Director Wray's Remarks at the University of Michigan, Josh Rosenthal Education Fund Lecture Series
Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you. I’m looking forward to getting into the student questions here in a few minutes, because I understand the goal of this was that it be more of a conversation than me talking at you, and I know we’ll have some meaningful discussions about the many things going on in the world that would benefit from folks like yourselves getting into public service. But first you’d asked me to talk a bit about 9/11 and my own path to public service.
Although my career in government started before 9/11—for me, and for many people, I’m sure—those are not entirely distinct topics. I sometimes look back on my time as a line prosecutor in the ’90s, working with other attorneys, state and local police, and FBI special agents to put away corrupt public officials and dangerous, violent criminals.
What motivated me then and made me feel like I had the best job in the world was the cases—the purity of advancing justice, of fighting for victims and their families.
I think, for example, about one case that I had about 25 years ago, about a single mom of a 7-year-old boy. The guy we were prosecuting had targeted her for a hit to prevent her from testifying. As if that weren’t enough, his plot included hiding her body and parking her car in the long-term lot at the airport, to make it seem to others—including her child—that she’d just abandoned him.
And I remember the afternoon in that courtroom in Georgia when we put the guy away for the rest of his life. That woman, that young mom who may have been a hundred pounds if she was wearing five-pound shoes, was shuttling back and forth between each member of the team, hugging every one of us and just sobbing in relief and repeatedly saying, “Thank you, thank you for saving my life.”
And it hit me, there’s a 7-year-old boy who’s going to grow up with his mom, instead of being a permanently scarred orphan. And we did that. Maybe that was a result that didn’t matter to anyone in the world outside of that courtroom, but it absolutely changed the lives of that mom and her son, in the most fundamental way possible, and whatever else I do in my career, I will never—ever—forget that moment, or a number of other moments like it in these jobs.
DOJ and 9/11
And then in the summer of 2001, my family and I moved to Washington, and over the next several years, I would serve in various leadership roles in the Justice Department, including overseeing DOJ’s Criminal Division, which at the time also included national security programs like counterterrorism.
But on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a new appointee, still getting the lay of the land when I heard that something was happening in New York. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, so seeing the first images of smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center was not just shocking but personal, to say the very least—my mom worked just a couple blocks away, for example.
I remember crossing Pennsylvania Avenue and spending most of that day in a jam-packed command center in FBI Headquarters with the Attorney General and FBI Director Mueller. Everyone was trying to help, while at the same time struggling to comprehend the horrific reality of what was unfolding. We didn’t initially know who was attacking us or if more attacks were coming; we all just urgently wanted to do something. I also remember in the months that followed, working to understand how 19 terrorists had been inside the U.S. plotting a complicated, synchronized attack, and yet government agencies—we—hadn’t discovered their plans or been able to stop them.
So, in taking this job 16 years later, I vividly remembered the urgency we’d all felt in that packed FBI command center on 9/11, the urgency we all felt for months every time there was a plane in the sky that was non-responsive to Air Traffic Control, the urgency that rippled through every time someone received an envelope with white powder in it, and we wondered, could this be happening again?
But most importantly, I remembered how that urgency had translated into unity and action, into a fierce determination to work tirelessly to prevent something like that from ever happening again, and I decided I wanted to help the Bureau continue on that path.
9/11 Generational Views and Museum and Memorial Tours
I was sworn in as FBI Director in August of 2017, just before the 16th anniversary of 9/11, and one of the first things I did as Director in 2017 was to meet with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum staff in New York, where I’d been asked to give a speech. We talked, and I took a tour with my wife and daughter.
If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit, I strongly encourage you to make the trip; it’s a deeply moving experience. Outside, there are two sunken fountains in the footprint of where the buildings had stood. Inside, the exhibit goes down, under the fountains to where the original building foundations were, and all along the tour are artifacts from that day, images of the victims, and audio recordings from witnesses
You can see the structural beams where each plane impacted the buildings, the emergency vehicles crushed when the building collapsed, and the sea wall that barely held the East River from flooding the subway system. You hear the stories of those who barely escaped, those who could not, and those who ran into the buildings to save the lives of those who were trapped.
Another aspect the 9/11 Memorial and Museum highlights very well, I think, is the victims. It’s easy to get lost in the scale of what happened that day. You can go to the memorial and look out at the empty space where the buildings used to be. You can stare at the massive list of name after name after name—almost 3,000 people lost that day—a number, by the way, which has since been exceeded by those lost to 9/11-related illnesses like cancer, and which, sadly, continues to rise—and so it’s easy, in a way, to get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of loss.
But the museum also has a space carved out with individual tributes to each person lost that day, so you can stop and recognize one person—someone like Josh Rosenthal—and you can learn a little bit about each person’s impact.
When I went through this tour as the new FBI Director in 2017, I kept my eye on my daughter. She’s in graduate school, and may be about the age of many of the students here today, so she’d been alive in 2001, but too young to really remember and understand the attacks. And it seemed to me, watching her experience at the museum that day, that every time we turned a corner—for instance, when we crossed a damaged staircase that had been an evacuation route where people had dodged falling debris—she had another “aha” moment.
I could see her expression change, a little tear form in the corner of her eye, the subtle but telltale signs a parent can uniquely recognize. I could see her experiencing the gravity of that day, particularly for someone who wasn’t totally aware of what was happening in 2001, and as we walked through the museum, I watched it all become more real for her. Then, I took my experience watching her experience that day back with me to the FBI.
We have three generations of Bureau employees who were alive on 9/11: Those who remember what they were doing at the FBI on 9/11, those motivated to join the FBI because of 9/11, and those who were only kids on 9/11—those who really only know about the terrorist attacks as a historical anecdote. That was in 2017. Today, we even have FBI employees who weren’t alive on 9/11.
I believe there’s a difference between intellectually understanding something and viscerally experiencing it. It’s one thing to know about all the ways in which the FBI changed after 9/11 and a completely different thing to feel the consequences of our work, what’s at stake.
Another memory that has stayed with me all these years has to do with an experience I had about two years after 9/11. When I was the assistant attorney general, I took part in a presentation to families of the victims lost in the attacks, and, as the day rolled on, I moved to the back of the room, watching the line prosecutors and case agents update the family members, sharing what they had learned up to that point about each of the four flights in a detailed, minute-by-minute way.
The grief was palpable, at times almost overwhelming; you could feel the weight of it. The father of a young woman who had died on one of the planes stood up to ask a question. But he got only partway into it before he abruptly collapsed on the floor, without warning, sobbing. And remember, this is two years later.
Another man had lost his wife on one of the flights. As I recall, he was a police officer who had worked a night shift and had just fallen asleep by the time of the attacks. And like so many of the victims, his wife, who was a flight attendant on Flight 93, called to say a tearful goodbye. He was sound asleep and didn’t answer the phone, so she left a message. She tried again, a minute or two later. This time, she reached him, and they had the chance to say their goodbyes, as gut-wrenching and as heartbreaking as that must have been.
Her husband then spent the next several days staying with other family, attending to her funeral, and making arrangements. He returned home days later and began checking all his “new” messages. And when he hit “play,” he heard his wife’s voice, from that very first call, from the flight, calling to say goodbye. The story has stuck with me ever since. Can you imagine the wave of emotions in that moment? The joy at unexpectedly hearing your wife’s voice, one last time, combined with the overpowering pain of loss.
The kind of knee-buckling grief those two men experienced, that sense that something you held most precious was stolen from you, never goes away. It dissipates with the passage of time, but it never disappears. After you experience that kind of grief, that heaviness, after you feel it in your bones, even as a prosecutor or investigator, let alone as a victim, you’re forever changed.
The 9/11 attacks profoundly changed not only our country but the FBI specifically. Today’s FBI reflects those changes in every FBI program, every investigation, and every community we serve, and they continue to impact and shape the FBI as we seek to combat new and emerging threats and adversaries.
Twenty years later, it’s vitally important our agents and analysts not only remember 9/11 as a historical moment but also understand and feel the urgency of that moment, one that continues to reverberate in how we carry out our day-to-day jobs—because those experiences and that urgency should change you. It should give you a deeper understanding of just how much is on the line in this work, how much crime and terrorism wound victims and families, and what an awesome responsibility we have.
So, as Director, I started asking, “How can I replicate what I remember about those days and years immediately following 9/11, and what my daughter experienced walking the halls of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for our new FBI agents and analysts?” I had the Bureau’s Training Division work with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum to set up an onsite class in New York.
Now, every class of new special agents and every class of new intelligence analysts tours the memorial and museum and takes a class with the staff there, because I believe there’s no better way for them to grasp the importance of the work we do, both how we approach that work, and the stakes of that work, than visiting that hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan.
We want new agents and analysts to come away from that visit understanding why we’re so focused on integrating intelligence into everything we do: why we emphasize partnerships, why it’s so crucial that we approach every task with rigor and urgency, why we’ve always got to be willing to adapt and innovate to meet new threats.
More than 3,000 trainees have now experienced the memorial, and I’m proud that thousands more will have the opportunity in the years to come. Having our agents and analysts make that visit viscerally reinforces for them why they applied to the FBI in the first place. We hope they’ll understand that they haven’t chosen some ordinary job. They've chosen to do something extraordinary, and millions of people they’ll never know are counting on them to do that job well, to do the work right.
Victim Services Division and FBI Public Service
I have one final thought before we turn to our discussion. Talking about public service gives me a chance to mention another way the FBI recreated itself after 9/11, something that led to completely new public service opportunities within the Bureau.
Each of the people who lost their lives on 9/11 had their own stories, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum does a powerful job of telling them. All of the victims’ families, friends, and coworkers suddenly had gaping holes in their lives.
As agencies were overwhelmed in trying to help, the FBI turned to Kathryn Turman, a sociologist with the Justice Department who had worked as both a witness and victim advocate. Kathryn grew our Victim Services Division from a handful of well-intentioned staff into a world-renowned corps of more than 300 specially trained professionals, as well as two crisis response canines—Wally and Gio—who I can attest are wonderful at what they do.
We now have victim specialists in each of our 56 field offices to help people harmed by crime. They provide on-scene assistance, triage needs, and refer victims to counseling, employment, housing, immigration, medical, or legal services. They go with FBI special agents for interviews and death notifications, and they coordinate as liaisons with other government agencies and external partners. The work they do with children is truly outstanding. And regardless of what else is going on in our world, these are FBI professionals who are ready to drop everything to help in their communities, or to quickly fly elsewhere and set up shop.
Their work doesn’t always get as much attention as our FBI special agents, but for instance, two weeks ago at the same time our agents were arriving in Colorado Springs to investigate the absolutely tragic and intolerable shooting at Club Q, our victim specialists were there establishing a family assistance center to provide services and assistance for those affected and the families of those killed.
It’s heartbreaking to see this kind of event play out over and over, as it has this year, but I’m proud of the work that everyone involved in that case and all of these kinds of cases has been doing. They truly make a positive difference in people’s lives.
So, I guess if I have to choose one thing that I’d ask you to take away from today, it’s that public service doesn’t have to be aimed at affecting dozens or millions of people to be meaningful.
When I think about that mom and her son in Georgia in the late ’90s, I recognize how all of us involved in prosecuting that case changed her life and her son’s life for the better. And again, while the trial generated a certain amount of news coverage, I’m not sure anyone outside that courtroom really grasped what happened, but it definitely meant something to her, and it continues to mean something to me today.
And even thinking about 9/11, as the guy overseeing the case against Zacarias Massaoui, sometimes called “the 20th hijacker,” I remember how important it was to our whole team to make a point of treating each and every one of the 2,977 victims that day as individuals, individuals who had been murdered, and whose families shouldn’t be cheated of the individual grief and loss they were all feeling, just because of the sheer number of people killed that day.
Commitment to the pursuit of justice. For every American. For as long as it takes.
That’s the kind of work the FBI’s 38,000 men and women are doing every day, in communities all over this country and around the world. So, if helping others interests you, I hope you’ll think about a career with the FBI, but, more than that, I hope you’ll all consider public service in whatever avenue you find and in whatever capacity your life allows.
I am proof that a career can navigate both private practice and public service, and during those times of my life where I have been able to devote myself to public service, I have been fortunate to feel the immense fulfillment that comes from the opportunity to serve others and my own community. I can promise you that you, too, will find immeasurable value in serving others.
Thank you, and I’m looking forward to our conversation.