The shadow of ousted FBI director James Comey hung over the Senate Intelligence committee’s worldwide threat hearing yesterday. Like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, the presence of Comey’s absence was everywhere. But it wasn’t the most surreal aspect of the day. Here was a hearing on external threats at a moment when internal threats are growing more serious and scary than any time in recent memory. Just 24 hours later, the magnitude of that danger came into sharp focus as cyber attacks using stolen NSA tools hit an estimated 45,000 computers in more than 70 countries, disrupting Britain’s health system and sending officials from Moscow to Madrid back to paper and pens.
Insider threats are not new but the speed and scale of their destructive impact are. In 2001, Robert Philip Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI, was caught hiding a garbage bag full of classified documents in a “dead drop” under a Virginia park bridge. His arrest ended a 15-year mole hunt for one of the most damaging traitors in American history. Hanssen was found to have passed a few thousand highly classified documents to the Soviets over two decades, including the names of dozens of American agents. Several were killed as a result of his treachery.