Chairman Burr's Opening Remarks

Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and the Challenges of "Going Dark"

July 8, 2015

Good afternoon.  I would like to welcome our witness today, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey.  I would note that Director Comey appeared this morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Jim, I appreciate your appearing before us now and enduring a long day of Congressional testimony.

As we often conduct our hearings in closed session, I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly commend Director Comey and the men and women of the FBI for their outstanding efforts in keeping our country safe.  It is due in no small part to the FBI’s vigilance – in concert with their Intelligence Community partners – that our nation enjoyed peaceful and safe Independence Day celebrations this past weekend.

Director Comey, as you are well aware, extremists fueled by anti-Western propaganda remain intent on inflicting harm on US interests at home and abroad.  Over the past year, we have witnessed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – also referred to as “ISIL” or “the Islamic State” – attempt to inspire a wide range of individuals to conduct attacks against innocent civilians.  Largely as a result of ISIL’s media savvy, the number of US-based individuals in 2015 seeking to conduct attacks in the Homeland – or travel overseas to join ISIL – has already exceeded the combined number of individuals attempting these activities in 2013 and 2014. 

Unfortunately, the threats facing our nation are not limited to terrorist actors.  Foreign governments remain intent on stealing our country’s most valuable trade, intellectual property, and national security secrets;  The FBI is charged with confronting all of these threats, as well, and is continually challenged by the capabilities and tradecraft employed by these nation state actors.  In addition to these fairly unique jurisdictional issues, the FBI conducts routine law enforcement investigations of drug trafficking, theft of government property, child-pornography, robbery, extortion, murder, and the list goes on.  These criminals are also turning to encrypted communications as a means of evading detection.   

These two issues – that might at first glance appear unrelated – are in fact closely linked.  Communication between a terrorist group’s operational commanders and field soldiers requires enabling technology.  Communications between a foreign state and its “spies” also requires enabling technology.  In both cases, the enabling technology used by terrorists and foreign state spies is increasingly secure, encrypted communications.  Both of these adversaries are taking advantage of the rapid advances in secure communications that are employing advanced commercially available encryption.  Director, as I understand the issue, even when law enforcement has the legal authority to intercept and access communications pursuant to a court order, you may lack the technical ability to do so – this is what you have referred to as “Going Dark.”  You have described it as one of the biggest challenges facing your agency and law enforcement generally.

This challenge falls at the intersection of technology, law, freedom and security.  It results from the adoption of universal encryption.  These applications are designed so that only the user has the key to decode their content.  In these cases, when the FBI – or any other law enforcement agency – requests access to a user’s communications via a lawful warrant, it is inaccessible and unreadable.  It does not matter whether the user is a suspected terrorist, child molester, spy, or drug trafficker – law enforcement is blind, or becoming so; and, as a result, we are less safe.

I – like all Americans – desire privacy.  As Americans, we are guaranteed the right to be secure, pursuant to the 4th Amendment, in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”  I am also concerned, though, as are my fellow members, about the terrorist, counterintelligence, and other criminal threats to those very same things.  I strongly believe that we must identify a solution that first protects Americans’ privacy but also allows for lawful “searches” under valid court order.  Director Comey, you have said that the encryption now readily available is “equivalent to a closet that can’t be opened” or “a safe that can’t be cracked.”  You have an opportunity today to speak to the Committee – and the American people – and convince us that in order to keep the American people safe, you need to be able to “open that closet,” and to “crack that safe.”  There are no easy answers and we are embarking on what will be a robust debate.  Director, you wrote Monday that part of your job is to “make sure the debate is informed by a reasonable understanding of the costs.”  I look forward to your testimony, this discussion, and I appreciate your being here.

I now turn to the distinguished Vice Chairman for any remarks she may have.

Read FBI Director Comey's opening statement here.