Inside the FBI: Comey’s Remarks at the 10th Anniversary of the National Security Division

September 16, 2016

FBI Director James Comey sat down with Assistant Attorney General John Carlin for a discussion about transparency and the current threats facing our country.

Audio Transcript

Mollie Halpern: FBI Director James Comey sat down with Assistant Attorney General John Carlin for a discussion about the current threats facing our country, the Going Dark problem, and the FBI’s transparency with the people it serves.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted the discussion during an event observing the 10th anniversary of the National Security Division of the United States Department of Justice.

We begin with Director Comey’s reaction to the changes he saw when he returned to government after many years of working in the private sector.

Take a listen to the highlights…

Director James Comey: I was very much struck coming back after eight years away, to take the FBI in particular, how integrated we had become with the other parts of the intelligence community, state and local partners, the U.S. military, how much smarter and better our country had gotten at going to the fight--I'm talking about terrorism now--with a fuller toolbox. It was remarkable.

…Although we have different responsibilities, different authorities, different focuses to be effective, the circles have to not just touch, they have to overlap in appropriate ways. I was struck by the jointness of things. And I was also struck by the extraordinary growth and integration of the FBI's intelligence workforce, especially our great intelligence analysts and the way in which they were involved in everything that the FBI was doing. We had gotten better, thanks to Bob Mueller and a whole lot of other people, at asking and answering a very small set of questions: What do we know, what do we need to know, how does what we just found out connect to other things we know, and who need to know this stuff that we just found out?

And we had gotten so much more disciplined and rigorous at driving those questions in everything we did that it was extraordinary. Now, we've tried to make that even better. We're trying to even drive better integration between our operations and our intelligence, we're training our analysts and our agents together at Quantico. They sit in the same classrooms, they wear the same color golf shirts, they workout together. they eat in the cafeteria together, and they learn what each of them brings to the mission so that when the analysts graduate in 10 weeks and go out to their field offices, they know the rhythm of a counterterrorism squad, a cyber squad, a criminal squad, a squad of any kind, and the importance of that integration.

The agents stay another 10 weeks and then they graduate. When they hit the field, they know the value of that tremendously talented cadre of intelligence analysts. So we took something remarkable and we're trying to improve it even still. That jointness of things struck me. The second thing that struck me is--it may strike you as odd but I hope it resonates--the velocity of fear that terrorists are able to generate is extraordinary and hit me in the face when I came back to government. That is, the ubiquity of devices and information and images, and video in particular, but text and images of all kinds allowed all human beings to connect to each other in extraordinary ways. But to connect, to get close to the flames in a way that wasn't possibly 15 years ago.

Close your eyes and think back to that awful Tuesday 15 years ago and there were no tweets from the towers, there were no texts from the towers, there were no real images sent from the towers. The horrific images that I still have in my head are those poor folks jumping out of the building. I don't think we saw that in video form until much later. Today, people can be at the Bataclan, can be in San Bernardino huddled behind a car while terrorists are firing military weapons at law enforcement and feel it in this intensely, intensely up-close way over and over again: "I'm there, I’m there."

What has struck me is the way in which that produces a velocity of fear, a spike of anxiety that is beyond anything I'd ever felt before. You can spend all kinds of time, which is thoughtful, saying, "Well, but it's irrational to be that afraid," that you're far more likely to be killed in an American city by a gunshot from a gang banger than to be killed by a terrorist. All that's true, but the fear is real that people feel. It's magnified, amplified, almost becomes a contagion by virtue of our access to the flames.

I felt it after San Bernardino in December. Even my own family members were asking questions like, "Are we okay? Are we going to be okay?" My answer was, "Yes, we're going to be okay," that you have to work to manage that anxiety. There are four possible states of the world. There's red, which is you're in a fight. Stress hormones are coursing through your body, you're in a fight for your life. It's unsustainable long-term. There's orange, which means you're on the cusp of a fight. The hormones are starting to course through you. Then there's yellow, which I'll come back to. Then there's white. White is headphones on, New York City subway platform, midnight, texting. Obliviousness to the world. The state my kids were coached to live in and that I would urge all Americans to live in is yellow. Healthy awareness that there are really bad things out there and people who do want to kill us, but not a disabling unsustainable state of orange or red. Resist obliviousness, be aware of your surroundings, but resist what they want from us, which is a disabling state of fear. Live in yellow.

Two seconds means everything. You have two seconds once something happens to seek safety, to get out of the way, to get down. In two seconds, if you're in white, is like that, but if you're living in yellow, two seconds is a meaningful period of time. My urging of people is do not let them take advantage of this velocity of fear to paralyze us, but instead channel that awareness of bad things into a state of healthy awareness of your surroundings and go on living your life because you, especially in this great country of ours, have invested unbelievable amounts of money to build something that is competent. We have a competent counterterrorism capability in this country. Let us do our job and enjoy the freedoms of this great country. Do not give them what they exactly want.

Those are two things I've been struck by coming back: The jointness of it all and the way in which fear is able to play such an enormous and spiky role in all of our lives.

John Carlin: You talked a little bit about color coding. One thing I know in your current role, and as prosecutors we think about, is how do we describe what we see as the threats are publicly and candidly without inspiring terror? How do you do that balance now?

Comey: It's not easy. I think probably in two ways. Well, three ways. One is being as transparent as you can and as descriptive as you can be about the nature of the threat, which I think people find more useful than a label--we're at run-for-your-life level or we're at run-and-hide level--but instead giving people information, but then coupling that information with two things. Context--explicit context--about what we're doing to address that threat: who's at work on it, what we're resources we're bringing to bear, all that's very important.

The third bucket is harder to describe. I think its tone and visual imagery. I think it's really important that when people are freaked, they see people who are depicted in a way and acting in a way that reassures them that grown ups are working on this.

We're not actors, but we have to think about what's the image that people are taking from this encounter with us on their TV screen or on their device. Is it reassuring? Not patronizingly reassuring, but do these people look competent and do they talk about things in a way that convinces us grown ups have got this, I don't need to freak out so much.

Carlin: As we look ahead towards next generation threats or over the next five or 10 years, you and others have publicly discussed the threat posed by those who would attack through cyber-enabled means. What do you see as the greatest threat as we move towards an Internet of things, and how do you think the American people should think about it?

Comey: I think the threat is just that the attack surface is much, much larger for criminals and creeps. Anybody who wants to do harm to us in our lives just has another way to do it. I think that it's inevitable. We're moving in that direction, so I think people just need to continue to be sensible in their own security hygiene and asking good questions and not assuming that somebody else has thought about this or someone else is taking care of their security, but, as a good consumer, read about the security of devices and what steps people are taking to protect you.

Carlin: Do you still have a piece of tape over your cameras at home?

Comey: Heck yeah. And I also--I get mocked for a lot of things, much mocked for that--but I hope people lock their cars. I don't have them in my own car that I drive, but I'm sure we lock our FBI cars. Lock your doors at night. I have an alarm system. Do you have an alarm system? You should use it. I use mine. It's not crazy that the FBI Director cares about personal security as well, and so I think people ought to take responsibility for their own safety and security, and there's some sensible things you ought to be doing. That's one of them.

You go in any government office, we all have our little camera things that sit on top of the screen. They all have a little lid that closes down on them. You do that so that people who don't have authority don't look at you. I think that's a good thing.

Carlin: There are some who said that because, for instance, the National Security Division working with the FBI pursued court process to try to obtain the contents of the iPhone of the mass murdering terrorist who killed multiple people in San Bernardino. Because we used court process, and tried to compel, that that would make it harder to get trust or cooperation. How do you see the balance between those two objectives?

Comey: I don't know. I hope that doesn't chill conversations in cooperation, because we're transparent about what we're doing and why. We had--in my view--a compelling purpose. We had strong legal arguments to ask the court, to ask the provider, to compel the provider to give us the assistance we needed, but none of that was sneaky. All of that was upfront, and I hope people can understand--they can disagree--but if they understand what we're doing and why and that we're transparent and upfront about it, it's not going to chill conversations, I hope.

Carlin: As we have those conversations going forward on how to obtain information for a world of new communications, what do you see the role for the National Security Division team and the FBI? What's our role in that debate?

Comey: I think two things. Most importantly is to provide information--urging and information--that we have a serious conversation about the way in which the fundamental governance of the United States is changing. I actually don't think that's an overstatement. What's happening to us, maybe without even realizing it, is we're moving to a place--which may be a wonderful place--but we ought to do it consciously. We're moving to a place where wide swaths of American life will be absolutely private. That is, outside the reach, not just of creepy people, but outside the reach of judges. That's a place we've never lived before, because the bargain in the United States has always been, your stuff is private unless the people of the United States need to see it, and then with appropriate predication and oversight, they can get access to it subject to judicial review or requiring a judicial order.

And so we're trying to tell people from the rooftops, life is changing. It has a big impact on our work, and maybe that's okay. Maybe the American people say, "We see the cost, but there's so many benefits to absolute privacy. We want to live that way." That's okay, but we ought to make sure that we do that in a thoughtful way.

Our job is to try to foster the conversation and fill it with actual facts and information. Because in the absence of that, it just becomes people shouting at each other on Twitter. I think we have a role to play in saying, "Here, American people, is how this is impacting the tools that you, through Congress, have given us, and here's qualitative descriptions of how it's affecting us and here's quantitative. Here's the number of cases and the impact. What do you think?" I really do think we should pull ourselves back and not say, "Here's what the answer should be." Nor should the companies. I think we ought to all find a way to foster a conversation where the people, in whatever form that takes, probably legislative, the people figure out how they want to be. That's our job.

Carlin: How do you compare the threat picture now--let's say, right after September 11th--to now, 15 years after September 11th?

Comey: The threat is very, very different. It's changed just since I became Director. In some ways it's broader, some ways more disconcerting by virtue of its breadth and the difficulty in seeing it. In some ways less. I can remember the feeling of 2002 and 2003--late 2001, 2002, 2003--of the tremendous worry about the next big thing. We had anthrax in that period of time. Dirty bombs, gas, mass casualty events. Those, we haven't lost sight of worrying about that, but our focus now is on a much more disparate threat, that I'm sure you've had lots of talk about, that's hard to see, unpredictable, motivated, and driven by people who are just disturbed and unpredictable even to those who would motivate them, and that makes it really, really hard.

You know this, but our daily job is finding needles in a haystack. As I like to say, it's harder than that even. It's finding pieces of hay that may become a needle. That makes it harder. Then once a needle is most dangerous, it disappears because of the power of strong encryption. That's a recipe for a nationwide effort that is very stressful. Not in the sense of the large, explosive attack or the chem-bio attack, but in the sense that where in this country today is some troubled soul inspired by hyperviolence that they see on the Internet moving toward shooting people in a club or at an office gathering? Where are they, and how do we find them and stop them? That's very stressful and really, really hard. In that sense, it's a very different threat. Hard, but hard in a different way than 15 years ago.

Carlin: You've described a very complicated threat environment, and part of the role of the National Security Division is to provide oversight. As the leader of the FBI responsible for confronting these threats, it's been my experience, at FBI and in other places, that oversight is not always appreciated when you're in the midst of being overseen. How do you explain the role of oversight and its importance?

Comey: It is essential--just essential--for at least two reasons that pop into my head. One, the tyranny of the urgent is such, especially when you confront this kind of threat--the pace is just extraordinary--that you could miss the fact that you're going sideways and that you're misusing an authority or you're coloring outside the lines in some way you hadn't even anticipated or intended. That's one. The second is just the nature of people with power.

I think John Adams said, "Power always thinks it has a great soul." We believe we're virtuous as human beings, but especially when we have a mission with rich moral content. There's a danger that we'll fall in love with our own virtue and think, "I'm pretty awesome." Having people around to say, "Actually you're not so awesome," and poking at you and pushing at you is really important. It's a huge pain, but it's necessary. That oversight, the IG oversight, congressional oversight--all of it is a pain. But it's, given the nature of people and the nature of the mission, indispensable.

Carlin: Talking a little bit before about a change in trust and the relationship of American people to trusted institutions, like the FBI and the Department of Justice. Give us your thoughts on, do you think that's changed since you began as a prosecutor to now? If not, how would you describe it? If it has changed, how would you say it's changed?

Comey: It's a really good question. I read yesterday--either yesterday or the day before--I read a piece by David Brooks that I thought captured this so much better than I can. An erosion of trust across the entire scope of our country, really. As institutions break down and the things that were the centers in people's lives start to fragment--faith or family or civic intuitions. That, plus the easy availability of our own personal echo chambers--my children, again, discipline me not to go on Twitter, because apparently people say bad things about me on Twitter. But things like Twitter offer the opportunity only to encounter views consistent with our own 24 hours a day.

It used to be that the person who's now on Twitter would be down at the end of the bar late at night shouting at the television, and the only people he could shout with would be the other people who were down at the end of the bar. Now he can shout with 600 other people who are at their own metaphorical bars, and it's a constant reinforcement of their view of the world. What's so dangerous about that is the human brain has evolved to crave that kind of affirmation.

I think the confirmation bias is the most powerful force in our world. That is, that I'm hungry for things that affirm what I already believe, and I may not actually consciously even perceive facts inconsistent with what I already believe. That terrifies me. It should as a leader and as a human being. Now think about that through the lens of Twitter. There's an opportunity to feed that monster of a bias, that confirmation bias, all the time, so it accelerates that fractionalizing of our society and it allows people--it makes much it harder for people like me, like you, like people here, to speak reason to folks about our institutions.  And it allows corrosive doubts to become little teeny packets and stay in that bubble and be reinforced and reinforced and reinforced.

I do think it's become enormously challenging for people in institutions that depend on the trust of the citizens to recapture trust where it's been lost, explain ourselves in a way that allows them to resist demagoguery or the Twitterverse that drives them in a way that's crazy. It's a very, very challenging time for us.

Now, that said, we've got to stay after it. Because despite--I don't know what your parents taught you, but mine always taught me you can't care what people think about you--I do. I do because the institution I'm lucky enough to lead depends upon the American people believing that we are honest, competent, and independent. So when we rise before a jury or we speak in Congress or we speak in a cookout, we are believed because they understand we're in the middle of American life. We don't carry water for somebody else. So I deeply care what people think about us. And against the challenges I just laid out, it's a tall order to try to try to maintain the trust, and foster trust, or recapture it where it's been lost in that fractionalized world. We can't give up. We just got to keep talking about it and talking about it and talking about it and be as transparent as possible.

I worry sometimes that people don't even--when I use the word "transparency," I really mean, as often as I possibly can, I will show you exactly what I'm thinking, exactly what I'm doing and why. I will show you when I'm stupid. I will show you, I hope, sometimes when I'm smart. That's what I mean by transparency. Now, in Washington, when I use that word, people think, "What's he up to? There's something going on here. Something tricky here because he can't really mean that." I really do. Maybe if you don't believe after three years, three years from now you'll believe me. That transparency, I think, is necessary as an antidote to this corrosive lack of trust that can otherwise bleed into our existence. That's my advice to anybody else who's in government: Hypertransparency has to be your answer.

Now, it's going to be forced upon you, because everyone is the media today, so most things get found out. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But as often as possible, to just say, not in scripted ways, but as spontaneous as you can, "This is what happened and why. Here's where we fell short, here's where we did well." People will, I hope, come to rely upon that and realize we can actually trust these people. It's a challenge.

Carlin: How do you balance that desire for transparency with a need to protect the sources and methods you're using to collect intelligence on the adversary? One thing about the technical change that you've describe is it means someone in a cave overseas can get access to breaking news on a 24/7 basis. How do you balance that need for national security purposes with the transparency you need to earn the trust of the public?

Comey: Not easily. You grapple toward some sort of healthy balance, first with a recognition that the way you think about transparency today must be different than you thought about it 20 years ago because the world has changed so much. You shouldn't waste your time tilting at windmills, but you should pick those spots where we must protect information and protect it fairly aggressively. It is not--the way I talk about transparency--is not a surrendering that all sensitive sources of methods and information will inevitably make its way out.

There has to be information that's protected, and I think we as investigators, you as prosecutors, have to aggressively prosecute where a clear line has been crossed. It may not be easy in the abstract to define the line where we should have transparencies against secrecy, but in individual matters, it's not all that hard to figure out, and people should be held to account when they cross that line.

Carlin: You've talked about the Twitterverse. The use of social media is one that's been exploited by the Islamic State in the Levant. What do you view as the role of those who provide the platforms that are being used? What should their responsibility be?

Comey: I think all of them should, and do, those that I've dealt with never want to be in a situation where people are using this thing they have created to harm innocent people. Twitter is a terrific example. I think Twitter has done a great job, especially in the last year to 18 months, of embracing that and having it reflected in the way in which they police the Twitterverse to try to make sure it's not being used by killers to sell their poison. I think that's the way a responsible company, that's the way a responsible individual should act.

I've never liked the idea of us deputizing them and making them an arm of the government to police speech. First of all, I don't think that's appropriate in the United States, but I don't think it's necessary. Because once they see that we're not making this up, there really are really bad people trying to do really bad thing to innocent folks, they'll want to be part of making sure that isn't done through their genius, their baby, their creation. I think one of the things we've done better, you've done better, and our colleagues have done better is sitting with those folks and making sure they understand, here's the threat and here's how it's coming at us. This isn't some government puffing. You have a role to play as a citizen, we hope you will embrace it.

Carlin: Do you think we're in the right place in terms of our outreach or discussions with the private sector? Or is there room to grow?

Comey: I think we're in a pretty good place. I think we have a long way to go in terms of fostering a healthy conversation, however it comes out, about encryption and the challenges it poses for us. Because it got spun into a--and I'm not picking on either side--but an exchange of tweets on a regular basis. It's too complicated a thing for that. Too complicated technologically, too complicated as a matter of policy, too complicated as a matter of international norms. It's a really, really hard problem. What I hope to do is help frame it in a healthier way, have people recognize we actually don't have a conflict in values. All of us care about the same two things: privacy and security on the Internet, which I care deeply about, and public safety. Those are crashing into each other, and so what might we do to be able to optimize those two values? We may weigh them differently.

I see the world quite darkly. More darkly, I'm sure, than Tim Cooke does because of what I see every day. From his view I think he could fairly say, "You overweight darkness, you underweight innovation." That's probably fair criticism, but we share the same values. That ought to be the basis for a--no screaming and Twittering and bumper stickering--but a serious conversation about what's our problem, what are the costs and benefits, what could be done, and what should be done, and really have an adult conversation that way. I don't think we've done a good enough job as a country of having that conversation. We've done a lot of shouting back and forth at each other, both literally and metaphorically, and I think we need to get to a healthier place for a better conversation.

Carlin: Do you think, in terms of the role of national security lawyers, are there times national security lawyers should say no to an FBI request even if they believe it to be lawful because they believe the downside effect in terms of loss of trust of the American people or potentially bad case law down the future, or legislative response outweighs the benefit of using the legal tool?

Comey: Sure, yeah. There's a healthy tension between agents and investigators. I didn't used to think this, but now I know agents are always right. Excuse me, between agents and prosecutors, agents are always right, prosecutors are always conservative weenies. That healthy tension is good for us. You can act as a brake on some of our enthusiasm, and we can pull and push the prosecutor sometimes. Those are terrific conversations. And they're bumpy and they're messy and people are screaming at each other. Then they go have a beer afterwards and it's all good. But you need both to make sure, again, that we don't fall in love with our virtue. Our passion for an investigation can be such that we may lose the bigger picture. As you said, see how the knock on effects might cause either public issues that might create problems or cause precedent problems. That's your job, and our job also, though, is to bang back and forth with you.

Maybe because I've been trained as a lawyer, I find the adversarial system to be the one best designed to arrive at truth, is an honest clashing of views. It's one of the things I try and foster as Director. One of the challenges of being a boss is, I'm sure you know, will people tell you when you're not making sense? What I like to do is foster a conversation, almost a litigation, over an issue so that we surface different points of view. Any time you're able to take that which is so good and make it part of a structure, which it is between prosecutors and agents, it's a recipe for goodness.

I think the best way to shape a culture is actually not explicitly because culture is defined as the way things are really done no matter what they tell you in training. You can't explicitly shape a culture. The way you do it is modeling the way you want to be. I really want to model leadership that is confident and humble. I want open, transparent leaders who will have a conversation with their people and get better by virtue of it. I try every day I possibly can to go get my own lunch, stand in line and chat with people. Part of that is I'm hungry, but part of it is I'm trying to demonstrate a certain approach to leadership. The good thing is, other leaders will copy that. If you're intentional about that, knowing you're going to be copied, you can use it to good advantage.

Halpern: Thanks for listening to this edition of Inside the FBI. You can listen to the FBI’s other shows—FBI, This Week, Gotcha, and Wanted by the FBI—on iTunes and From FBI Headquarters, I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.

Audio Download