AUSTIN - FBI Director James Comey spoke at the University of Texas on Thursday as part of a symposium discussing national security challenges intelligence and law enforcement agencies face.
Comey, who canceled his South by Southwest appearance earlier this month, spoke at the symposium “Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland.” at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center Ballroom.
The hour-long discussion did not touch on the ongoing investigating a possible relationship between Russian officials and Trump campaign staffers.
Instead, Comey's speech focused on counter-terrorism efforts, cyber security, and encryption.
"Let me start with the FBI's top-priority, which is counter-terrorism. And in the world of counter-terrorism, our major focus is on the so-called Islamic State, the group known as ISIS or ISIL," Comey stated.
As recently as two years ago, the FBI was stretched out - trying to cover a wide array of targets.
"In the Spring and Summer of 2015, I have to tell you the FBI was strapped. We were following - attempting to follow to cover electronically with court orders - or cover physically dozens and dozens and dozens of people that we assessed were on the cusp of violence," said Comey.
But Comey said the terror group's reign on social media has greatly diminished - due to enhanced cyber security efforts and military victories. He also credited social media companies, such as Twitter, for more strictly cracking down on accounts that support terrorist activities.
As for hackers, Comey said when it comes to the FBI's reach, there's no limit.
"We must make them physically, ideally, but maybe meta-physically, feel our breath on the back of their necks, and impose a cost," Comey explained.
He believes stronger enforcement in cracking down on hackers is essential for stopping them.
"Hacking is done thoughtfully. People are susceptible to deterrents when they sit at a keyboard. If they are afraid of us, it will change their behavior," said Comey.
He said part of the battle is victims speaking up to alert authorities.
"The North Korean attack on SONY pictures was a sophisticated, large, very, very aggressive attack. It likely would have been worse but for SONY's relationship with the FBI," said Comey, who believed the depth of the attack was mitigated due to the agency's investigation.
The ongoing battle against cyber security is continuing to evolve.
"Every threat the FBI faces today comes at us through the Internet. Counterintelligence, all the criminal threats, fraudsters, stalking, gangs, all of that has a digital aspect to it," Comey said.
A rising challenge: encryption.
"We collected data from October, November, and December. 2,800 devices were presented to the FBI examiners by our agents or our state or local partners with court orders to open them. 43% of them we could not open with any technique, including classified techniques," said Comey.
As for competing against the private sector for talent, Comey stated their selling pitch simply:
"You won't make a living with us. You'll make a life."
Other national security experts who were in attendance included:
- Thomas Bossert, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
- Adm. Kurt Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command
- Lt. Gen. John Bansemer, Assistant Director of National Intelligence
- Steve McCraw, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety
- William McRaven, Chancellor of the University of Texas System
There was no media availability either prior or following the event with the FBI Director. Comey was quickly ushered out of the ballroom following his speech to attend to prior commitments.
Thursday’s event was co-sponsored by the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law, the Clements Center for National Security and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
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