FBI Chief: I Underestimated Terror Threat

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Monday, 19 May 2014 07:44 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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FBI Director James Comey told The New York Times that he initially underestimated the terrorism threat, including al-Qaida affiliates and offshoots.

"I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become," Comey told the newspaper, saying that al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa and the Middle East are bigger and stronger than he was led to believe.

The FBI director told the Times that he now believes terrorism should remain the main focus for the bureau.

The Senate confirmed Comey in a 93-to-1 vote last year, with tea party Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky the lone dissenter. Paul had concerns about the FBI's use of surveillance drones on U.S. soil, The Guardian reported in July 2013. After delaying the vote for the confirmation, Paul eventually got out of the way after the FBI addressed his concerns.

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Even after President Barack Obama’s speech last year that the United States is facing threats tantamount to pre-9/11 levels, his efforts to implement a new vision have been thwarted, according to the Times.

Obama has been hit with pushback from the National Security Agency to curb its practice of domestic spying by doing things such as the bulk collection of phone data. And the CIA continues its drone program despite an assurance by the president that it would be taken over by the Pentagon, the Times reported.

Critics of the FBI accuse the agency, and Comey, of operating under antiquated notions about terrorists and how they operate. The agency is drowning in mounds of data it collects but crucial information gets lost in the pile.

"You had all this information coming in, and nearly all of it wasn’t helpful, so agents became accustomed to leads going nowhere, and everything they opened became an exercise in how quickly you can close it," said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program at New York University.

"In the face of evidence that it is ineffective, it’s troubling that Comey would embrace it," German told the Times.

Case in point, according to German: the Boston Marathon bombing.

Russian officials had notified the FBI of marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnev’s radicalization and plans to travel to Russia to join underground groups, according to the Times. But the lead investigator never questioned Tsarnev or his family about his travels and didn’t reopen an investigation of him when he returned to the United States.

"The year the FBI investigated the older brother, it said it did 1,000 assessments," German told the newspaper. "There weren’t 1,000 terrorists in Boston that year, and a vast majority of resources were obviously going to things that didn’t matter."

Comey told a roundtable of journalists earlier this month that the FBI’s priorities are focused on "cyber cases involving national security threats or massive computer infections or 'botnets' that can cause widespread damage," Politico reported.

"The 17,000 police agencies in the United States have got to become digitally literate," Comey said, according to Politico.

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