By Zach Itzkovitz

FBI J. Britt Johnson

FBI Special Agent J. Britt Johnson

The Marcus Jewish Community Center transformed into a situation room Thursday, May 14, as the Edgewise Speaker Series welcomed FBI Special Agent J. Britt Johnson.

Director James B. Comey selected Johnson to lead the FBI’s Atlanta Division in March 2014.

A Georgia native, Johnson joined the FBI in 1995, reporting to the San Diego Field Office on violent crimes, gang activity and drug trafficking. He transferred to the Atlanta Field Office in 2005 and became the assistant special agent in charge of the intelligence, surveillance and aviation programs.

Like any organization in the Internet age, the FBI struggles with finding secure ways to transfer information and with protecting other parties’ information.

“We were criticized after 9/11 for our ability to share information with local law enforcement,” Johnson said. “What we found is if we had information that we felt needed to be shared with local law enforcement, it would show up in the media.”

Also at risk is private-sector information such as trade secrets and bank account data. The FBI created the Domestic Security Alliance Council to enhance collaboration with the private sector in protecting information, particularly related to interstate commerce.

“If they’re stealing trade secrets, they could bankrupt a company,” Johnson said. “When they’re desperately looking to see what the company’s about, and China steals that and they’re producing it at half the price, the company’s going to go under.”

Cyberterrorism may cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars, but violent extremism costs lives. Johnson spoke as candidly as he could about international and domestic terrorism, especially about “homegrown violent extremists.”

“Those are the ones we’re most concerned about today,” Johnson said, “because they’re really hard to track. They’re not talking to anyone, and they’re not going to come up on our radar very often. We’re just trying to figure out when they’re at their snapping point.”

Violent extremists abroad are also difficult to pin down, despite having contacts with known terrorists. Because foreign extremists migrate frequently from organization to organization, the line between state-sponsored and independent attacks is often blurred.

Johnson dedicated substantial discussion to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents and exposed many U.S. surveillance programs.

“There’s far more information he’s taken,” Johnson said. “Countries can no longer cooperate with us because they don’t feel confident that we can protect our relationship with them. So they’re no longer working with us. They’re no longer providing information to us.”

The Edgewise Speaker Series is open to anyone 50 and older. Sessions are free for JCC members and $5 for nonmembers. The last event of year is Thursday, May 28, at 10:30 a.m.