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Targeting FBI Budget Makes Us More Vulnerable on Cyber

Updated: Feb 12

Rear Adm. (Ret.) Mark Montgomery

Senior Director at the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Jiwon Ma

Jiwon Ma is a program analyst at CCTI, where she contributes to the CSC 2.0 project. Follow her on Twitter @jiwonma_92.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE / OPINION: The House Appropriations Committee is proposing significant cuts to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) budget, a move at odds with the appropriators’ stated commitment to “eliminating safe havens for cyber criminals.”

The cuts would deprive cyber agents on the home front of the tools they need to carry out technical operations as well as preventing the bureau from cooperating with foreign allies and partners to address threats with the potential to cross our border.

The committee’s proposed budget would cut more than $415 million from the $11.3 billion Congress appropriated last year for the bureau, delivering $1 billion less than the president requested for the coming fiscal year.

For cybersecurity, the FBI wanted $60 million more than it received for 2023, but the committee wants to cut $15 million. In response, the White House warned these cuts would degrade the FBI’s cyber incident response capabilities, which Congress and the White House have worked together to build up over the past several years.

Across the bureau, the proposed budget cuts would slash nearly 1,850 jobs. In addition, if the cuts pass, the FBI must redirect funds to implement the 5.2 percent salary increase the Biden administration is proposing for all federal civilian employees. The bureau would need to cut a further $250 million from other programs to free up enough funding for this salary increase, an incentive critical to retain its employees, particularly cyber experts who are sought after by the private sector.

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Currently, the FBI has “more than 800 cyber-trained agents spread across 56 field offices and more than 350 sub-offices,” Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division, told Congress last year. These field offices have “significant threat response, counterintelligence, domestic intelligence, and computer intrusion expertise and responsibilities.” The committee’s proposed cuts would leave the agents without the computer network tools they need to execute ongoing technical operations. The cuts would also hamper the FBI’s ability to hire developers and exploitation analysts, leading to the identification of fewer technical collection opportunities. 

Additionally, the budget cut would weaken the FBI’s Cyber Assistant Legal Attaché (cyber ALAT) program, which stations FBI cyber ALATs in embassies around the world to collaborate with local counterparts in addressing global cyber threats and criminal activity. The FBI created the cyber ALAT program in 2011 to maximize efficiency in information sharing with allies and partners. Starting with just a handful of cyber ALATs deployed to work with several U.S. allies and partners, the program now has 16 cyber ALATs.

According to Vorndran, the FBI can put a “cyber-trained FBI agent on nearly any doorstep in this country within one hour” and accomplish the same feat “in more than 70 countries in one day” thanks to the FBI’s network of legal attachés. With this global presence, FBI cyber ALATs have successfully investigated numerous cyber crimes over the years. However, the budget cuts would hamper the bureau’s plan to add 11 cyber ALATs over the next year.

In 2016, the FBI’s cyber ALATs worked hand-in-hand with investigators and prosecutors of more than 40 countries to dismantle the Avalanche Network, which consisted of “more than two dozen of the world’s most pernicious types of malicious software” and various money laundering campaigns. For more than six years, the Avalanche network had been infecting over 500,000 computers globally on a daily basis. Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the FBI’s legal attachés have been working with Kyiv’s investigators to comb through large amounts of digital information to prosecute Russian war criminals for cyber and kinetic attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.

Investments in cyber law enforcement programs are essential to safeguarding the United States and its allies and partners against malicious cyberattacks. The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed budget reductions for the FBI may emphasize fiscal responsibility but would have serious unintended consequences. Investments in the FBI’s cybersecurity arms would not only bolster the nation’s security posture but also help grow a healthy cyber workforce that ensures the overall resilience of the nation — a benefit that far outweighs the cost of sufficient funding for the bureau.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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Rear Adm. (Ret.) Mark Montgomery is a senior director at the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He directs CSC 2.0, which works to implement the recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, where he previously served as executive director. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCMontgomery  

Jiwon Ma is a program analyst at CCTI, where she contributes to the CSC 2.0 project. Follow her on Twitter @jiwonma_92.


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