WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department is restructuring its national security prosecution team to deal with cyber attacks and the threat of sensitive technology ending up in the wrong hands, as American business and government agencies face more intrusions.
The revamp, led by Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, also marks a recognition that national security threats have broadened and become more technologically savvy since the 9/11 attacks against the United States.
As part of the shift, the Justice Department has created a new position in the senior ranks of its national security division to focus on cyber security and recruited an experienced prosecutor, Luke Dembosky, to fill the position.
The agency is also renaming its counter-espionage section to reflect its expanding work on cases involving violations of export control laws, Carlin confirmed in an interview.
Such laws prohibit the export without appropriate licenses of products or machinery that could be used in weapons or other defense programs, or goods or services to countries sanctioned by the U.S. government.
“We need to develop the capability and bandwidth to deal with what we can see as an evolving threat,” said Carlin, who was confirmed to his post in April.
As Carlin builds his team, he has also recruited a new deputy, Mary McCord, from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.
The result, according to experts, could be an uptick in the number of national security-related cases brought in federal court, a shift in focus from the National Security Division’s prior mandate to investigate for intelligence-gathering purposes, and only prosecute a subset of cases.
“This is not just a reshuffling of the deck,” said former national security cyber crime prosecutor Nicholas Oldham, who is now in private practice.
On the export-control front, the government has also been increasingly setting its sights on more significant cases, a top official in the Export Enforcement Coordination Center said in an interview.
“One of the things I look for is, are we going after low-picking fruit, or are we going after more significant violators?” said Thomas Trotto, deputy director of the center, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The changes come amid reports that hackers in Russia and elsewhere are targeting everyone from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union to JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) and other financial institutions.
The counter-espionage section, which deals less with on-the-ground spies than it used to, will now be called the Counter Intelligence and Export Controls Section. A network of terrorism prosecutors around the country called the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, or ATAC, will also be renamed the National Security/ATAC network to make clear its broader responsibilities, Carlin said.
In 2012, Carlin helped create a similar network of national security cyber specialists in each U.S. Attorney’s office around the country. That was the first of his efforts to start building cyber expertise within the group of prosecutors that had access to national security intelligence information.
In the first public case to come out of the effort, the agency charged five Chinese military officers in May, accusing them of hacking into U.S. nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets. The move ratcheted up tensions between the two countries.
“This prosecution raises the risk that other countries are going to go after our employees ... it’s a risky strategy, but a bold one,” said Amy Jeffress, a former national security prosecutor who is now in private practices at Arnold & Porter.
While the Chinese officers are not expected to be extradited to face charges in the United States, Carlin said his team is busy with similar cases that would likely be litigated in court.
“I think you will more regularly see the use of the criminal justice system. ... We are now actively investigating a variety of nation-state cases. Not all, but some, will result in prosecutions,” he said.
In addition to Dembosky, who was coordinating litigation within the criminal division’s computer crime section and will serve as one of four deputy assistant attorney generals, Carlin has also brought on board others with cyber expertise. He expects to bring in several more cyber lawyers soon. His chief of staff, Anita Singh, also spent time as a prosecutor in the computer crime section.
Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Andre Grenon