Assistant Attorney General Discusses Cyber Threats

John P. Carlin, U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, spoke and answered questions about cyber threats and the Department of Justice’s continued efforts to fight terrorism Friday at Harvard Law School.

Carlin’s department, the National Security Division within the Department of Justice, was created in 2006 to create greater collaboration between prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, and the intelligence community.

The event was moderated by Law School professor Jonathan L. Zittrain, who serves on the board of directors for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the NSA’s advisory board. In the aftermath of the leak of NSA documents by former government contractor Edward J. Snowden, Zittrain asked about the extent to which the government’s intelligence gathering should be disclosed.

While Carlin acknowledged that publicly releasing information on intelligence gathering presents difficult technical challenges, he stressed the importance of agency transparency.

“I do believe that whenever possible we should try to make as clear as we can what the legal framework or parameters are,” Carlin said.


One attendee asked about the modern challenge of prosecuting those who are responsible for cyber attacks, given the potential for criminal attacks to take place anywhere in the world from behind a computer screen.

“Some folks thought that you could never show who was behind a keyboard, but we have shown that you can,” Carlin said, referencing the capabilities of intelligence-gathering agencies. “When the facts and evidence lead to someone behind a keyboard, we are going to bring charges.”

Carlin also spoke about undercover operations conducted by the intelligence community, which give agents the opportunity to see whether a person who is “talking the talk of violent extremism” will act upon his or her threats.

“In our system...we do not bring charges against someone for their views or beliefs,” Carlin said. “We will use our undercover operations to see whether the individual who has indicated a desire, a belief in violent extremism, or espouses views of a foreign terrorist organization…[will] take the actual step.”

Audience members said that the event presented an interesting depiction of the the National Security Division, yet added that Carlin avoided the moral implications of his work.

“I thought it was interesting how much of his talk was procedural and focused on the different departments and the way things are structured, as opposed to the moral and ethical questions that many of the questioners were more interested in,” said Ben Doernberg, a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “It was kind of worrying that there didn’t seem to be a lot of moral imagination.”

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.


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