The new FBI director, James B. Comey, said Thursday that terrorism has become his biggest concern as he settles into the job, with the twin threats of “metastasizing” al-Qaeda affiliates worldwide and the emergence of home-grown violent extremists in theUnited States.
“I wake up every morning with it,” said Comey, who was nominated by President Obama shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. “I go to bed every night with it.”
Comey’s comments were part of his first wide-ranging interview with reporters since he took the helm of the FBI on Sept. 4 as its first new director in 12 years. Inside a conference room at FBI headquarters, the former senior Justice Department official revealed new details about the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, saying that there was “no discernible pattern” to the killing Monday of 12 people by former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis.
“He was wandering the halls and hunting people to shoot,” Comey said.
Comey also responded to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Uniontitled “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority.” The report called on the Obama administration and Congress to rein in the increasing power of the FBI, calling the agency “a secret domestic intelligence agency,” especially in light of the massive government surveillance programs revealed by a former contractor for the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden.
“I saw that they said we were a domestic intelligence agency and my response was, ‘Okay, good,’ ” said Comey, who was relaxed and had shed his jacket in a roundtable gathering with 18 reporters. “I think that’s one of my responsibilities, to continue [former FBI director] Bob Mueller’s work to transform the bureau into an intelligence agency.”
Robert S. Mueller III became FBI director shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and oversaw the transformation of an FBI focused on fighting crime to one with terrorism as its first priority.
Comey said he recently encountered ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero at a farewell ceremony for Mueller and encouraged him to continue being a watchdog.
“I said to Tony Romero . . . ‘Look, keep banging on us. I may not agree with you, but there’s always a risk as a leader you’ll fall in love with the sound of your own voice. So, it’s good to have that push from the outside,’ ” said Comey, who added that he had not reviewed the ACLU report. “But I’m going to read it with an open mind.”
When he spoke about the budget cuts the FBI is facing because of sequestration, Comey became visibly frustrated.
“I was very surprised to learn how severe the required cut is and the potential impact on this organization,” Comey said. “Frankly, as a taxpayer and as an American I was surprised, and it didn’t make any sense to me that the FBI director would be asked not just to cut 3,000 positions but, given what’s on our plate, to send our folks home for a couple weeks without pay.”
The director said the FBI has to cut its budget by 10 percent, or $800 million, and may have to furlough its 36,000 employees for two weeks. The FBI Academy at Quantico has not had any new classes of agents for several months.
“It didn’t make any sense to me before I was sworn in, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me,” Comey said.
“My wife said to me, ‘Do you have any idea what would have happened to us when I was home with the five kids and if you had lost a paycheck?’
“She said, ‘We’d have been bouncing checks. I just want you to remember that.’ ”