With InfraGard, the FBI gives confidential briefings to Minnesota’s business community

By Mike Kaszuba

The subject of the meeting was cryptic — “Containing High-Profile Attempts to Influence: Tactics, Response, and Lessons Learned.”  The location was a facility in suburban Minneapolis operated by Cargill, the meeting host and the largest privately-held company in the United States.

And the meeting’s coordinator was the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Several times a year, the FBI brings together top intelligence, cyber security and terrorism experts for the members of InfraGard in Minnesota, which is described as a “partnership between the FBI and private sector with a focus on protecting critical infrastructure.  The activities of the little-known group, contained in documents obtained by Public Record Media, a non-profit based in St. Paul, provide a window into how top law enforcement officials share their knowledge and expertise with corporate leaders.

In many cases, the agendas for the meetings promise in-depth intelligence discussions not typically seen in public.

The group’s connections to Minnesota’s top companies are also detailed in the documents.  During a nearly four-year period ending earlier this year, meetings were held at the offices of large corporate entities like Cargill and Medtronic, the world’s largest health care company in 2019 according to Forbes.  Presidents of the Minnesota InfraGard chapter have included Elizabeth Stevens, the director of Enterprise Resiliency and Response at UnitedHealth Group, another Minnesota-based company and one of the largest health care companies in the world.

In November 2018, InfraGard’s speakers included Dr. Wayne Chung, the FBI’s chief technology officer. InfraGard members in Minnesota also heard from a retired FBI agent involved in the case of Robert Hanssen, a Russian intelligence spy who “was responsible for the disclosure of top secret information that caused significant damage to United States counterintelligence operations and classified weapon systems.”  In January 2016, members listened to an assistant U.S. Attorney and national security cyber specialist who was involved in the investigation and pending indictments against five officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army who hacked into six American companies.

At a July 2015 meeting at Optum, an Eden Prairie company that is affiliated with UnitedHealth Group and has more than 165,000 employees worldwide, the group was provided a biography of Richard Lett.  He was described in InfraGard documents as having “led the protection of senior members of the British Royal Family [including] the Weddings of Prince Charles & Camilla 2005, Prince William & [C]atherine 2011; [and] the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations in 2002 and in 2012.”

At the same meeting, InfraGard members were given “an in-depth account and firsthand perspective into The Illegal’s Program, [which investigated] a network of Russian sleeper agents under non-official cover.  The spies, posing as ordinary American citizens, were planted in the United States by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, where they tried to build contacts with academics, industrialists and policymakers to gain access to intelligence.” The multi-year investigation was known as Operation Ghost Stories, and led to charges against 10 Russian agents.

InfraGard has a national reach.  The FBI’s InfraGard website stated there are 79 chapters and more than 62,000 members nationwide, with six chapters in Texas and five each in Ohio and Florida.  The website added that more than 400 of the country’s Fortune 500 companies have representatives in InfraGard chapters. In addition, the website explained that “at the chapter level, members meet to discuss threats and other matters that impact their companies.  The meetings – led by a local governing board and an FBI agent who serves as InfraGard coordinator – give everyone an opportunity to share experiences and best practices.”

InfraGard members, the website added, are given “admittance to a members-only web portal providing access to the latest FBI intelligence as well as the opportunity to collaborate, share assessments and [obtain/share] critical infrastructure protection information.”

Meanwhile, documents provided to PRM stated that Minnesota has “one of the largest and most robust [InfraGard chapters] in the country.”

Other documents stated that the Minnesota chapter had 907 members, with 185 having joined since October 2014.  The documents said that a typical meeting drew roughly 200 members.

The FBI denied a request from PRM for a list of InfraGard’s members in Minnesota, stating that the agency by law was allowed to do so in part because the disclosures “could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of [a] confidential source, including a State, local, or foreign agency or authority or any private institution which furnished information on a confidential basis.”

The FBI, in declining to disclose InfraGard’s members, also stated that doing so “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

PRM had previously been given documents related to InfraGard as part of Minnesota’s unsuccessful attempt to have the U.S. Army build a Futures Command Center in the state.  Those materials stated that InfraGard “expedites the timely exchange of information and promotes mutual learning opportunities relevant to the protection of Critical Infrastructure.”  According to documents, InfraGard’s membership “includes business executives, entrepreneurs, military and government officials, computer professionals, academia and state and local law enforcement; each dedicated to contributing industry specific insight and advancing national security.

“At its most basic level,” one document stated, “InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and private sector.”

In releasing documents concerning InfraGard to PRM, the FBI stated that it withheld some materials that it determined “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

But the documents that were released showed that the meetings in Minnesota brought in experts with knowledge of events worldwide – and also closer to home.

At InfraGard’s September 2018 meeting, one of the featured speakers was the sheriff of Cass County, North Dakota, who had served as operations chief in late 2016 as police faced protesters in a high-profile confrontation over the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.  His talk was titled, “Protest on the Prairie; Lessons Learned.”

At a meeting in January 2017 at the Mall of America, the general manager of Accent Signage gave InfraGard members a first-hand account of the 2012 shootings by a disgruntled employee at the Minneapolis company that left five dead

At a September 2017 meeting of InfraGard members, this time at Medtronic, police officer Jason Falconer described shooting and killing a Somali-American man who stabbed 10 people at the St. Cloud Crossroads Mall in 2016.

Steve Brown, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy’s chief security officer, talked to the group in November 2017 at a meeting on “How to Build and Enhance Your Cyber Security Program.”  Chris Gindorff, the senior manager for food safety and quality assurance at Minnesota-based Lunds & Byerlys, spoke in March 2017 at an InfraGard meeting held at Medtronic titled “From Grocery Aisle to Dinner Plate: Defending Our Food.”  The meeting also featured “an Introduction to Food Defense.”

One discussion featured an FBI agent involved in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing. At another point, InfraGard members were promised a briefing by two witnesses to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel attack in Mumbai that over a four-day siege left more than 100 dead throughout the city in 2008.  Another InfraGard speaker, Michael Quiroga, the founder of Intelligent Drone Systems, was billed as “a known thought leader on the security drone industry.”  At a January 2019 meeting at Cargill, InfraGard members heard from an expert on a team that focuses on “Helping to Secure the North American Electric Grid.”

At a November 2018 meeting, again at Cargill, InfraGard members listened to a co-author of the “original APT28 report that revealed a major Russia government hacking group to the world; the group then went on to hack the U.S. elections in the fall of 2016.”

Still other meetings offered more interesting topics.

A July 2016 meeting at Optum promised a discussion on the “Professional World of Intelligence Collecting and Targeting,” featuring an ex-foreign intelligence service officer who defected to the U.S.  A note announcing the meeting however cautioned: “For security purposes the name of this individual is being protected.”