At UT, Comey’s fo­cus on ter­ror­ism, not Trump

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Jankowski pjankowski@states­man.com

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.

DEB­O­RAH CAN­NON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

DEB­O­RAH CAN­NON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

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