By the Book: Work That Matters
Remarks as delivered.
I last spoke at this conference in 2004, back when I was the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division. The notion of being back, as Director of the FBI, was the furthest thing from my mind 14 years ago—or 14 months ago, for that matter.
But I’m really glad to be here today. I can confidently say that no organization meant more to my grandfather, Sam Gates, than this one. And even though I was only in middle school at the time, I remember how much the College rallied around our family, when he died unexpectedly in 1979, shortly before being sworn in as president.
And many of you knew my grandmother, Phil Gates—“the Electric Grandmother,” as my friends dubbed her—a successful author and accomplished attorney in her own right. For almost 30 years after my grandfather’s passing, she would travel to the College’s annual meeting to present the Gates award herself. Like him, she considered this group her extended family.
I’ve thought about both my grandparents a lot over the past several months in taking on this role. And I’m pretty sure they’re both smiling this particular morning. So thank you for inviting me.
Today, I’d like to talk to you about some of the threats we face, and where we need to be moving forward. I’d also like to share some thoughts on the meaning, and impact, of the FBI’s work and people. But first, I’d like to talk about what’s been going on at the Bureau the past few months.
I’ve been lucky to work with the men and women of the FBI for a big chunk of my professional career.
As a line prosecutor out in the field, I got to work with agents on everything from bank robberies to public corruption, from kidnapping to financial fraud.
And at Main Justice, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the unbelievable way that agents, analysts, and others tackled national security threats, both on the day of 9/11 itself and in the first several years afterwards.
I can tell you that I could not be more fired up to be back and part of the Bureau’s next chapter.
It took me all of about five seconds after walking back in the door at Headquarters to remember how much I missed this mission—protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. Simple to say, but profound to execute. And staying laser-focused on that mission has never been more important than right now.
This has been a chaotic and uncertain time for the men and women of the Bureau, on a number of levels. In the midst of all the choppy water, my immediate priority has been to try to bring a sense of calm and stability back to the Bureau.
I’m hoping to steady the ship by keeping our eyes focused on the mission and the work itself, day in and day out, grinding away. In a society sometimes impatiently fixated to a fault on results, I’m somebody who’s a big believer in process. Following our rules. Following the law. Following our guidelines. Trying to make sure we’re not just doing the right thing, but doing it in the right way. Treating everybody with respect. And pursuing the facts independently and objectively, no matter who likes it.
Those are not glamorous concepts. As my wife and kids will tell you, I’m decidedly not a glamorous guy. But I am firmly convinced that that approach represents the Bureau at its best.
Our 37,000 men and women understand that we prove our mettle not through the chatter of cable TV pundits or social media, but through the actual work we do. One case at a time. One search warrant at a time. One interview at a time. One intelligence product at a time. One decision at a time.
We intend to keep grinding away, doing everything we can to keep the American people safe. And where we fall short—because we’re human, like everybody else—we’ll make the changes we need to make to be stronger and better. Because the American people expect us to get it right the first time. And they deserve no less from us.
With everything going on in the world right now, to say that our plate is full would be an understatement. Everywhere I turn, someone’s identified something they think the FBI should do more of. I have yet to meet anyone with ideas of things they think the FBI should do less of. But if any of you know such a person, I’d love to meet them, even for the cathartic benefit of hearing that.
National security remains our top priority, as it has to be, and counterterrorism is still a paramount concern. But that threat has morphed significantly since the last time I was in government.
We’re not just worried about large, structured terrorist organizations like al Qaeda planning large-scale attacks in big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
To be clear, that threat is still very much there. But as you know, we now also face groups like ISIS, which use social media to lure people in and to inspire them more remotely to attack whenever and wherever they can.
And we face homegrown violent extremists who self-radicalize at home and are prone to attack with very little warning.
That new breed of terrorist is troubling, because—unlike al Qaeda—they use crude but agile methods of attack, from guns to knives to cars to primitive IEDs they build from Internet recipes. And their attacks can be planned much more leanly and with fewer participants, and executed in a matter of days or even hours instead of weeks or months.
They may strike at “soft targets”—a term I’ve always despised, that really just means everyday people just living their normal lives. People at concerts, people in cafes and clubs, people at work, people just walking down the street.
These terrorists could strike anywhere, from big cities to small towns. Right now, we have about 1,000 investigations in all 50 states of homegrown violent extremists—individuals inspired by the global jihad movement.
This is the new normal, and it has created a new set of challenges: a much greater number of potential threats, each with far fewer “dots” to “connect” and much less time in which to prevent or disrupt an attack.
On the counterintelligence front, we still face traditional espionage—spies seeking our state secrets, working under diplomatic cover or posing as everyday citizens.
Think dead-drops in tunnels, brush passes at night, and clandestine meetings in cafés—the stuff of John Le Carré novels.
But today’s spies also seek our trade secrets, our ideas, and our innovation. And they’re just as often non-traditional collectors: businessmen, researchers, scientists, or students acting on behalf of state actors.
Nation-states like China are attempting to infiltrate our companies—your clients—by any means necessary to get control of cutting-edge technology—not just by stealing proprietary information, but also by extra-legal means, like acquiring the company or exploiting business partnerships.
That brings me to the cyber threat. When I was last at DOJ, I was head of the Criminal Division, which, at that time, oversaw cyber investigations. It’s safe to say that no area has evolved more dramatically since then, given the blistering pace of technological change. In 2005, when I left DOJ, social media didn’t really exist as we know it today, and “tweeting” was something only birds did.
Today, we live much of our lives online, and everything that’s important to us lives on the Internet—and that’s a scary thought for a lot of people. What was once a comparatively minor threat—people hacking for fun or for bragging rights—has turned into full-blown economic espionage and breathtakingly lucrative cyber crime.
This threat now comes at us from all sides. We’re worried about a range of threat actors, from multi-national cyber syndicates and insider threats to hacktivists. We’re seeing an increase in nation-state sponsored computer intrusions. And we’re also seeing a “blended threat”—nation-states using criminal hackers to carry out their dirty work. We’re also concerned about a wider gamut of methods, from botnets to ransomware.
As if that trifecta of national security threats weren’t enough, we’re also responsible for a laundry list of criminal threats—everything from gangs to crimes against children to public corruption to hate crimes to health care fraud and everything in between.
Violent crime has been on the rise in a lot of areas for the last few years, and it’s a top concern for our state and local partners. Our crime data for 2015 and 2016 showed increases in violent crime of roughly four percent a year. Four percent might not sound like a big number, but when you consider the sheer number of victims four percent represents in a country our size, you realize the human toll reflected in that increase.
While the preliminary statistics for the first half of 2017 show that overall violent crime finally fell just a little bit, murders and non-negligent manslaughters were up 1.5 percent. And we don’t know what the full-year data looks like yet. So make no mistake—this is a major concern.
Violent crime is still rampant in much of the country, and we’re focused on doing everything we can to help our partners fight it. Our 168 Safe Streets Task Forces and 47 Violent Crimes Task Forces are a big part of this.
But we’re also providing our state and local partners with intelligence related to gun crime and crime-trend analysis, and we’re developing targeting packages for cities that are seeing surges of violent crime.
Closely connected to the violent crime problem, of course, is the country’s opioid epidemic. Here, too, we’re trying to do our part, working with our partners not just in law enforcement but in other disciplines.
We’ve launched the Prescription Drug Initiative, targeting criminal enterprises that engage in prescription drug schemes and medical professionals who distribute opioids with no legitimate purpose.
We’ve also established a Hi-Tech Organized Crime Unit, which focuses on the trafficking of opioids over the Internet—specifically the Darknet—and we’ve more than doubled our number of Transnational Organized Crime Task Forces.
So, now a few hectic months into the job, I’m still listening and formulating my long-term priorities and where the Bureau needs to be over the next 10 years. But a few very positive, enterprise-wide things have already jumped out at me.
First, the FBI’s commitment to partnerships has evolved tremendously since I was at DOJ—especially compared to the way the FBI approached partnerships before 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath. I’m talking about partnerships with the rest of the intelligence community; our federal, state, and local law enforcement colleagues; our foreign counterparts; and our partners in the private sector and the communities we serve.
Partnerships are much more a part of the Bureau’s DNA now, and it’s a real point of pride in every field office I visit. It was a change that happened gradually, but I think that because I took a detour in the private sector and came back, I’m able to see the before and after in a way that jumps out at me. It’s really striking.
The FBI has always been proud, passionate, persistent, and perfectionist. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is what our folks are most proud, passionate, persistent, and perfectionist about. And that’s their partnerships. I never thought I’d see the day, but I’m seeing it now.
It’s a mindset of: What can we bring to the table? What can they bring to the table? How can we match strengths, so that when we put the two that the FBI has, together with the two that each of our partners has, it makes not four, but five or six or seven?
Seeing this sea change has made me realize, more than ever, how important it is that we continue to nurture and build upon those relationships as we move forward.
* * *
Another thing that’s struck me since returning is our dramatically stronger integration of intelligence—and continued need to focus on it—in everything we do.
Under Director Mueller’s leadership after 9/11, the FBI made a paradigm shift from a law enforcement agency that investigated crime after the fact to a national security service working to prevent crime and terrorism. That transformation continued under Director Comey, and today, we’ve developed a sophisticated and complex intelligence program.
We talk a lot about “intelligence” in the national security world, but what it really boils down to is information we use to make decisions and to drive operations. Information that we share with people who need it—from our federal, state, and local partners to community and civic leaders to people in the private sector.
On one of my first visits to the FBI Academy at Quantico, I was walking through a courtyard and noticed a small engraved stone, nestled in a corner. The engraving is the unmistakable image of the Twin Towers, and underneath are two simple, but profound words—“Intelligence Matters.” That’s as true today as it was on 9/11—maybe even more so. But today we know that if we are to be truly great at intelligence, we have to get even better at collecting, analyzing, and sharing intelligence in everything we do. We have to make the best and highest use of the information we have. We have to connect the dots and see the bigger picture.
And all of that is a lot easier said than done. But we’re determined to keep pushing ourselves so that we can stay ahead of the threats coming down the pike.
* * *
So the FBI has come a long way in the years since I left DOJ. But I’m continually asking myself: Where do we need to be down the road?
As grateful as I am for the progress begun by Director Mueller and others 15 or so years ago, putting us where we are now, in 2018, I’m trying to make sure we’re thinking now, in 2018, about what transformation will be needed over the next 10 years. To remain the premier law enforcement and national security organization in 2028 and beyond, we’re going to need to be smarter and more agile than we’ve ever been. And to do that, we’re going to need to be more innovative—not a word often associated with the federal government.
Pick up any recent copy of Inc., Fast Company, or Forbes and you’ll find the word “innovation” plastered everywhere. Everyone wants it, but it’s not so easy to cultivate.
When I talk about innovation, I don’t just mean that we need technological innovation—though that’s a big part of it. I mean innovation more broadly, in terms of best practices, strategies, processes, threat indicators, partnerships—anything we can do to be smarter, better, more creative. I’m encouraging everyone in the Bureau to think more about where we need to be 10, 15, 20 years from now. What’s the threat going to look like? What will our workforce need to look like? What will our technologies need to look like? Because if we only address the crisis of the day—which is all too easy to do—we’re soon going to find ourselves behind the curve.
We’re trying to drive that innovation by re-thinking the way we work with our partners, the way we use technology, and the way we conduct operations. For example, we’ve now got a program called the Technology Accelerator, which provides a platform for employees to easily share and work on innovative ideas and solutions. One idea from the program is a mobile app for FBI smartphones to collect crime scene and evidence data quickly and accurately. The goal is to cut down on time spent at crime scenes, improve data accuracy, and simplify the recordkeeping process. It’s the kind of idea that makes so much sense we wonder why we didn’t think of it before.
We’re also encouraging our SACs to tell their employees to focus 10 percent of their work time on innovating. That’s what they do at places like Google, from what I hear. And when they come up with brilliant ideas, they can submit them to the Technology Accelerator for development.
This spring, we’ll be holding our first Innovation Challenge to examine some of our top technical problems reported in the last year. Employees from across the Bureau will have two months to come up with solutions, and the winners will present their ideas at the Big Idea Summit, which we’re holding at Headquarters this summer.
By fostering that kind of innovation, we hope to ensure the Bureau will continue to lead the way, for years to come.
Before I go, I’d like to close with a few thoughts about the FBI’s work and people in this challenging time.
It seems there’s no shortage of opinions about the Bureau these days—but an awful lot of it is rhetoric, without much to back it up. And the old saying is true: Talk is cheap.
What’s valuable are the views of those who actually know, and experience, our work. The juries who hear our hardworking agents on the stand. The magistrate judges who sign our warrants. The victims and families our folks get up every morning determined to protect. Our year-round partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement, in the intelligence community, overseas, and in the private sector.
Like me, those folks get to see the men and women of the FBI for who they really are. People of integrity. People of compassion and kindness. People fiercely focused on doing the right thing in the right way.
And with all the voices out there trying to speak for us or about us, we’re focused more on letting our actions do the talking, because our work is what will endure over time, as the chatter fades away.
I’m doing my best to reintroduce the country to the work we do—every day—to protect Americans from national security threats coming at us from all sides and from a mind-boggling array of criminal threats.
Just this past December, for example, our agents in Sacramento arrested Everitt Jameson, who admitted pledging allegiance to ISIS and plotting an attack on Pier 39 in San Francisco on Christmas Day, combining the deadly tactics used by terrorists in the recent San Bernardino and Tribeca attacks. He planned to use explosives to funnel people into an area where he could cause even more casualties.
In October, through Operation Cross Country, which we conducted in 44 states and the District of Columbia, we arrested 120 sex traffickers and recovered 84 sexually exploited juveniles. Those included a 3-month-old girl and her 5-year-old sister, who were recovered after a family “friend”—and I use that term as loosely as I can—offered to sell them for sex in exchange for $600.
And through our Ten Most Wanted Fugitives program, we have apprehended some of the most dangerous, violent offenders. One of those was Robert Van Wisse, who turned himself in to FBI agents last January, a few weeks after being added to the Top Ten list. He was wanted in Texas for the 1983 murder of a young woman with a 1-year-old daughter. For 33 years, the woman’s daughter had hoped and prayed for his capture, and he was finally arrested on her birthday. Cold comfort, I’m sure, but we hope it brought her some measure of peace.
That case illustrates for me the kind of relentless pursuit for justice typical of the people I get to work with every day.
That kind of work matters, and it’s the kind of work that keeps us going when times get tough.
The FBI’s work matters because with our investigations, peoples’ lives hang in the balance. And that’s why our actions have to be based, at all times, on the guiding principles of adherence to the Constitution, the rule of law, integrity, and fairness.
The same could be said of your own work. In different ways, peoples’ lives—and livelihoods—often hang in the balance when you take a case to trial. And like the men and women of the FBI, each of you understands that the rule of law is our country’s bedrock.
Every day, we have to weigh our need to protect the citizens we serve with our duty to the Constitution and the rule of law. We have to weigh national security on the one hand and privacy and civil liberties on the other.
Director Mueller was famous for telling all new agents at their Quantico graduation that it’s not a question of conflict, it’s a question of balance—that the rule of law, civil rights, and civil liberties are not the FBI’s burdens. They are the very things that make us all safer and stronger. As long as I’m at the Bureau, we’re not going to forget that. And as long as I’m there, we’re going to stay committed to doing things independently and by the book.
Everybody likes the sound of that until they understand that “by the book” may mean they’re going to be disappointed, or even angry, with the results. But we’re okay with that, because that’s the very nature of independence. If we get too worried about who’s going to be happy or unhappy, or who’s going to criticize us, we’ll lose our way, and I’m determined that’s not going to happen. We cannot let the ends justify the means. Our means need to justify our ends.
We’re going to get through this current tumult by keeping our noses to the grindstone and doing great work, case by case, day by day, no matter what else happens.
One of the things I try to do is remind our folks why they went into this line of work in the first place, and that’s the mission.
For me, I often think back to when I was an AUSA, working in Atlanta, and my daughter was about 4 years old. It was dads’ day at nursery school. The teachers had asked all the girls and boys a number of questions, and they wrote the answers down on these construction paper teddy bears and hung them on the bulletin board. One of the questions was, “What does your daddy do for a living?”
As we’re standing in front of the bulletin board, I noticed the guy standing next to me kept looking over at me. He said, “Do you mind if I ask what you do?” I looked at my daughter’s teddy bear, and it said, “My daddy and his friends put bad guys in jail and help keep us all safe.” And then I looked over at his daughter’s teddy bear, and it said, “My daddy talks on the phone all day so mommy and I can buy nice stuff.”
So what I try to say to our 37,000 people when they start dragging a little bit is if you want to do something that even a 4-year-old little girl gets as meaningful and impactful and valuable, you’re in the right place.
We know that the mission comes first. We know that the American people come first. That hasn’t changed, and it never will.
Thank you for inviting me here today and for taking the time to listen.