FBI Adapting To Combat Cyber Threats, Director Comey Tells UT Conference

Mar 23, 2017

FBI Director James Comey delivered the keynote address at a symposium on national security challenges at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday.

The symposium, "Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland," was aimed at promoting strategies to detect and disrupt terrorist attacks in the U.S.  

His address comes after he canceled an appearance in Austin during South by Southwest, citing a scheduling conflict. It also comes at the heels of his appearance Monday before Congress, where he notified lawmakers that the FBI was investigating ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials.

Comey opened his remarks by saying he was going to keep it short in favor of having “a conversation” with students.

“What I want to do is give you a status report on some of the things the FBI is worried about today and then I want to shut up and take questions,” he said.

That "status report" took almost an hour.

Comey ran through a long list of worries about the future of fighting terrorism in the U.S. He said things are much better than before 9/11, but he admitted there still isn’t a perfect algorithm for locating the “bad guys.”

“This is the thing that keeps me up at night – worrying about where is the person who may be bent on the next San Bernardino, the next Orlando attack,” he said. “Will anybody close to them tell us what they see so that we can get on it?”

Comey said even in cases where that does happen – like in the case of the Orlando shooter – it’s sometimes not enough.

He also noted the agency is looking into possibly recruiting people who might not fit the mold of a typical FBI agent, but instead have more cyber capabilities. The overwhelming amount of threats the country faces have a digital component these days. When it comes to hackers, though, Comey said he sees a window for effective deterrents.

“We must make them – physically ideally, but maybe metaphysically – feel our breath on the back of their necks and impose a cost,” he said. “And the reason we think this makes sense is I am not aware of any hacking that has yet occurred high on crack or enflamed by finding a lover in the arms of another. Hacking is done thoughtfully. People are susceptible to deterrents when they sit at a keyboard.”

Comey fielded only three audience questions at the end of his remarks. The first was from doctoral candidate Emily Waylon.

“Did the public response to the announcement about the investigation into Secretary Clinton’s emails last fall shape the bureau's way of handling the bureau’s approach to the most recent announcement about the ongoing investigation into President Trump’s campaign?” she asked.

Comey dodged. “Hmm. I’m not going to talk about it,” he said.

Watch the symposium here: