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FBI Director Comey Provides Insight into FBI’s Priorities

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By Leischen Stelter

During today’s first general assembly at the 121st International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference and Exposition in Orlando, keynote speaker FBI Director James Comey shared the priorities of the FBI.

Terrorism remains the primary threat and focus of the agency, although the threat is always evolving, he said. One way terrorism has changed is in regards to where such threats are arising. While the U.S. and its allies around the world have done a great job of fighting the core Al Qaeda, groups in “lightly governed” parts of the world are “popping up virulent strands” most recently ISIL, he said.

The FBI is increasingly concerned with extremism spreading via the Internet and fostering homegrown terrorism, he said. “The Internet has made it possible to provide all the poison needed for extremists who are seeking meaning in a misguided way may to radicalize themselves and all the information they need to engage in violence while sitting in their basement,” he said.

FBI Director James Comey_IACP2014
FBI Director James Comey addresses delgates during the First General Assembly at the 121st IACP annual conference in Orlando, Florida.

In his view, these continuing national threats underscore the importance and value of building relationships between the FBI and local and state law enforcement agencies. “It is unlikely that a federal agent will be the one who hears about a troubled soul radicalizing on the Internet or within a neighborhood. It’s far more likely to be police officer on patrol. It’s more important than ever that we—those of us who are charged with securing this country—remain together,” he said.

The second priority of the FBI is a focus on intelligence gathering and dissemination. “We want to be more thoughtful and systematic about what we know, what we need to know, and who else needs to know it,” Comey said. It is critical that information is shared from the FBI to its law enforcement partners in a timely fashion and in a meaningful way, he emphasized.

In addition to the FBI’s priorities, Comey discussed several developing policy issues that he finds troubling. The first is the issue of “going dark” which has deterred law enforcement from collecting information.

“We are increasingly unable to do that which courts have authorized us to do, which is to collect information and intercept data in motion. And, in the last few years, we’ve been increasingly growing dark when it comes to collecting data at rest,” he said. While the modes of communication have proliferated, law enforcement has been unable to intercept all of this growing data. “Before we create a law-free zone where criminals are beyond the reach of lawful authority we need to have a conversation about it,” he said.

The second policy issue he discussed was the threat to law enforcement officers. According to FBI reports, 41 officers have been murdered this year, which is a 64 percent increase from last year. Six officers have been killed in ambushes like the one seen in Pennsylvania last month.

“These are not abstract stats for me or you or anyone in the FBI. This demonstrates the merging between homegrown threats and the targeting of law enforcement, which is worrisome. The FBI and Justice Department take the harm to law enforcement extremely seriously and we need to understand what’s going on,” he said.

At the same time that there is a growing threat to law enforcement officers, there is also a national debate going on about the emergence of “warrior cops,” which can be discouraging for many in law enforcement, he acknowledged.

“The issue is not the stuff or the equipment used because we need it,” he said. “The issue is how we use it and when and how we deploy advanced equipment.” As social media now often dominates public discourse, it’s important to know how such actions will be perceived by people who likely don’t understand how law enforcement works.

“The answer is to talk to our citizens and have an open conversation about why and what we do and make sure we listen to them,” he said.

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