At UT, Comey’s focus on terrorism, not Trump
FBI Director James Comey’s remarks Thursday at a University of Texas symposium on intelligence explored a variety of counterterrorism strategies, but he refused to address the elephant in the room: namely President Donald Trump and the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s possible links to Russia.
The first question from the audience to Comey was whether his approach to making announcements about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails during the presidential campaign last year influenced how he approached his announcement this week about the Trump case.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” Comey said, before the room erupted in laughter.
“If you didn’t get enough of me on Monday ...” he joked, referring to his testimony on Capitol Hill in which he confirmed that the FBI was looking into possible contact between Russian intelligence and the Trump campaign as early as last summer.
How the FBI is coexisting with Trump, who has been hostile at times toward the intelligence community, also wasn’t addressed.
Comey instead spent much of his time giving a “status update” on the FBI’s efforts to combat the terrorism threat posed by Islamic State, the new era of cyberthreats, his thoughts on encryption and explaining why he keeps J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. under the glass top of his desk.
He also revealed that he only has nine Instagram followers.
“I love encryption. I love privacy on the Internet. I have an Instagram account; it has nine followers,” Comey said, stating that he only gives access to family members and people very close to his family. “I don’t want anyone else looking at that.”
Comey was the keynote speaker at the “Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland” symposium held at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on campus.
Comey said the agency’s inability to have unfettered access to all data kept in electronic devices amounts to a growing “darkness in the room.” He said that of about 2,800 electronic devices it has attempted to crack, through means known and unknown to the public, it was unable to get into 43 percent of them.
Privacy advocates might cheer how personal encryption is vexing FBI investigators. However, Comey said it is a new era. Before advanced mobile devices became commonplace, the FBI could get access to all personal documents through warrants. The agency even could, in some rare cases, compel spouses or even personal lawyers to give information on people they had investigated, Comey said.
“There has never been absolute privacy in America until now,” he said.
Comey said he isn’t an advocate of mandating that back doors be placed on electronic devices like smartphones, but he said the creators of those devices should be cognizant of the needs of law enforcement.
The FBI director, who on Monday rebutted Trump’s claim that the Obama administration had him “wiretapped,” used his remarks in Austin to illustrate his appreciation for the judicial restraint placed on government investigations.
Comey compared Hoover’s order to wiretap King, a brief one-page application from October 1963 that was approved by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with the massively thick surveillance requests known as Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications that he receives.
Those requests land on his desk with a thump that, when compared with Hoover’s five-sentence wiretap order, remind him of the necessary judicial restraints that have been placed on his agency.
The closest Comey got to addressing the whole Russia-Clinton-email-Trump imbroglio was taking time to warn about the growing threat of cyberattacks, whether sponsored by Russian intelligence agencies or being carried out by a “guy in his pajamas” halfway around the world.
He said the wings of the intelligence community that are capable of battling cyberthreats need to come together and begin sharing information like they did after 9/11, adding that he believes terrorists will begin using hacking as a weapon against the United States.
“Logic tells us that is a threat we will face,” he said.
Contact Philip Jankowski at 512-445-3702.
FBI Director James Comey (right) speaks with William Inboden, executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, at the “Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland” symposium at the University of Texas on Thursday. Comey declined to discuss President Trump.
FBI Director James Comey, speaking at the “Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland” symposium, expressed frustration that the agency sometimes can’t access data in electronic devices.