James B. Comey
Director
Federal Bureau of Investigation
International Association of Chiefs of Police 121st Annual Conference
Orlando, Florida
October 27, 2014

The FBI and the IACP: Facing Challenges Together

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you so much, Yost—it’s been wonderful getting to know you and to work with you. Thank you for your service to your community and your country. I look forward very much to working with Rich over the next year.

It is great to be back with you. A year ago, I almost missed my own speech because of a mechanical failure, and my deputy, as you’ll remember, was up here winging it for me. I was “drinking from a fire hose” at that point. And now, after 13 months into this wonderful job which has a 10-year term, the game has slowed down a little bit for me, but I still have an awful lot to learn.

What I’ve spent the last year doing is having as many conversations as I can with people who will help me understand the issues and concerns of law enforcement, and help me understand the FBI better, both from inside and from outside. I have been to 51 of our 56 field offices and 14 of our international offices, and in the course of those visits I’ve had conversations with a whole lot of you, and have learned a lot from you—and I’m very grateful for those conversations, and I hope they will continue. I still think the perspectives that you offer will make me better as a leader and make the FBI better as an organization, so I count on you to continue to offer feedback, constructive criticism, and your thoughts about anything that matters to law enforcement.

Terrorism

As I’ve traveled around the country, I have spent time trying to understand whether the FBI’s priorities make sense. After over a year of looking at it, I think they do. I believe it makes continuing sense for counterterrorism to be the FBI’s number one priority. Terrorism remains a threat, but the threat has changed in two significant ways since I was last in government. Let me discuss briefly how I see that change.

First, we as a country, with our allies around the world, have done a great job over the last 13 years of taking the fight to core al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In the course of that, we have shrunk that tumor—I think of terrorism as a cancer—we have shrunk that tumor significantly.

But at the same time, the lightly governed or ungoverned spaces that have popped up in many different parts of the world, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring—areas in North Africa, around the Persian Gulf, and around the Mediterranean—have allowed a metastasis of that tumor. So we’ve seen popping up virulent strains that are the progeny of al Qaeda: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and most recently, the group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL.

What’s happened is, those lightly governed spaces, or ungoverned spaces, have allowed these secondary tumors to root and to offer safe haven, and to attract to those safe havens people from around the world seeking meaning in their lives in some incredibly misguided way, looking to wage jihad.

And so we have seen a phenomenon, especially in Syria and spilling into Iraq, of a safe haven attracting foreign fighters from around the world—from North America, from Europe, from Asia, from all parts of the globe. Their going there is very worrisome, because they get the worst kind of relationships; they get the worst kind of training.

It’s actually their coming out at some point that worries me even more. There will come a terrorist diaspora out of places like Syria and Iraq. Those of us who are old enough can remember the terrorist diaspora out of Afghanistan after the war with the Soviets, and can draw a line from that diaspora to 9/11. All of us in this business are determined, I know, to ensure that a future diaspora does not lead to a future tragedy. And so we are focused, together, on the traveler phenomenon.

So that metastasis is the first way in which the terrorist threat has changed. Closely related is the change that accompanied the explosion of the Internet, which made possible a phenomenon that was unfamiliar to me in 2003 and 2004—the homegrown violent extremist. Some refer to such an extremist as a “lone wolf”—a term I do not like, because it conveys a sense of dignity to these persons who would simply engage in savagery against innocent people.

These homegrown violent extremists are seeking some sort of meaning in a misguided way in their lives, and they may never actually meet a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or ISIL. But the Internet has made it possible for them to get all the poison they need to radicalize themselves, and all the information they need to commit acts of horrific violence, in their basement wearing their pajamas. These homegrown violent extremists are able to train and radicalize in private, and then emerge to do terrible things to innocent people. That’s the second way in which the threat has changed dramatically since I was last in government.

In ISIL, we see a confluence of those two trends. We see a group of savages with a safe haven—one that we as a country with our allies are looking to shrink dramatically—who are also exploiting the Internet in very slick ways to try to radicalize and inspire people to engage in acts of violence, especially directed against those in uniform. It’s a threat that all of you are very familiar with, and were reminded of in very painful ways in the last week, especially with what happened to our brothers and sisters in Canada.

These two threats are a change, but they simply underscore the importance of the partnerships that are represented in this room. Because it is highly unlikely to be a special agent of the FBI who first sees a traveler talking about going, or a traveler who has returned to a neighborhood and escaped us at the border. And it is highly unlikely to be a federal agent who will first see or hear about, in a neighborhood, some troubled soul who appears to be radicalizing on the Internet.

It is far more likely to be a police officer on patrol, a deputy sheriff—somebody who knows that neighborhood. It is all the more important that we, as people who are responsible for securing this country, remain tightly connected to each other. And I thank you for your commitment to our Joint Terrorism Task Forces and to the fusion centers, which are the embodiment of that cooperation. That is the way we stay responsive to a metastasizing and changing threat.

Intelligence

So counterterrorism remains the FBI’s top priority, for reasons that I hope make good sense to you. The second priority I want to mention is intelligence.

I am very focused on making sure that we take the progress the FBI has made in the last decade—and we’ve made great strides in getting more thoughtful and more systematic about what we know, what we need to know, and who else needs to know what we know—and pushing it even farther. I want to make sure we are continuing to get better at understanding what we know and, especially, who else needs to know what we know.

For that reason, I have reinstituted a separate Intelligence Branch in the FBI, and asked Eric Velez-Villar, a longtime student of intelligence, to head it. I want that function to have prominence in the FBI so I can stare at him every morning and say, “How’s it going? Are our partners in state and local law enforcement lashed up to us, and getting what they need to know in a timely fashion?”

I hope you’ve felt the progress we’ve made—at a high level in our JTTF Executive Boards, and all the way down to the squad level. We need to be thoughtful, and we need to equip you to be thoughtful, in responding to difficult threats.

As part of that, I hope you’re also familiar—and if you’re not, you will be soon—with the way in which the FBI goes about figuring out what we should work on. We have something called the Threat Review and Prioritization process, through which every year we scrub all the bad things that we think could happen in the United States that the FBI might be able to help with; then we assess which ones we should focus on, given our resources, our expertise, and our partnerships with you. You will find my special agents in charge increasingly asking you to be briefed on that process, so you understand what we’re focusing on and why, for two reasons.

First, we need your help. There is literally nothing that the FBI does that we do alone. And second, you may see things we don’t see. You may have ideas that we haven’t thought of. The content of your brain will make us better—which is why we want you involved in that process.

So terrorism and intelligence remain at the top of my list, and partnerships are a key part of all of that. Speaking of partnerships, I hope you’ve noticed that we’re back —all of my SACs from around the country have gathered in conjunction with your conference here in Orlando, a practice that I intend to continue for very practical reasons. As I said, our relationships with all of you are critical to our collective success in protecting the American people. Those relationships are fostered and kindled, and made deeper and broader, by face-to-face interaction, by conversations among ourselves. For that reason, I want my SACs to gather with me and Deputy Mark Giuliano every year in conjunction with your conference—so we’ll see you next year in Chicago.

Now I want to talk about two policy issues that are very much on my mind, that I suspect are on your minds, and offer my thoughts in hopes of stimulating your thinking as well.

Going Dark

The first is “Going Dark.” This is the phenomenon that has been around since the 1990s, when it started to become increasingly difficult for those of us with lawful authority and court orders to be able to collect communications in progress. Then, it was mostly telephone calls. Increasingly, phone calls and communication through text—either e-mail or text on the Internet. It was becoming, 20 years ago, harder and harder for law enforcement to be able to execute court orders.

What’s happened over the last 20 years is that the proliferation of modes of communication has made that problem an order of magnitude worse. Armed with lawful authority, we increasingly find ourselves simply unable to do that which the courts have authorized us to do, and that is to collect information being transmitted by terrorists, by criminals, by pedophiles, by bad people of all sorts—simply unable to do our jobs; unable to intercept, lawfully, data-in-motion.

Most recently, the Going Dark problem has spread to data-at-rest—that is, information that is sitting on a device, whether it’s a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone; sitting there, resistant to efforts authorized by a judge to take evidence that would be useful in the prosecution of criminals.

This came most to light in the last month with the announcement by the good folks at Apple, followed by Google, that they were going to have encryption be the default in their new smartphone operating systems. That, to me, was a very surprising and worrisome development.

When I left government in 2005, the Going Dark issue was blinking in my peripheral vision. Now, with the confluence of the difficulty of intercepting data-in-motion and data-at-rest, it blinks directly in front of me, and dominates my field of vision.

My hope is that before we get to a place in this country where we market trunks of cars that cannot be opened … closets that can never be opened … or smartphones that can never, ever be opened, that we have a conversation—especially in the United States; I know we have partners here from around the world, but I’m speaking to the people of the United States in this case.

Before we get to a place where good people, victims of crime, come to us and say, “What do you mean you can’t? I thought a judge said with a search warrant you could find this information? What do you mean you can’t find the information that may help you locate a missing child … find the information that will help you break up a terrorist cell … find the information that will identify and root out pedophiles?” Before we get to a place where our answer is, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” we need to have a conversation. We as a people need to have this conversation, so that we don’t drift to a place we’ll be very sorry we went to.

The spine of the FBI is the rule of law. The spine of the FBI is a commitment to doing the right thing, in the right way, while protecting civil liberties. That’s who we are, and I believe that’s who you are as well.

Privacy is tremendously important. I believe the American people, and all people, should be skeptical of government power, should ask hard questions: What is the authority? What is the oversight? That’s the way it out to be.

This is not about that. I don’t want somebody rooting through my smartphone, looking at the pictures I send back and forth with my five children about their volleyball game, about how they’re doing in school. But before we get to a place where we’ve created a law-free zone, a place in this country where criminals are beyond the reach of lawful authority, this democracy needs to have a conversation about it.

My point is not to beat up on those who would respond to market conditions to try and sell devices that they think the marketplace wants. My point is that I worry that the post-Snowden wind has blown us to a place beyond reason; a place where skepticism has become unreasoned cynicism and suspicion of the authority we need to be able to enforce the laws of this country.

I hope you will join me in fostering a conversation in this country about the risks associated with Going Dark, and the benefits—there may be significant privacy benefits. But our country needs to understand the costs and the risks associated with that.

Threats to Law Enforcement

Let me say a word about something I know is a common concern, a passionate concern of everybody in this room, and that is threats to law enforcement. Our paramount wish as law enforcement leaders is that our people come home safe at the end of each tour. Recently we have seen in the United States a disturbing increase in shootings and ambush-style attacks against law enforcement officers.

According to our FBI statistics, year to date, 41 United States law enforcement officers have been murdered by criminals using firearms—a 64 percent increase as against the same period last year. Six of these officers were killed in cold-blooded ambushes.

One such ambush took place late one night last month, outside a Pennsylvania state police barracks, where an assailant with a high-powered rifle killed Pennsylvania State Trooper Bryon Dickson and grievously wounded one of his colleagues—hunted these officers from a hide and shot them for no reason.

Attacks like these on law enforcement personnel aren’t a matter of abstract statistics for me or anybody else in the FBI, and I know they aren’t for you, either. And as I said, we increasingly see a merging of the concerns I talked about, between the homegrown violent extremist threat and this targeting of law enforcement, that is very worrisome.

The FBI and the entire Justice Department take harm to law enforcement extraordinarily seriously. We’re doing all we can to understand what’s going on, and to offer tools and training and techniques to keep our folks safe. The Attorney General is going to speak to you in a few minutes about one of the most important things the Department has done, the VALOR initiative, to help law enforcement officers survive violent assaults. And we are working really hard side-by-side with you to bring to justice those who would harm our law enforcement officers.

Just days after the shooting of Trooper Dickson, the woods of Pennsylvania were filled with representatives from organizations throughout this hall—all of my brothers and sisters in the federal law enforcement community, and dozens of state and local law enforcement communities, to try to bring to justice the assassin. We will not rest until that job is done.

“Militarization of Police” Debate

While I’m talking about law enforcement safety, I want to say a word about the so-called “militarization of police” debate, a discussion we’ve seen a lot of in our public life here in the United States. While our officers are facing an increasingly dangerous environment, we are seeing a growing debate about so-called “warrior cops,” a term that I’ve heard, and the “militarization” of police.

I know this debate, and some of the bumper-stickering of it, has discouraged many of you, because you know in your gut the dangers that your people face when they they put on their uniform and badge and go out to do their job each day—and especially when you see our colleagues in law enforcement gunned down in cold blood.

But I also understand that some of this concern is coming from reasonable people, asking questions in good faith about how we do our work. I think it’s important that we engage and explain how we do our work and why these things matter, so let me do that with you for a moment.

First, I think it’s very important to remind our fellow citizens that we all tell a lie to our children. I have five children, and all five of them have woken up during the night afraid of monsters, and I have lied to them and told them that monsters aren’t real. “Go back to sleep, monsters aren’t real.”

Monsters are real. Monsters are barricaded inside apartments, waiting for law enforcement to respond, so they can fire rounds that will pierce a ballistic vest. Monsters are real. Monsters are equipped with horrific equipment designed to harm innocent people—good men like Trooper Dickson in Pennsylvania. That is the reality we face in law enforcement.

Second: Because of that reality—because monsters are real, and too often equipped with firepower to outgun those of us in law enforcement—we need a range of weapons and equipment to respond and protect our fellow citizens and protect ourselves. We need to respond appropriately at the drunk-driver scene, at the car-stop scene, at the mass-casualty event, and we need to be able to respond to killers with assault weapons and body armor. That equipment is never meant for offense. It is meant to give our officers the best possible chance to survive; it is meant to help us bring bad people to justice, and protect good people.

The real issue for me is not the stuff; it’s not the equipment—because we need it. The issue is the way in which we use it—when and how we deploy advanced equipment; when and how our officers are trained to use that equipment. The way we do it matters enormously.

That way is especially important today in the age of social media, in which images and perceptions can dominate public discourse. I’m not saying that’s a bad or good thing; that’s just the way it is. But that requires us to be aware of how we might be perceived by those who may not know our work, and the dangers of it, as well as we do.

As Director of the FBI, I am sworn to ensure that my special agents have what they need to protect themselves and the citizens of this country, and that they are trained to properly use and properly deploy that equipment in the right times and places. I want them to have what they need to get the job done—but not to use it in any way that unnecessarily threatens folks or antagonizes innocent people. My agents will hold me accountable to make sure they have the equipment they need to be safe; I will hold them accountable to use it in an appropriate way. And I know this hall is filled with people who think about this the way that I do.

Striking this balance—between having the right equipment and using it the right way—can be difficult, because sometimes it feels like we in law enforcement are in a “no-win” situation.

It feels sometimes like a no-win situation in the discussion about Going Dark, where people think we’re against privacy. We are absolutely committed to respecting people’s privacy—but we also have other obligations we need to bring to bear as well. Many citizens will instinctively recoil at the notion that we need to be able to intercept communications on the Internet—just as many of our citizens will demand that we “connect the dots,” demand that we break up terrorist cells before they can act, demand that we protect kids from pedophile predators.

Likewise, a lot of good people are uneasy when they see a city’s police department with armored vehicles or a SWAT team. But at the same time, they will expect us to respond to mass-casualty events and to barricaded predators bent on killing innocent people.

In both cases, whether it’s Going Dark or the equipment we have and how we use it, I think the answer is to talk to our citizens—to have an open conversation about what we do and why we do it, and then listen to their concerns and engage with them. What we learn from these conversations, and what the good people in our communities learn from these conversations, will help us strike the right balances.

* * *

I said to you last year that I come from a law enforcement family, and I feel very fortunate to be back among you.

I speak often to young people, and I’m a bit of a depressing speaker, to be honest, because I tell high school students and college students: Life is short. It is really important as a young person to strive—to think about your next honor, your next degree, your next goal. That’s great; that’s the way you should be.

But since life is short, and bad things really do happen to good people, I urge young people to do this: Turn the telescope of life around, and imagine yourself old and grey, and look back through the telescope and ask yourself this question: Who do I want to have been?

I don’t tell them this, but I urge them to ask the question that way because, from that vantage point, the perspective is very useful. Stuff doesn’t matter—boats, cars, fancy things don’t matter. What matters, what will matter to me, is the love of the people around me, and: Did I take a chance? Did I seize an opportunity to do something for people with the talents that I was lucky enough to be given? Did I make a difference in the lives of people who needed me?

Why am I telling you this? Because you have already made that choice. You are here today because that’s who you have chosen to be. Lots of burdens come with this work—financial and other burdens. But I believe we will be very glad that this is who we chose to be. I’m one of the luckiest people alive, to be among people who have made that choice.

May you stay safe, and may you treasure that choice, and continue to do great good for the people you serve. Thank you so much.