If you think FBI Director James Comey agonizes over how he’s perceived by critics when he makes politically fraught decisions, you’re probably overthinking the matter.
“I know that when I make a hard decision, a storm is going to follow,” he told contractors gathered at a dinner Wednesday evening put on by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “But honestly, I don’t care.” Comey said his team “is not considering whose ox will be gored by this action or that action, whose fortunes will be helped by this or that.”
“We’re not on anybody’s side, ever,” he said in a talk that avoided current controversies such as the probe of President Trump’s alleged Russia connections or Hillary Clinton’s email issues. “It would be the death of the FBI if we started considering [a decision’s] impact in a political sense.”
Comey told hundreds gathered at a hotel in Alexandria, Va., that his agency of 38,000 is expanding and relying on a new cyber-focused recruiting strategy aimed at better tapping private-sector expertise.
“In 2015 we were way down,” he said, due to sequestration and the temporary closing of the bureau’s Quantico training facility. “But we’ll be at full strength by the end of this year,” he said, noting that the bureau hired 3,000 in 2016 and plans to bring on 2,500 more next year. The FBI is now twice the size it was during the Clinton administration, he said.
Besides boosting its cyber capabilities, the bureau is also changing the way it works, moving from a more geographically organized approach to one based on the nature of the investigation itself. For example, where a Chicago bank robbery would formerly have been handled by the Chicago field office, the assignment now would go to the field office with the best demonstrated ability to handle that particular investigation, with other offices assisting. “It has fostered an intense competition,” Comey said.
Comey said he would like to see the FBI develop personnel processes that foster more mobility between the bureau and private employers. Currently FBI agents who leave for longer than 24 months have to retrain at Quantico, which is a deterrent for many mid-career people, he said.
The FBI still has work to do in persuading citizens that the government will not mishandle their personal or commercial digital information. “It’s not so much a problem of law but a problem of lore,” he said, noting that the intelligence community has made progress over the past several decades in generating trust.
Comey called for a new national conversation about privacy versus the needs of law enforcement. “It’s a shadow falling across our work,” he said.