FBI director Christopher Wray maintains Russia a threat during Aspen event
Remaining steadfast in his position that Russia influenced the 2016 U.S. elections, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday night in Aspen that his “view has not changed” as President Donald Trump continues to rail against American intelligence.
Russia was the first topic broached by NBC News’ Lester Holt during an interview with Wray to open this week’s Aspen Security Forum.
Holt asked if Wray had watched the news conference held Monday after Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met one-on-one.
Trump again questioned U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings and took Putin’s word that Russia was not involved in influencing the elections. A day later Trump walked back his position but stopped short of saying he has confidence in the U.S.’s intelligence.
“He’s got his view. He has expressed his view,” Wray said. “I can tell you what my view is. The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed. My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and it continues to engage in maligned influence operations to this day.”
Holt followed up by asking if that effort is aimed at the U.S.’s political system.
Wray said Russia’s activity is aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in this country.
“We haven’t seen an effort to target specific election infrastructure at this time,” Wray said. “But certainly those maligned influence actions are very active and we could be just a moment away from going to the next level. So to me, it’s a threat we need to take very seriously and respond to with fierce determination.”
On Friday, 12 Russian nationals were indicted by the Justice Department as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. The defendants are members of the GRU, a Russian federation intelligence agency led by Putin.
Holt asked if those indictments were a shot across the bow and meant to be a warning.
Wray said he didn’t want to comment on an ongoing investigation but said the FBI has gotten much more tech-savvy and sophisticated, and is partnering with foreign governments to get access to information overseas.
“So the same basic character that drives the FBI, the diligence, the persistence, you know the old saying ‘the FBI always gets its man’ applies in this space, too,” he said. “We are pretty effective and we don’t give up.”
Holt asked Wray if there is anything about Mueller’s investigation that would allow it to be considered a “witch hunt.”
“I get asked this a lot and I do not believe special counsel Mueller is a on a witch hunt,” he responded. “I think it is a professional investigation conducted by a man I believe to be a straight shooter.”
And when it comes to his agency being consistently maligned by the president, Wray said his primary concern is the opinions of people who work with the FBI across its 56 field offices in the country — whether they are victims and their families, judges, juries, state and local partners and the American people who have been victimized by terrorist attacks — to name a few.
“The opinions I care about are the people who know us through our work,” he said. “When I look at morale, I’m more interested in how people express their views through actions. I’m a big believer in the idea that talk is cheap, actions matter a lot more.”
When asked about the Justice Department’s Inspector General report that was released Friday that criticizes the FBI, Wray said he felt it was fair but cautioned the American public that it was focused on a few individuals for a short period of time.
Process is key within the organization — a point Wray said he drives home when he visits field offices throughout the United States.
“How you get to point A to point B matters just as much as the result,” he said. “Our process has to be bulletproof.”
He said he has a professional relationship with the president and doesn’t weigh in on all of his opinions.
“As I said the other day to someone, I’m not much of a Twitter guy,” he said, adding he is more of a low-key person.
Holt asked if he has ever hit a point that he has thought about resigning, when it comes to being questioned by lawmakers on sources or investigation methods, or any other issue.
“As I said, I’m a low-key, understated guy but that should not be mistaken to what my spine is made out of,” he said. “I will just leave it at that.”
That drew applause from the more than 200 people in attendance at the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Institute campus.
Holt then moved away from Russia and onto China, and asked Wray if he sees that country as an adversary.
From a counterintelligence perspective, China represents the most challenging, broadest and significant threat in terms of economic and traditional espionage, intelligence operatives, human sources and cyber intelligence, Wray said.
He added that there are economic espionage investigations in all 50 states related to China — from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between.
“The volume of it, the pervasiveness of it, the significance of it is something this country cannot underestimate,” Wray said.
The threat is different than that of Russia, he noted.
“China is trying to position itself as the sole dominant super power, the sole dominant economic power,” Wray said. “They are trying to replace the United States in that role and so theirs is a long-term game.”
Wray also noted that North Korea is a serious cyber threat but is designed mostly to make money for the regime.
The use of encrypted devices by terrorists also is a major issue for the U.S., and the intelligence community has to find a way to combat that, Wray noted, adding that private industry and the government need to work together.
“We are a country with powerful innovations,” he said. “The idea that we can’t solve this problem as a society, I just don’t buy it.”
Holt and Wray tackled several other issues during the hourlong conversation, including protecting sources and methods in relation to congressional oversight, and doing better as an organization when tips come in about questionable individuals like in the case of the gunman who killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year.
In response to an audience member’s question about what keeps him up at night, Wray replied, “In many ways the threats I’m worried about are the ones coming around the corner.”
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