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FBI director on privacy, electronic surveillance

FBI Director James Comey speaks with Scott Pelley about our lives online and the need for government electronic surveillance, but only with a court order

The following is a script of "The Director" which aired on Oct. 12, 2014. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Robert Anderson and Pat Milton, producers.

James Comey, the director of the FBI, says the Internet is the most dangerous parking lot imaginable. Meaning that, online, you'll get mugged in ways that you never saw coming. We saw what he meant this month when JPMorgan Chase, the nation's largest bank, admitted that its system was looted for weeks by computer criminals who stole personal information from 83 million customers.

Last week on 60 Minutes, we spoke to James Comey about terrorism. Tonight, a surprising conversation about our lives online, not only the criminal menace but also snooping by agencies like the FBI. What does America's top cop think of government surveillance? Well, as we said, it's a surprising conversation.

James Comey: I believe that Americans should be deeply skeptical of government power. You cannot trust people in power. The founders knew that. That's why they divided power among three branches, to set interest against interest.

Scott Pelley: With regard to privacy and civil liberties, what guarantee are you willing to give to the American people?

James Comey: The promise I've tried to honor my entire career, that the rule of law and the design of the founders, right, the oversight of courts and the oversight of Congress will be at the heart of what the FBI does. The way you'd want it to be.

Scott Pelley: Does the FBI gather electronic surveillance that is then passed to the National Security Agency?

James Comey: That's one of those things I don't know whether I can talk about that in an open setting so I, I better not start to go down that road with you.

"It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way."

Scott Pelley: You have said, quote, "We shouldn't be doing anything that we can't explain." But these programs are top secret. The American people can't see them and you can't explain them.

James Comey: Right. We can't explain everything to everybody or the bad guys will find out what our capabilities are, both nations and individuals. What I mean is I need to be able to explain it either directly to the American people or to their elected representatives, which we do extensively with Congress.

Scott Pelley: There is no surveillance without court order?

James Comey: By the FBI? No. We don't do electronic surveillance without a court order.

Scott Pelley: You know that some people are going to roll their eyes when they hear that?

James Comey: Yeah, but we cannot read your emails or listen to your calls without going to a federal judge, making a showing of probable cause that you are a terrorist, an agent of a foreign power, or a serious criminal of some sort, and get permission for a limited period of time to intercept those communications. It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way.

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That's a principle over which James Comey is willing to sacrifice his career. He proved it in 2004 when he was deputy attorney general. Comey was asked to reauthorize a package of top secret, warrantless surveillance targeting foreign terrorists. But Comey told us "significant aspects" of the massive program were not lawful. He wouldn't be specific because it's still top secret.

Scott Pelley: This was not something you were willing to stand for?

James Comey: No, I was the deputy attorney general of the United States. We were not going to authorize, reauthorize or participate in activities that did not have a lawful basis.

At the time, Comey was in charge at the Justice Department because Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care with near fatal pancreatitis. When Comey refused to sign off, the president's Chief of Staff Andy Card headed to the hospital to get Ashcroft's OK.

Scott Pelley: You got in a car with lights and siren and raced to the hospital to beat the president's chief of staff there?

James Comey: Yep, raced over there, ran up the stairs, got there first.

Scott Pelley: What did you tell the attorney general lying in his hospital bed?

James Comey: Not much, because he was very, very bad off. I tried to see whether he was oriented as to place and time. And it was clear to me that he wasn't. I tried to have him understand what this was about. And it wasn't clear to me that he understood what I was saying. So I sat down to wait.

Scott Pelley: To wait for Andy Card, the president's chief of staff?

James Comey: Yeah, and then White House Counsel Gonzales.

Scott Pelley: They spoke to Attorney General Ashcroft and said that the program should be reauthorized and you were there to argue that it should not be. How did it end?

James Comey: With the attorney general surprising me, shocking me by pushing himself up on his elbows, and in very strong terms articulating the merits of the matter. And then saying, "But that doesn't matter because I'm not the attorney general." And then he turned to me and pointed and said, "There's the attorney general." And then he fell back. And they turned and left.

Scott Pelley: You'd won the day?

James Comey: Yeah, I didn't feel that way.

Scott Pelley: How did you feel?

James Comey: Probably a little sick. And a little sense of unreality that this was happening.

The next day, some in the White House tried to force the authorization through a different way. So Comey wrote a letter of resignation to the president calling the situation "apocalyptic" and "fundamentally wrong." He left the letter on his desk and he and FBI Director Robert Mueller went to the White House to resign.

James Comey: Yeah. We stood there together, waiting to go meet the president, looking out at the Rose Garden, both of us knowing this was our last time there, and the end of our government careers.

Scott Pelley: Wasn't it your responsibility to support the president?

James Comey: No. No, my responsibility, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Scott Pelley: This was something the president wanted to go forward with. And you were standing in front of the president of the United States telling him he shouldn't do it. And if he did, you'd quit. Do I have that right?

James Comey: Yeah, I don't think I expressly threatened to quit at any point. But that was understood.

President Bush was persuaded.

Scott Pelley: The program that we've discussed, as I understand it, was in fact reauthorized, but in a modified form? It was made to conform to the law in your estimation?

James Comey: Yes.

Scott Pelley: Help me understand the principle at stake here that caused you to write a letter of resignation, to rush to the attorney general's bedside, to tell the president that he couldn't have what he wanted, and to face down the president's chief of staff. What was it that motivated that?

James Comey: The rule of law. Simple as that.

"The notion that we would market devices that would allow someone to place themselves beyond the law, troubles me a lot."

We talked with Comey, who is six foot eight, at his headquarters in Washington. In technology, the cutting edge cuts both ways and Comey told us he's worried now that Apple and Google have the power to upend the rule of law. Until now, a judge could order those companies to unlock a criminal suspect's phone. But their new software makes it impossible for them to crack a code set by the user.

James Comey: The notion that we would market devices that would allow someone to place themselves beyond the law, troubles me a lot. As a country, I don't know why we would want to put people beyond the law. That is, sell cars with trunks that couldn't ever be opened by law enforcement with a court order, or sell an apartment that could never be entered even by law enforcement. Would you want to live in that neighborhood? This is a similar concern. The notion that people have devices, again, that with court orders, based on a showing of probable cause in a case involving kidnapping or child exploitation or terrorism, we could never open that phone? My sense is that we've gone too far when we've gone there.

The FBI is spending a lot of its time online these days. This is a new cybercrime headquarters that the public hasn't seen before. We agreed to keep the location secret. They call it "cywatch" and it pulls in resources from the CIA, NSA and others. Comey's agents are running down leads in the theft of JPMorgan's data. Often in cases like that the suspects are overseas. So the trouble is, in cyberspace, where do you put the handcuffs?

James Comey: It's too easy for those criminals to think that I can sit in my basement halfway around the world and steal everything that matters to an American. And it's a freebie, because I'm so far away.

Scott Pelley: A lot of those people are operating in countries where they're not going to be give up to the United States.

James Comey: Yes.

Scott Pelley: Russia, China, elsewhere.

James Comey: Yep, a challenge that we face so we try to approach that two ways. One, work with all foreign nations to try and have them understand that it's in nobody's interested to have criminal thugs in your country and second, again, to look to lay hands on them if they leave those safe havens to impose a real cost on them. We want them looking over their shoulders when they're sitting at a keyboard.

"It's a great way to be able to train lots of people for lots of different missions, all in a big empty room."

Scott Pelley: When the phone rings in the middle of the night, which I'm sure it does, what's your first thought?

James Comey: Something has blown up. Yeah.

Scott Pelley: It's terrorism that concerns you the most, even after all we said about cybercrime.

James Comey: Yeah, I think that's right because it's terrorism that can have the most horrific, immediate impact on innocent people

In the age of terrorism the budget of the FBI has doubled, adding capabilities like this reference library for bombs. Since 2003, they've analyzed 100,000 bombs sent here from 40 nations. From blasted remains, like this circuit board, they can piece together the 'what' and the 'how' that leads to the 'who.' It's just some of the 21st century technology that is transforming the 106-year-old bureau.

We also saw a new virtual world where agents are put through any nightmare that instructors can program into their goggles.

James Comey: To their mind's eye, they're in an alley or they're in an apartment building or they're coming into a house. But because the computer can create that through the virtual reality glasses that they wear. It's a great way to be able to train lots of people for lots of different missions, all in a big empty room.

[FBI! Let me see your hands!]

We're told that the deadliest avatar is a little old lady with a handgun.

[Subject detained!]

We also traveled to a town that doesn't exit on any map. It's a crime scene training ground. And when we were there the agents were using lasers to figure out from which direction shots were fired. A fog machine reveals the beam in daylight. But in this indoor town, it can be night if need be.

With what the FBI can do expanding so rapidly, James Comey keeps this memo right on his desk to remind him of what the bureau shouldn't do. Marked "secret," it's a 1963 request from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Titled, "Martin Luther King Jr., Security Matter - Communist." Hoover requests authority for "technical surveillance" of King. The approval is signed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

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Scott Pelley: And there was no court order. It was the signature of the FBI director and the signature of the attorney general?

James Comey: Yep. And then open-ended. No time limit. No space restriction. No review. No oversight.

Scott Pelley: And given the threats in the world today, wouldn't that make your job so much easier?

James Comey: In a sense, but also in a sense, we would give up so much that makes sure that we're rooted in the rule of law, that I'd never want to make that trade.

Some of the worst of the FBI's history is in its investigation of Dr. King. So on Comey's orders, FBI Academy instructors now bring new agents here to talk about values lost in the pursuit of the man who became a monument.

FBI Academy instructor: Character, courage, collaboration, competence. We have to be able to call on those tools in our toolbox to be able to make sure that we are correcting some of the things that have happened in the past.

Scott Pelley: What's the lesson?

James Comey: The lesson is the importance of never becoming untethered to oversight and accountability. I want all of my new special agents and intelligence analysts to understand that portion of the FBI's history, the FBI's interaction with Dr. King and draw from it an understanding of the dangers of falling in love with our own rectitude.

  • Scott Pelley

    Anchor and Managing Editor, "CBS Evening News;" Correspondent, "60 Minutes"