Section: CSAD 2016

Full Interview with FBI Director James Comey

Q: I want to start with the Justice department’s order for Apple to unlock a phone used by a terrorist in the San Bernardino terrorist attack, which was dropped last week when the FBI announced it had accessed the data with help from a third party. Five days earlier, you wrote the FBI was not intending to set a precedent but rather that the impact of the litigation “stimulated creative people around the world to see what they might be able to do.” In that sense, was the FBI’s case against Apple aimed less at compelling Apple to unlock the phone and more at finding a third party who could?
A: No. The litigation, the judge’s order was sought so that we could investigate in a competent way and get into the phone of one of the killers. That was the purpose of the litigation. The intention that it brought, accidently, sort of fostered a worldwide market for creative people to try and find ways to break into a 5c. The details are important, a 5c running iOs9. And we had tried to do that, we had tried to find people inside government. We’d asked everybody in the government and nobody could but the intention fostered attention so that a private party came forward and said we think we’ve figured out a way and that got us into the device.
Q: So the FBI did everything in its power, and resources of the U.S. government, to try to unlock it?
A: We did everything we could think of. We asked everybody inside the U.S. government, including in the intelligence community, if anybody had a solution that might get us into the phone and nobody did. We asked people in the private sector, too, and nobody did. And so the Justice department on our behalf sought the court order to compel Apple to write code that would allow the court’s order to be given effect.
Q: What does it mean, though, if a third party could have this ability to unlock the phone when members of the U.S. intelligence community can not?
A: Well, it means that there’s not a monopoly on creativity inside the U.S. government, especially when it comes to technology.
Q: But do you think it poses a risk to perhaps the government’s own electronic data if these unknown, perhaps unknown, third parties can do this and the U.S. government can not?
A: Sure, in a sense. I mean one of the things the FBI does is battle hackers of all kinds. And so our systems, the FBI’s and the rest of the government’s, and I’m sure our devices, are always subject to nation states trying to get into them, criminals trying to get into them, hackers of all kinds trying to get into them. So there’s always risk. There’s no such thing as totally secure. There’s more secure and less secure.
Q: And you’ve said the impact was that it created, that this third party was able to unlock this, but not the intent. I’m wondering, then, why did the FBI choose to file its order publicly?
A: That was a decision made by the Justice Department lawyers. I think their judgment was in the central district of California they did not have a reasonable basis for keeping it sealed. So they had to litigate it in open.
Q: So does the FBI plan on sharing with Apple the means by which the Justice Department was able to access the phone?
A: I don’t know yet. We’re still working through that and a number of other policy issues related to the solution that we obtained and that device.
Q: Would it depend, then, on the given situation or, I mean, what would the benefits or drawbacks be, maybe, of letting Apple know about how the Justice Department was able to access the phone?
A: The drawback, obviously, would be that Apple, I think, given what they’ve said about not wanting us to get in in the first place would attempt to make obsolete the solution, so we’d lose the ability to access similar phones in similar situations. That’s an important consideration. But it requires a whole lot of thought because we want to be careful and thoughtful about it inside the government and we haven’t come to that conclusion yet. But, sure, it would end our ability to use this particular tool again on a 5c running iOs9 which is a bit of a technological corner case to begin with, frankly.
Q: OK. Maybe let’s move on to another case involving the FBI and electronic data. You told Congress last month you were “very close personally” into the investigation into [former] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while in office. What did you mean exactly by being “very close personally,” and, relatedly,  have you involved yourself to the same degree in responding to any other such security referrals, or is this case exceptional in that way?
A: Yeah, good question. What I meant was I get briefed on it regularly, quite often, to understand where the matter sits, with a focus— my interest is making sure we have the people, the expertise, the technology we need, to do this investigation well and second I want to ensure that our folks are able to do it without any outside interference whatsoever from any source and that’s why I’m staying close to it. I think in my time as director there’s a few other matters that I’ve stayed close to, to understand where they are, but there aren’t a bunch of them. There are a small group of cases I stay close to and this is one of them. What was the second part of the question?
Q: Well, to what degree is this case exceptional, in your work? I mean, have you dealt with any other high profile investigations?
A: Oh, sure, plenty. I mean it’s not exceptional in that sense. The bureau gets involved in lots of matters that are subject to intense public interest. We just mentioned San Bernardino. That generated huge amount of public interest and attention. So in that sense it’s not exceptional. Again, I aspire, and the whole FBI does, to do work competently, honest, independently and promptly. As I’ve told people, Look, we always want to do it well, that’s our first consideration, our second is, given that the public is intensely interested in a San Bernardino or in this investigation involving this email server, we want to respond in a way that is reasonably prompt. But we always want to do it well. That’s our first consideration.
Q: So without getting into the details of the Clinton case, do you think a secretary of state using a private email server poses more of a threat to the U.S.’s national security, say, or to the public’s right under the freedom of information act to access documents of the federal government? Or do you think neither is really a concern?
A: I might choose another option. I’m not going to answer that, given that the investigation is still ongoing. Again, I want to be careful not to do anything to keep it from being done honestly, fairly and independently, and if I start offering views on the underlying subject, that will be compromised.
Q: Sure. So some individuals, Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, various pundits and journalists, have suggested that you might resign if Secretary Clinton is [not] indicted. Is that a possibility you can rule out?
A: I’m not going to comment on that either.
Q: Well, speaking of resignations, in 2004, predicated on your refusal to authorize the continuation of a classified program, you were intent on resigning as acting attorney general even after the Madrid train bombings the next day. I’m wondering, as the director of the FBI, how would you respond to orders from the next president to employ methods of interrogation that are currently illegal under international law — such as waterboarding or actively targeting terrorists’ families?
A: Yeah, I’m going to be careful to stay away from either hypos or anything that might be commenting on the political election and the comments in the course of that. But I will answer the question in a more general way. As I said at the time, I was confirmed as deputy attorney general and when I had to testify about the so-called “hospital incident,” I think I testified in 2007, I take very seriously my oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. In fact, we’ve put it in the mission statement of the FBI. Our mission is to protect the American people, and uphold the Constitution of the United States. And so if, any job I’m in, we’re either going to do it lawfully and appropriately and consistent with the Constitution of the United States, or, after all my best efforts to try to get us to that place, I won’t be working in that job anymore. But that’s not the comment on any future administration.
Q: So, a question about the FBI’s current work, you’ve said that counter-terrorism, specifically the fight against the Islamic State, is among your top priorities. What specific strategies has the bureau found most successful, or which do you think hold the most promise, in this fight against the Islamic State within the U.S.?
A: Yeah, so you’re right. Our number one priority is counter-terrorism. A huge feature of that is the threat posed by the Islamic State. There’s obviously a whole of government strategy against the Islamic State. Our piece of it is to try and protect Americans here at home from attacks, and so there’s a number of strategies we engage in there. One is to try to understand who might be consuming the poison of the Islamic State, especially that which is coming through the Internet and then radicalizing towards violence and trying to disrupt them. And so that involves court ordered electronic surveillance, it involves sources, it involves undercovers. It’s a multi-pronged approach, but the goal is to try to find those needles in the haystack that are on their way to killing somebody and disrupt them, first. Second, and do that so that we send a message that changes people’s behaviors, either people who are thinking about traveling to be with the so-called Islamic State, more killing people here, know that they should be afraid of what would happen to them if they moved down that path. There are probably other aspects to it, but that’s what first comes to mind.
Q: And, relatedly, the San Bernardino attacks got a lot of media attention in recent months. Do you think if some of the victims in those attacks had been armed that the death rate might have been lower than it was? Do you think higher gun ownership has the potential to reduce such violent acts?
A: I don’t know enough to say about a situation like that, and I don’t think it’s a question that I ought to be speculating on, frankly.
Q: Moving on to another subject, “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” you said last year at a speech at Georgetown University, quoting the musical Avenue Q. How do institutions like the FBI, how does law enforcement, work to resist racism in a significant way?
A: First by talking about it, by acknowledging that we all carry, as you mentioned, latent biases. That’s one way. We spend a lot of time in training of our people to try and address that, to raise their consciousness. Second by talking about the FBI’s own history, particularly our interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King as a way of demonstrating to our people the dangers inherent in becoming unconstrained by oversight. And then by trying to recruit as diverse a workforce as we possibly can, not just in our special agents, although that’s very important because they interact with the public, but in the rest of the organization. Those are probably three prominent ways that we try to deal with it.
Q: And one final question for you, Director Comey. In a news analysis piece in The New York Times last year about President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Peter Baker wrote, “A certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable, and Americans may have to learn to adapt the way Israel has.” Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think the United States and perhaps other Western countries may need to get used to more frequent acts of terrorism?
A: Yeah, I hope not. The United States sits in a very different security environment than Israel, a very different neighborhood. And we’ve brought resources to bear, since September 11 that are extraordinary so that we never have to live in that world where we accept it and so, no, I wouldn’t concede that. We have a very difficult job, especially — one of the things I’m going to talk about tonight is encryption — especially when we’re looking for needles in a haystack and it’s a nationwide haystack and the needle can go invisible on us, very, very hard. But that doesn’t mean we should say to ourselves, We got to get used to people blowing themselves up or killing innocent people by the dozen.

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