Standing Together Against Terrorism: That’s How the Light Gets In
Remarks as delivered.
Good evening. It’s an honor to be here. I’d like to talk a little tonight about how the terrorist threat has been evolving, and how we in the FBI are evolving to combat that threat. And I’d like to talk about what September 11 means to us—as Americans, as a nation—and how it’s changed us over the years. I’d like to start with a bit about my own frame of reference, given my background, and some of my observations since coming back to government.
But first, I’d be remiss if I did not start with the events in Las Vegas. We do not yet know many details—we do not know this man’s motive, why he chose to do what he did. But we do know that these horrific events are happening all too often and we know we all need to work together—to stand together—if we are going to find and stop these people from inflicting this kind of damage and destruction. We are working with our partners in Las Vegas to provide whatever assistance they might need, and we will provide more information as we learn more. But for now, our hearts are with the families of all those who were killed and injured in the shooting, and we are determined to do whatever we can—what we must—to prevent these mass shootings.
Since starting this position in August, I have been working hard to meet everyone and get up to speed on all the great work underway. I have always known how outstanding and dedicated the people of the FBI were, but the past few weeks have made me feel even more honored, if possible, to be their Director. I have been lucky to work with the men and women of the FBI for a huge chunk of my professional career. As a line prosecutor in the field, I got to work all manner of cases—you name it, I did it—and learned a lot from working closely with agents on everything from bank robberies to public corruption, from kidnapping to financial fraud. And later, in the DOJ’s senior leadership, I saw a different side of the Bureau. I was over at FBI Headquarters almost daily and saw firsthand the inspiring way agents and analysts and others tackled national security threats, both on the day of 9/11 itself, and in the first several years afterward. It was a moving and galvanizing experience for me personally. I could not be more excited to be back and to be part of the Bureau’s next chapter.
I had my installation ceremony at FBI Headquarters last Thursday, and as with any sort of classic D.C. thing, there was a fair amount of pomp and circumstance. But the real heart of it, for me, was the opportunity to recognize what a unique and phenomenal place the FBI is. I wanted to share that sense of admiration with my colleagues and with my family and friends, who have believed in me, supported me, guided me, and inspired me over the years—people who have kept my feet firmly planted on the ground. I wanted particularly to highlight what I consider the magic ingredient of the FBI—the “secret sauce” of its success—and it’s this: a drive and a passion for service that is unparalleled, and that runs throughout the entire organization. You see it in every division, every field office, every investigation, and every assignment. It is that drive that inspires me every single day. And my wife and kids might have already grown tired of hearing about this from me. But I wake up every day fired up to come to work—to be part of this extraordinary group—and to see where we can go next.
Standing here on this particular site takes me right back to the morning of September 11. We can all remember exactly where we were when that first plane struck the World Trade Center. We remember how we felt as the horror of that morning unfolded. That day is indelibly inked in our minds. It is part of who we are. In many ways, it has made us who we are. It is why we are all here today. On the afternoon of the attacks, I was at FBI Headquarters, in the command center, with then-Attorney General Ashcroft and Director Bob Mueller. The place—which I had seen only a few days earlier, empty and cavernous and echoing—was packed like sardines, with people spilling out of every corner, and more joining in by the minute. And though it was an incredibly chaotic and horrifying time, it was also a time of incredible solidarity. Because every single person in that command center that day had just one purpose—to make sure it never, ever happened again.To keep people we will never know and families we will never meet safe from harm. I remember being in awe of that feeling then, and still am to this day. For a period, we lived in a haze of days that seemed like September 12, day after day after day. Every time a plane did not promptly respond to air traffic control, our pulses raced again and we scrambled into action. And we would listen to the chatter between the FAA and the planes, praying the pilots would respond, and breathing a sigh of relief when they did.
Every lead, every tip, every threat seemed like it could be the next one. We kept asking ourselves, “What could we have done better? What should we have done better?” We were in disbelief. We were disoriented and angry. We were deeply hurt and gravely damaged. But we did what Americans do best. We mourned our lost, we nursed our wounds, and we stood up, together. We faced a new day, grimly but fiercely determined to prevent an atrocity like that from ever happening again. Fast forward to 2017. Today, at the FBI, we live as if it were September 10—every day. And every day, we wake up asking ourselves, “What do we need to do to keep people safe today, and tomorrow, and the day after that?” And we should. Because no one should have to live through that kind of loss. About two years after the attacks—by then, I was assistant attorney general—I participated in a presentation to families of the victims lost in the attacks. As the day rolled on, I moved to the back of the room, watching the line prosecutors 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, it was 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. He got only partway into his question, before he abruptly collapsed on the floor, without warning.
Another man had lost his wife on one of the flights. As I recall, he had worked a night shift on his job and had just fallen asleep by the time of the attacks. And like so many of the victims, his wife called from the flight to say a tearful goodbye, but he was sound asleep and did not answer the phone. And so it rolled to voicemail. But she tried again, a minute or two later. This time, she reached him, and as 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 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? That kind of knee-buckling grief—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. And after you experience that kind of grief, that heaviness—after you feel it in your bones, even as a prosecutor and not a victim—you are forever changed. Many of you know that better than most because you lived through it.
In the FBI, we, too, were forever changed by that dark day. Under Director Mueller’s leadership, the FBI made a paradigm shift from a law enforcement agency that investigated crime after the fact, to a national security service that works to prevent crime and terrorism. When I left DOJ, back in 2005, we were on a dramatic upswing in expanding our national security operations. But there was still a lot to be done. And as I take stock of where things stand now, having stepped away from this mission for several years and now returning to it, I find the progress remarkable, in some ways more than my colleagues who stayed. As parents, you do not notice the incremental growth of your own children, day by day; but when you see the child of a friend you have not seen for years, you cannot believe it. All of a sudden, this kid you remember is a young adult, and you think, “When did this happen?” It is incredible to see firsthand the capabilities we have built together, here in the United States and around the world. Today we are stronger, we are smarter, and we are better able to confront these threats. But, as last night’s events remind us, we still face people who operate without constraint, without reason, without humanity. I find I wake up every morning thinking about those people. And I am going to keep thinking about those people. Because the threats we confront are ever-changing, and we cannot afford to be static.
We still confront threats from large, structured terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, planning large-scale attacks over long periods of time. But we also face groups like ISIS, who use social media to spread propaganda, to lure people in, and to inspire them to attack wherever they can, in whatever way they can. Our challenge is finding those here at home who are responding to this propaganda. There is no single profile of these individuals, there is no single path of radicalization, and there is no easy way to reveal who might be ready to take action. Many of these are not professionally trained operatives with carefully executed plans. Right now, we are seeing unstable and erratic operatives, prone to acting quickly and unpredictably. They are shifting from large-scale weaponry and sophisticated bombs to easily acquired weapons—small arms, knives, and vehicles. They are striking at soft targets. Just as we saw last night in Las Vegas, though we do not yet know the full extent of the gunman’s background or his motives. And we say “soft targets,” but that is just intelligence community jargon. What we really mean is that they are striking out at people who are innocently and simply living their lives. People at concerts and in cafes and clubs, people just walking down the street. These terrorists present different challenges to identify and track. The same can be said of domestic extremists that pose a threat of violence and economic harm, often by chillingly lethal lone offenders.
With default encryption—on our devices, on the apps we use, in our communications—it is even more difficult for us to ascertain where they are, who they are working with, and what they are planning to do, even with a fully lawful court order. So we need to keep finding new, innovative ways of thinking; we need fresh perspectives. We need to keep finding new ways of thinking about what we know, what we still need to know, and how that all connects to the bigger picture. Sixteen years ago, we suffered from a lack of shared intelligence. Today, we struggle with growing technical blind spots, with the sheer volume of intelligence, and with tightening and compressed windows of time in which to act. We have got to find new ways to prioritize information—to sort it, to search it, and to share it. We have got to find new ways to exploit social media. And we have got to keep using intelligence to connect the dots, put it all into context, and drive operations.
Before my first intelligence analyst graduation ceremony, back in August, I was walking through a courtyard down at Quantico. And I spotted a small engraved stone, nestled in a corner, and I walked over to check it out. The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” came to mind. The stone had an engraving of the Twin Towers, and underneath the engraving were the words, “Intelligence Matters.” But intelligence alone is not enough. We need to have the right people on board. We need agents who are great at talking to people, because this is the FBI’s bread and butter. But we also need agents who are tech savvy. We need IT specialists and intelligence analysts who can stand beside those agents and make sense of the flood of information. We need a true team approach.
That is awfully hard to drive from the top down, so we are building it up from the ground up. We have a course at Quantico called Basic Field Training Course. Agents and analysts now work together during their training from day one. They understand each other’s skill sets and capabilities. And that means they hit the ground running when they leave Quantico. We are being very intentional about integrating intelligence with operations, and driving that team mentality. Because we can collect intelligence, and we can have great technology at our disposal, but if we do not make the best use of both tools, we are not going to be as great as we can be. The other thing I noticed that has changed most dramatically, besides the integration of law enforcement and intelligence, is partnerships. And we had partnerships before, partnerships with state and local law enforcement and with the intelligence community, but the difference now in terms of how much those partnerships are part of our DNA is striking to me. We are working hard, every day, in every field office and every division, to build on our partnerships with our federal, state, local, and international partners. We are more tightly connected than ever before. Joint Terrorism Task Forces—JTTFs—are a great example. The New York JTTF is perhaps the best example—and certainly the oldest. It was the nation’s first JTTF. These task forces are in many ways our first line of defense against terrorism. These are highly trained and passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT members, and specialists from dozens of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. If someone sees something here in New York, that information moves at the speed of light to everyone who needs it. And that is the way we need it to be. We have also got to keep building relationships of trust and support with the communities we serve—so they know we have their best interests at heart, that we are working every day to keep them safe. Most importantly, we need to stand together—law enforcement, the intelligence community, the private sector, and the citizens we serve. Because we are so much stronger when we present a united front, as we must if we are going to defeat this threat.
While a lot has changed in the years since I left DOJ, some things will never change. The FBI’s mission is simple but profound: to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. That mission has not changed, and it is not going to, not as long as I have anything to say about it. We are going to abide by the rule of law and our core values. We are going to follow the facts independently, no matter where they may lead, no matter who likes it. And we are going to always, always pursue justice. These are the FBI’s anchors, and I am determined to ensure we adhere to them, no matter the test.
I had the opportunity to tour the museum before meeting with you tonight. And it was an emotional experience. But it was also incredibly inspiring. The Bureau lost one of our own that day—Special Agent Lenny Hatton. Lenny was actually on his way to work when he saw smoke and fire coming from the North Tower. Within minutes, Lenny was on the rooftop of the Marriott Hotel, relaying information back to his FBI colleagues. When the second plane struck the South Tower, without even thinking twice, he raced into the World Trade Center to do what he could. One man in the building said that he was guided out by a man who identified himself as a special agent. He said he was surprised to see the agent turning back. He yelled, “Where are you going?” and Lenny replied, “I’m going back in the building!”
He died doing what he loved doing—helping people. Trying to right what was wrong. I had the chance to see Lenny’s name today on the memorial wall, and it meant a lot to me. And that kind of goodness, that kind of dedication and selflessness, combined with everything else I saw today, gives me hope.
Some of you may be familiar with songwriter Leonard Cohen. Even if you do not know Cohen’s music, you are probably familiar with some of his lyrics. In one of his most well-known songs, “Anthem,” he wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack… a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
In Cohen’s mind, it is the darkness that reveals the light. The worst in life that reveals the very best in us. The evil that often reveals the goodness. It is not until something is broken, cracked, even torn apart, that we see the light shining through. September 11 left a crack in every one of us that no amount of time can ever fully heal. It left a crack in this city that will never disappear. But in the days and weeks and months that followed, the light began to creep back in. People stood together in solidarity.
They were kind and caring and selfless. They were determined to help this city heal, to move forward. Never to forget, but to begin—slowly—to build again. And we decided, as a country, that we would take that tiny sliver of light coming out of such a terrible, unrelenting darkness, and we would make it sacred. We would hold it close to our hearts. That is what this memorial is for so many people. A light of remembrance and respect. A light of determination and resolve. And it is part of the reason I am so honored to be back in this mission. There are times we might feel like this is a never-ending fight. That we will never fully eradicate the terrorist threat. And to some extent, that may be true. Terrorism may be a fact of life. But we face it together. And we face it with the unshakable belief that good will triumph over evil. That reason will trump ideology. And that justice and the rule of law will rise above savagery. We face it with the hope for more peaceful days to come. It is that hope that keeps us going, even on the darkest of days—even on days like this.
Thank you for having me here today.