James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Fifth Annual Intelligence Community Pride Summit, Defense Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C.
June 8, 2016

Intelligence Community Pride: Shaping Culture Beyond Summits

Thanks very much. Thank you for this opportunity to be here. Thank you for hosting the fifth annual summit. I’ll get the exciting part out of the way at the beginning—the FBI is hosting the sixth annual summit. And then you’ll see the difference between someone who has a nice new Headquarters and someone who doesn’t.

DNA is admissible in every court in the land as a form of identification. The reason for that is every one of us at a genetic, molecular level is distinct, is unique. It’s why we’re able, at the FBI, to prove the identity of anyone through the use of DNA evidence.

That tremendous reflection of our uniqueness both illustrates the awesomeness of it and the danger. The awesomeness of it is that every one of us really is different, totally different than anyone else around us. That’s a great thing. The danger is that differentness can be used by others to identify us in some way, to treat us differently in some way, to use the courtroom in their own minds to peg us in a certain way and treat us in a certain way to figure out the conclusion about who we are and what our identity is.

I aspire for us to be a curiosity to our children. I am to my children in lots of different ways. I listened to the great Jim Clapper talk and I was thinking back to the conversations I’ve had with my children about diversity. Sometimes they don’t fully understand why we older people think it is such an important thing to talk about. And they explained to me that they and their friends embrace it and take it for granted in ways that they find older, socially confused, awkward white people struggling with. And you see some of this actually reflected today with the news that a woman appears to be the nominee for president for one of our two parties. And I see it in my own household. My wife sees that as a historic, incredibly important thing, in a way that my four girls don’t to a certain extent. I remember watching when President Obama was inaugurated—all of you were out there freezing your rear ends off or watching on TV in January of 2009 when he took the oath of office. The mall was filled with people. And older folks, older African-Americans who had fought for so much during their lives were standing there with tears running down their faces and maybe feeling a little bit differently about it than their children, who were excited about it but really, why are we so worked up that a black guy got elected president? In a way, I aspire for people to someday to look back at summits about LGBT issues with a bit of curiosity. Why did you have to have a summit? That’s what I dream of. A day when people look at our summitry and say: That’s nice that you did that—but it’s a bit odd, a bit weird and awkward.

That is our goal. We are nowhere near that goal. I don’t know how many summits it’s going to take. We’re in number five. It would be a wonderful thing if we were in single digits but I doubt it. I have, as my special assistant just told me, 2,644 days left in my tenure as FBI director. That’s probably too soon. But I don’t think it’s too crazy to wish that in seven years and two months from now that there is a bit of curiosity around a summit.

What I want to do this morning is share with you why I think this matters so much—that we have summits, that we talk about inclusion, that we talk about diversity and make a business case for it. Because I think this matters for three reasons. I think this matters because of people, because of human capital and credibility, and I think it matters because of vision. And I’ll explain that last one last.

First, human capital. We in the FBI, like our brethren in the rest of the Intelligence Community, are trying to attract great people to work in the FBI. We are especially trying to attract great people with technical talent to the FBI and in trying to attract that talent, who are we competing with? We are competing with organizations that not only throw buckets of money at people but they really don’t have summits to talk about inclusion for the LGBT community. We are competing with people who have gotten to a place far ahead of us where this is just part of who we are. And isn’t it awesome—now let’s get to work.

That difference is a recruiting disadvantage for us. That difference makes it harder for us to attract that great talent. It’s hard enough to compete on money; it’s harder still when they see a cultural gradient between people in the private sector. The New York Times published the results of a survey of 18,000 young people who were asked, “What’s your dream job, who is your dream employer?” And I’m proud to say that number five was the FBI. Number four was Apple. Can’t wait for next year’s survey results. But part of that difference is the difference in culture.

We have to get to a place where we compete on money alone. Money alone we can beat them because we offer moral content. Apple is an awesome company, but we offer the opportunity to do good for a living. It should be easy to compete when all we have to fight is money. When we don’t have to convince people based on their orientation, based on their skin color, that we will be a welcoming community, saying, “Give us a chance, please give us a chance.” In a way, they see our summitry and say, “That’s evidence that it’s going to be harder for me in that place, and given that and given the dough I get at the other places—sorry.” So it matters tremendously for human capital.

The second reason it matters is credibility. The FBI—and the rest of the Intelligence Community—is only able to accomplish the good we joined this work to do because the American people believe us, they trust us.

They know that to speak for the FBI that when we rise, whether we’re in a court room or on a street corner and say, “I saw this thing, I recovered this thing, I witnessed this thing,” we are believed. That is the bedrock of everything we try to accomplish in the FBI.

When we are sitting in a country that is becoming more and more complicated and wonderful, and we are becoming less so every day, our ability to be believed is at risk. We actually face a crisis in the FBI. Eighty-three percent of our special agents are white. I have nothing against white people. Especially tall, socially awkward, heterosexual white people. The question I ask my workforce is, that number, that percentage has been growing slowly and steadily bigger and bigger over the last decade. So we are on our way to being 100 percent white. Are we more effective or less effective when we get to that place? I don’t need to see a show of hands because the answer is obvious. It’s less effective. It’s not about political correctness or checking a box. It’s about obviously what is right but also what is effective.

The FBI operates in every community in this country. We must be seen as not “those other people” but part of this great, complicated, wonderful, diverse country.

That’s a crisis for the FBI. It could soon become a fall down a flight of stairs. Because there will come a point when people look at the FBI and say, “That’s where white people work.” And then we’re done. So we are treating this like the crisis that it is.

Again, it’s not just about race. It’s about the many wonderful ways in which people are different. The FBI must reflect those to be effective. To be able to rise on any street corner in the United States or to rise before any jury and be believed. To be seen as part of the fabric of this country. So it matters tremendously to our credibility and the credibility of the mission.

And third, vision. The central challenge of human existence is that I, like you, am trapped in me. I can’t experience the world except through this filter that is me. Everything I see, everything I hear, is coming to me through me. There is great danger in that. Not only is that the nature of existence, atop this “me” sits a brain that has evolved to crave information that is consistent with what I already believe. I think a confirmation bias is one of the most disturbing and threatening forces in human nature. I may not literally conceive, see, or frame in a conscious way data that is different than what I already believe.

That frightens me as a leader. It frightens me even more when I sit at a table and look around the table and see nothing but me. Because I have experienced the world in a certain way. I have a certain perspective, I’m trapped in it. It’s both great and it’s terrifying.

I can’t make good decisions if my confirmation bias is not only inside my brain in the neurons in my skull but reflected around a table as I sit each morning trying to make good decisions. Because if all I’m hearing back from me is my life experience and similar experiences, I’m not as smart as I could be. I need people to help me crush through the confirmation bias. I need people who have experienced the world in different ways.

I need around the table the antidote to the very nature of existence—which are people to help me see the world differently. Who will perceive things differently, see things differently, feel things differently than I do.

And it’s not just me. All of us need that. As an antidote to our very existence. So it is about human capital, it’s about credibility, it’s about vision—my ability to see clearer than I would otherwise.

So what are we doing about it? At the FBI, we do a whole lot of things intentionally. We’re rolling out training on diversity and inclusion across the enterprise to make sure people are thinking about it in a clear way. We set up an advisory committee on LGBT issues. I added diversity as a core value to the FBI because I want people to talk about it. I sent an e-mail to the entire workforce explaining why this matters to me. I sent an e-mail to the entire workforce explaining how I think about LGBT issues.

All that is great. All of that intentionality is great, but here’s the problem. Someone once defined culture to me in a way that has stuck with me. Culture is the way things are really done no matter what they tell you in training. Culture is the unwritten rules. So by definition, you can’t train your way to a change in culture. Because it’s the way things are done no matter what they tell you. That’s a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity.

Think about how you became who you are. I’m sure there were a series of explicit lessons. My dad, who is still living, was a note writer. He had a note pad that said “From the desk of J. Brien Comey.” Four bullet points. Four things you need to do to straighten yourself out. They were sent in little envelopes. My parents were not fancy people. Stationery didn’t match envelopes. But I opened them up and I can’t remember any of them. I’m sure they were useful to me.

I’m sure you got a fair number of speeches like that or else you wouldn’t be in this room. You must have had good parents, at least one good one to get in this room. So I think that’s a small part of who we are, who I am today. But most of who I am today or who you are today is just watching. Just seeing stuff and being influenced by it. Thousands and thousands and thousands of those.

I’m sure there were days when I was with my mom in a supermarket someplace in Yonkers, New York, and she got too much change from the cashier. And I don’t remember this, but I’m sure there was such a day and I saw whatever she did. And I was shaped by it.

When I was a kid, we lived in neighborhoods with houses very close together. So people would come around and sell stuff door to door. I’m sure there was a day when somebody of a different race came to the door to sell something to my dad and I stood behind him and watched the encounter and was shaped by it. I don’t remember it, but that happened thousands and thousands and thousands of times. And that added up to who I am.

That’s how culture is shaped. It’s the way people see things done. I’m a boring parent for a lot of reasons, but I talk about culture to my children. Especially when we’re on trips. I explained to them during one trip—I told them to take their headphones off and I explained, “Did you know the driving laws in Richmond, Virginia, where we lived for nine years, and New York are the same?”

You would never know that to drive there. Richmond, Virginia, is a place many of you may have lived. It’s a place where if the light turns green and there’s an old person in front of you, you wait. There will be another green light and she’ll get it.

The New York metropolitan area is slightly different than that. New York is a place when we first lived there I had to train—“train” sounds condescending—I had to urge my wife, who had never lived in New York before, that when she’s on the highway in the middle lane and she wants to go into the left lane and there’s a space between cars, not to use her turn signal. Because it’s a sign of weakness. Because people will see that and pull up because you’re trying to take something that belongs to them.

So I said to her, “Don’t even turn your head. Look with your eyes, look in the mirror. And just make a move.” So how did that happen? Sixteen-year-olds in both communities—Richmond, Virginia and New York—go through the same driver’s training. The laws are the same. You should use your signals to change lanes, you should not honk at old people.

So how did that happen? Culture is defined no matter what they tell you in training. They watch their brothers and their sisters and their aunts and their uncles and their friends drive. First from a car seat in the back, then from a regular seat, then from sitting in the passenger seat, then they were drivers—and it was totally different in the two communities.

That is the power of culture. So I think that is great to understand but it poses an enormous challenge for us. Because we can talk all we want about how we need to respect people, respect people’s differences, understand the value of the LGBT community, we need to be allies, yada, yada, yada. But culture is the way things are done no matter what they tell you.

And so we have to act. And be conscious that the kids are watching us. That is an opportunity. Who you talk to. How you walk. Where do you stand, where do you go? What do you do? How does the Director spend his time? All of that is watched. And a culture is shaped.

I was raised in a Christian tradition. I was raised as a Catholic and I married a Protestant. We made a compromise and took the neutral third church, and so I’ve gone to a lot of church services. And like you, if you go to church services, you know that it’s always packed on Christmas and Easter. And my kids actually—and I didn’t learn it until this year at Easter—one of my kids leaned over and said, “Look at all the cheasters. People who only go on Christmas and Easter, we call them cheasters.”

There’s a danger that we could become cheasters. You’ve got a summit, you’ve even got a month devoted to it. Wear a button, put it away.

Becoming a cheaster is easy for all of us. We did the thing. When my wife taught Sunday school, she had me go as the role of the enforcer, and I would occasionally get to talk to the kids. What I would say to the kids is, “This is actually the least important day of the entire week. I actually don’t care whether you come to church on Sunday. Because what matters is, what are you doing the other six days? This day, this Sunday, is thinking about framing that, finding the inspiration for that, and then going out in the world and acting a certain way.”

So my hope, my ask, my charge to myself and the rest of us is that we not become cheasters when it comes to LGBT or any of the important diversity challenges we face. That it become part of how we are doing the other six days, and in those other six days, that’s where we’re being watched. And that’s where we have an opportunity to shape our culture.

So we will continue doing all we can—setting up committees, sending out e-mails—all that stuff we will do and we will do our absolute best to live in a way that allows us to shape that culture. So that in the not too distant future we become a curiosity. And people look back at summits and think, “Isn’t that quaint. I guess there were days when they had to do that.”

That’s the dream. So the dream will not be ready by next year, so I thank General Stewart for hosting the fifth summit. We are proud to host the sixth summit at our crumbling, falling down Headquarters, and I should have said to you, by the way, that we have netting around the top floors of our building. It’s not to protect us. Our building is literally falling on you. So the netting is there to stop pieces of the FBI from becoming part of your life. So when you get to the building, just walk quickly when you come in.

We will welcome you being there. We will repeat again our message that we hope we will be part of something that we hope becomes quaint, that we will resist being cheasters, and that we will reflect and live in a way that changes our world. Thank you for your time.