private sector security leaders?

I can't speak to that. I don't manage that component.

What are other conduits through which the FBI communicates with the private sector?

So you have various private sector associations and groups, like the one I mentioned earlier, the Twin City Security Partnership. You have that element in Minneapolis and corresponding groups like that throughout the country. You have InfraGard. In Minneapolis, it's 400-plus strong and meets on a monthly basis. So there is threat information that is passed there, and just updates on the status of threats. Of course any time a threat surfaces that would implicate a particular industry or a particular company of course that's conveyed and that's shared. So there are a number of different forums and groups that get together where that kind of information is passed.

How does InfraGard help in the FBI's counterterrorism efforts?

I think it helps cross programmatically: counterterrorism, cyber, counter-intelligence. I find that InfraGard is a very robust group. I find that the people there, in my experience, are very committed and really want to be engaged and involved. They represent a broad section of corporate America. I know in Minneapolis it started with the high-tech companies, but it has really evolved to healthcare companies, even the food industry up there was represented at InfraGard. So it's a great network frankly and great means of getting any particular message that you want to get out, from my perspective, and likewise it gave them a forum to express their concerns and things they were seeing in their industries: Threat information to be sure, but trends and vulnerabilities they would highlight as well. I would go to every InfraGard up in Minneapolis. I found it was a good use of my time.

Do you believe there are opportunities for greater collaboration with private sector security leaders?

I think there's always room for greater collaboration. You obviously have to watch the limits of what you do because you never want to use the private sector, or be perceived as using the private sector as agents of the government. But I think the interaction can only benefit us, and beyond that just build trust and build that relationship that makes the counterterrorism effort broader and more cohesive, and more effective in the end.

Paramount is sensitizing those people in those industries—whether it be the energy industry or transportation sector—to the vulnerabilities. I have to tell you: They are quite well aware of their vulnerabilities in counterterrorism, but just keeping that dialogue going is very constructive.

They may be aware of vulnerabilities, but they may not always be thinking about threats on the same level as the FBI. Are there efforts to make them more aware of potential vulnerabilities they may not have considered? Is that education and learning piece there?

We have a very comprehensive Tripwire program that we reset periodically, every six months or so we're going out to the various companies in sectors that we're very concerned with, again energy and chemical, pharmaceuticals and wherever we see a vulnerability and make them well aware of what our concerns are and we refresh that and ask them to be cognizant—not to go crazy over it, but just be cognizant of the potential for exploitation on behalf of whether it be a homegrown terrorist or someone who is affiliated with an organization. That's an ongoing constant effort.

How has the change in threats, a shift toward the homegrown terrorists, affected how private security professionals should approach their jobs and responsibilities? And how has that changed how the FBI works with the private sector?

It makes the Tripwire program all the more critical, because with the homegrown threat, unlike a threat emanating from, say, the Arabian Peninsula—AQAP for instance—which really has no presence in the United States. So the threat emanates from the Arabian Peninsula and we know that. The homegrown threat, you can't box that up in any way. It can surface anywhere at any time and we really have limited capability of discerning that threat. Certainly without the private sector's involvement or awareness, I think that would be a pretty precarious position to be in, so we really do rely on industry leaders or CSOs reporting things that are out of the ordinary, suspicious activities, suspicious transactions that reflect potentially some nefarious intent on the part of somebody. I'll tell you it's happened—to state the obvious maybe—we've opened many cases on that kind of reporting, many valid cases, so very fortunately we had that kind of engagement and relationship with the private sector where we can benefit in that way and they can report suspicious activity and then we can do what we need to do.

Is it just a matter of private sector security professionals being more vigilant, or are there additional policies or best practices that should be put in place or updated to make sure they're in line with this evolving threat of homegrown terrorists?

I think they just need to be educated about the threat and updated about the threats that exist, particularly the threats that may implicate their particular industries. And that's a process that's ongoing. Again that's been a success, I think the private sector is largely aware of what our concerns are and they've been responsive to our requests to report suspicious transactions or activity or conduct that we can then follow up on and determine if there's any real threat behind that suspicious conduct. There are a number of success stories where the reporting did originate with the private sector. Obviously, we're interested in continuing that trend and continuing to keep private industry sensitized to that potential and potential threats.

When you look at technology, several university campuses are considering smartphone applications that students could use to take photos or video of a crime or emergency situation and send it straight to a campus police department. That sort of functionality will evolve to the national level. What do you think about that technology and the ability for private citizens—given the whole focus on See Something, Say Something—to snap photos or video whenever they see something suspicious and send it to the FBI? How would the FBI manage that sort of influx of tips from people who are private citizens and not trained on what to look out for?

So when I think of technology and how it implicates the future, to the extent I think about it, it works for us and it works against us because the adversaries, the terrorists if you will, many of them are quite tech-savvy so they're continually upgrading their technical capabilities, their abilities to mask their communications, so that's a focus of my concern to be sure. As far as it enhancing the volume of potential threat reporting that we receive from the public, I'm not overly concerned about that. We can sift through large volumes of information. I'd rather deal with that problem than not have enough threat reporting. As far as how people behave out in the public, taking pictures of people they think are suspicious, I have some concerns about people being overly aggressive in that way.

And the privacy issues that it may bring up…

Yeah, that's another set of issues. But in terms of volume or valid threat information coming in, that's not something I'm overly concerned about.

Do you have anything else you'd like private security professionals to know about?

I would say be engaged with the FBI. We're certainly trying to be engaged with the private sector. We run Citizens Academies [http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/partnerships_and_outreach/community_outreach... in every field division. At the one I ran in Minneapolis we always had healthy representation from the private sector, including chief security officers. What a great vehicle to build relationships and build understanding with the private sector. Anyone can apply to attend one. I would encourage people to do that if they have the time to do it. Apart from that, again, I just think the relationship is critical to our overall success in the counterterrorism realm.