Top cyber-security officials keep leaving the FBI at a critical time

A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)
A person man uses a laptop.

At first blush, the departure of a largely unknown FBI official may seem unimportant, but there's a context to this report that's worth appreciating.

Another cybersecurity expert at the FBI is headed for the private sector.Trent Teyema, the FBI's section chief for cyber readiness and chief operating officer of the bureau's Cyber Division, has been named senior vice president and chief technology officer for the government-focused wing of Parsons Corporation.

Parsons Corporation confirmed the news in a press statement yesterday, announcing that Teyema is poised to join the company as a senior executive.

Why should you care? Because as we discussed earlier in the summer, as the midterm elections draw closer, and the threat of foreign cyber-attacks grows greater, the FBI appears to be losing much of its leadership in this area.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Scott Smith, who ran the FBI cyber division, parted ways with the bureau in July, following his deputy, Howard Marshall, out the door. Their supervisor, David Resch, is also stepping down.

They’re joined by Carl Ghattas, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, who’s also leaving, following Jeffrey Tricoli, “a senior FBI cyber agent who oversaw a Bureau task force addressing Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections,” out the door.

According to Politico, Tricoli was replaced by someone who “knows absolutely nothing about cyber.”

Of course, all of this follows Donald Trump’s decision in May to eliminate the job of the nation’s cyber-security czar, as part of John Bolton’s reorganization of the National Security Council.

A New York Times  reported at the time, “Cybersecurity experts and members of Congress said they were mystified by the move…. It was the latest in a series of steps that appeared to run counter to the prevailing view in Washington of cybersecurity’s importance.”

Alas, as regular readers probably know, we can keep going. In July, Trump presided over his first-ever National Security Council meeting on election security, which reportedly lasted about a half-hour – less than a fourth of the amount of time the American president spent with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Washington Post  reported soon after that, as part of the meeting, the president “issued no new directives to counter or deter the threat.”

This coincided with an NBC News report about the administration’s failure to properly prepare for cyber-attacks.

[C]urrent and former officials tell NBC News that 19 months into his presidency, there is no coherent Trump administration strategy to combat foreign election interference – and no single person or agency in charge. […][E]ven members of Trump’s national security cabinet have acknowledged the need for a central, unifying effort — one that experts say is missing. Senior officials have also admitted that the government has failed to take steps necessary to give the Russians second thoughts about intervening in American politics. Trump hasn’t done so, and neither did Barack Obama, whose response to election meddling – expelling diplomats and closing Russian compounds in December 2016 – has been described by some of his own former aides as tepid.

Tom Bossert, who served as Trump's top White House adviser on homeland security, recently told Yahoo News that he’s concerned about “who’s minding the store” on cyber-security.

FBI Director Chris Wray wants the public to feel confident in the security system in place. That's not an easy sell.