Why We Do the Job: Lessons from 9/11 for New Agents and Intelligence Analysts
Remarks prepared for delivery.
Good morning, everyone. It’s great to be with you here in New York, where I grew up.
You’ll hear from me again at your graduation, but I also wanted to join you today because I’ve decided to add this visit to our training going forward, and you’re the first class of new agents and analysts to experience this. So I want to explain why we’re here, why I believe this is a necessary experience for you and for all the agents and analysts who will come after you, and, finally, what I hope you’ll take away from the next few hours—that there’s nothing more important than the work we do, the people we do the work with, and the people we do the work for.
Let me start by giving you a little context.
I’m not the first Director to add a visit like this to our training. Back in 2000, Director Freeh decided that all new agent classes should visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The point of that visit is to remind our folks—in a sobering way—of the horrific consequences that can arise when we in law enforcement abuse our power.
In 2014, Director Comey built on Director Freeh’s insight, by adding a visit to the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall. He wanted our new agents and analysts to confront a dark chapter in the Bureau’s history—our surveillance of Dr. King—to remind them of the dangers of becoming untethered from the rule of law, and from oversight and accountability for our actions.
These two visits have become key elements of the FBI’s training experience, as you’ve already discovered. They’re stark reminders of how we can hurt our organization—and harm the mission—when we forget our commitments to the Constitution and rule of law and abuse the enormous power we’ve been given.
The idea for both visits came from an understanding that the Bureau’s got to do more than just teach you the nuts and bolts of your new roles—how to do the job. That’s crucial, obviously. But we’ve also got to remind you why we do the job, and why we do it the way we do it—that we need to always do the right thing, in the right way.
The Importance of the Work We Do
So why add a visit to the 9/11 Memorial? And why now?
I believe visiting this place will reinforce for you why we do this job—but in a slightly different way than the other two visits.
Let me drill down on that.
First, I think there’s no better reminder than this place of the importance of the work we do—both how we approach that work and the stakes of that work.
The 9/11 attacks profoundly changed the organization you’ve joined—and it’s crucial for you to understand and remember that. 9/11 made the FBI take a hard look at itself. It made us ask: What did we miss? What could we have done better to stop the attack before it happened?
Because of that terrible day, starting in 2001, under the leadership of Director Mueller, the FBI transformed itself in ways that have made us stronger and better—and our country safer. We became an intelligence-based national security and law enforcement organization—one that collects, uses, and shares intelligence in everything we do. We developed new capabilities to combat the terrorist threat—and we changed our focus from investigating terrorist plots and attacks after the fact to stopping them before they occur. And we forged deeper, stronger partnerships with our colleagues in law enforcement and the intelligence community and with our international counterparts.
The FBI still feels the ripple effects of those changes today. And those changes weren’t limited to our counterterrorism work. They’ve spread through every FBI program and every investigation, in every community we serve. So it’s incredibly important for our new agents and analysts to understand the wellspring of those changes, so you’ll have a better understanding of today’s FBI.
I hope you’ll come away from this visit with reminders that you’ll carry with you throughout your Bureau careers.
Reminders of why we’re so focused on integrating intelligence in everything we do.
Why we emphasize partnerships.
Why it’s so crucial that we never be complacent—that we stay on the balls of our feet.
Why we’ve always got to be willing to adapt and innovate—because as 19 hijackers armed with nothing more than box-cutters showed us, the bad guys never stop innovating.
And finally, why we’ve got to think not only about current threats, but also about the threats we haven’t seen yet—and not just in our counterterrorism work, but in our counterintelligence work, our cyber work, our criminal investigations, civil rights investigations, and all the rest.
So I hope your time here will reinforce for you why the Bureau does our work the way we do it today.
The Stakes of Our Work
I hope it will also remind you of the stakes of our work—what the consequences are when those of us charged with protecting our nation miss the mark.
I think that’s especially important now, in 2019. As our workforce continually ages out, we have fewer and fewer people who either worked at the Bureau during 9/11, or joined the Bureau because of 9/11. It sounds hard to believe—at least for someone my age—but we now have agents and analysts joining the FBI who were only in elementary school when the 9/11 attacks happened. And before too long, we’ll be hiring people who weren’t even born when 9/11 happened.
So we need to make a special effort to ensure that 9/11 doesn’t become a mere historical footnote for the people of the Bureau.
Ask anyone who was working for the FBI during that time—or was working closely with the FBI, as I was—and they’ll all tell you the same thing. After that terrible day, we had one purpose—to make sure something like that never, ever happened again. That sense of resolve carried us through the difficult days and weeks that followed, as we pieced together what happened. And it carried us through the months and years that followed, as we transformed the Bureau.
As an organization, we can’t ever completely lose that feeling. Of course, our work can’t always be driven only by emotion—it fades over time. But as you start your careers in the Bureau, that sense of purpose and resolve can serve as an indispensable touchstone. It will help you to never be complacent—to never accept anything less than excellence from yourself, your colleagues, and this organization.
Because at the end of the day, it’s our work that matters.
The People We Do the Work With
I hope this visit will also remind you of the importance of the people you do this work with—and the importance of taking care of each other.
We can’t think of 9/11 without acknowledging the sacrifices that some of us are called upon to make in this line of work. At this hallowed place, we remember and honor the members of the FBI family who died on 9/11—Lenny Hatton and John O’Neill. We also honor and remember the selflessness of our FBI brothers and sisters who have since lost their lives to illnesses resulting from their courageous work after the attacks—and those fighting grave illnesses today.
We’re only now beginning to understand—and witness—the long-term effects of that work, and the full extent of the sacrifices that they and all of our first responders made after 9/11. In just my first year as Director, I attended memorial services for not one, not two, but three special agents who died as a result of their work after the 9/11 attacks—Melissa Morrow, Dave LeValley, and Brian Crews.
We’ve lost far too many members of the FBI family due to 9/11-related illnesses. And we’re by no means alone. Our brothers and sisters in law enforcement, firefighting, and first response have also suffered devastating losses—and we all fear there are more to come.
As we visit this place, we should grieve for—and remember—these selfless men and women.
We should also take inspiration from their example.
Last year, I had the chance to talk with two of these agents shortly before they died—Brian Crews and Dave LeValley. What really jumped out to me was just how utterly selfless they were. When I called Brian, he knew he wasn’t going to be much longer on this earth, but all he really wanted to talk about was other people—his training agent and others who had inspired him, and to whom he was grateful. And when I visited Dave LeValley in the hospital only a few hours before he died, I felt like he was trying to comfort the rest of us.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
That’s the kind of extraordinary people we have in this organization—people who answer the call of duty, no matter the cost. People who always think of others first.
I hope that visiting this place will remind you of that. I hope it will inspire you to follow their example—and to take care of your colleagues who make similar sacrifices in the future.
The People We Do the Work For
Finally, as you embark on your FBI careers, I hope the memory of this visit will help you to stay focused on the people we do the work for.
Remember who’s counting on you—on all of us.
We work to bring justice to the victims of terrorism and crime, and to their families. And we work to make sure that others never have to experience what they’ve gone through. Remembering what victims and their families endure helps us recall that we don’t do this work for ourselves—for our own egos or self-gratification.
Let me share a couple of examples that have stayed with me all these years.
About two years after the 9/11 attacks—by then I was the assistant attorney general—I took part 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 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. He got only partway into his question, before he abruptly collapsed on the floor, without warning, sobbing.
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, but he was sound asleep and didn’t answer the phone. And so she left a message. But 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 and not as a victim—you’re forever changed.
And that’s why I want our new agents and analysts to visit this place. It 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 comes with your work for the Bureau.
After today, I hope you’ll understand that you haven’t chosen any ordinary job. You’ve chosen to do something extraordinary—and millions of people you will never know are counting on you to do that job well. To get the work right.
* * *
A lot of years have passed since the 9/11 attacks. And the terrorist threat itself has changed in a lot of ways.
But I’ll tell you one thing that hasn’t changed—and must never change.
The people of the FBI are determined that our nation should never feel that loss, or experience that kind of horror, ever again. We’re determined to uphold our laws and to defend our freedom—even when that work is difficult and the cost is high.
Our nation certainly didn’t ask for this fight; we all wish terrorism and crime weren’t part of our lives. But that’s the reality of our post-9/11 world—and all of us at the FBI are honored to play a part in this fight. We get to work every day to protect our country from harm, so people can live their lives free of fear.
And as we learned on 9/11, no work could have higher stakes.
So as you tour this museum and memorial today, I ask you to take all of this in—the images, the words, and the emotions of what began as a beautiful September day all those years ago. Lock those images, those words, those emotions down in your memory. And then, later on during your FBI career—two months, two years, or two decades from now—think back to all this.
When you have tough days—and in this job, I guarantee, you will have tough days—remember this day, and let it bring you back to the core of your job: the stakes of the work we do, the people we do the work with, and the people we do the work for.
If you always keep those things front and center, you’ll have a rewarding career in the Bureau—and you’ll leave it even better than you found it. And our country will be better for it, too.
Thanks for letting me join you here today.