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FBI director on threat of ISIS, cybercrime

In his first major television interview, FBI Director James Comey speaks with Scott Pelley about the threat of Americans joining ISIS and the dangers posed by cybercrime and cyber espionage

The following is a script of "The Director" which aired on Oct. 5, 2014. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Robert Anderson and Pat Milton, producers.

Do you know the name of the director of the FBI? Probably not. James Comey has been America's top cop for just one year and he hasn't done a major television interview until tonight. We had a lot to cover. We wanted to know whether a terrorist attack is imminent. And how hackers are breaking into our computers. Along the way, we learned surprising things about Comey himself; like the time he was held hostage at gunpoint. We sat down with 53-year-old James Comey in his command center at FBI headquarters in Washington where one of his urgent concerns is the whereabouts of Americans who've joined terrorist groups overseas.

Scott Pelley: How many Americans are fighting in Syria on the side of the terrorists?

James Comey: In the area of a dozen or so.

Scott Pelley: Do you know who they are?

James Comey: Yes.

Scott Pelley: Each and every one of them?

James Comey: I think of that, dozen or so, I do. I hesitate only because I don't know what I don't know.

Scott Pelley: With American passports, how do you keep them from coming home and attacking the homeland?

James Comey: Ultimately, an American citizen, unless their passport's revoked, is entitled to come back. So someone who's fought with ISIL, with American passport wants to come back, we will track them very carefully.


"ISIL" is the acronym he uses for the Islamic extremist group occupying much of Syria and Iraq. The U.S. is bombing ISIL and an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria called Khorasan.

Scott Pelley: Was Khorasan about to attack the United States?

James Comey: Khorasan was working and may still be working on an effort to attack the United States or our allies, and looking to do it very, very soon. I can't sit here and tell you whether it's their plan is tomorrow or three weeks or three months from now. Given our visibility we know they're serious people, bent on destruction. And so we have to act as if it's coming tomorrow.

Scott Pelley: How would you describe the terrorist networks in Syria as they exist right now?

James Comey: They're a product of what I describe as the metastasis of al Qaeda. And so you have two in particular in that area, a group called al-Nusra and then ISIL. They are both vicious, sort of the inheritors of a lot of the mantle of al Qaeda and present different threats in a lot of ways.

Scott Pelley: Competent?

James Comey: Highly.

Scott Pelley: What do you mean?

James Comey: Let's stay with the Nusra group first. They are experienced terrorists, experienced bomb-makers, experienced killers, experienced planners with an international eye. These are people who have thought about bringing terrorism on a global scale. ISIL is as sophisticated, maybe more than any of the others in its media presence and its recruiting and training efforts online.

"We are better organized, better systems, better equipment, smarter deployment. We are better in every way that you'd want us to be since 9/11."

Those terrorist training efforts online appeared to play out, the day before our interview, in Oklahoma. Police say a man who'd tried to convert fellow employees to Islam, beheaded a woman in his workplace. He was allegedly upset about being suspended. But the FBI is investigating whether the murder was an imitation of ISIL's beheadings.

Scott Pelley: Some people call individuals who are radicalized "lone wolves." Is that the biggest threat we face?

James Comey: Yeah, people who use that term, it's not one I like because it conveys a sense of dignity I don't think they deserve. These homegrown violent extremists are troubled souls, who are seeking meaning in some misguided way. And so they come across the propaganda and they become radicalized on their own, sort of independent study, and they're also able to equip themselves with training again through the Internet, and then engage in jihad after emerging from their basement.

Scott Pelley: The name "lone wolf" offends you.

James Comey: It does. I'd prefer lone rat to capture the kind of person we're talking about.

Scott Pelley: Lone rat?

James Comey: Yeah.

Scott Pelley: Is this as dangerous a time as al Qaeda at its peak?

James Comey: No, I don't think so.

Scott Pelley: What's different?

James Comey: We are better organized as an intelligence community. We're better organized and equipped at the border. We have relationships with our foreign partners. All of which make us better able to see dots and connect dots. The transformation since before 9/11 is striking.

One striking transformations is in the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team. Which has more than doubled in size since 9/11.

[Special agent: One minute! One minute!]

You almost never see the HRT, but we were given rare access to their training center. These are FBI special agents practicing an assault on a building where a hostage might be beheld. Even training, the team uses live ammunition and live explosives.

The Hostage Rescue Team has joined U.S. special operations forces for hundreds of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last June, the team swooped into Libya and grabbed a suspect indicted for a role in 2012's Benghazi attack, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three others. The new emphasis, these days, is to bring terrorists to court.

James Comey: We're there to make sure that we have a criminal option in our country's toolbox when we take the fight to the terrorists.

Scott Pelley: So they would be involved in such things as evidence collection and making sure that arrests were done in such a way that they'd be seen as admissible in court.

James Comey: Yeah, or if we grab somebody and they say something that we may want to use later we can use special agents of the FBI to testify about it.

The Hostage Rescue Team is symbolic of the FBI's growth since 9/11. The budget has jumped from under four billion a year to more than eight billion. Comey now leads 34,000 employees.

James Comey: This is called "watch."

In his operations center we got a sense of one of the imposing things about Comey, he is six foot eight. He grew up near New York City, in the suburbs, where his grandfather was a police chief and where he came face-to-face with crime at an early age.

"...I thought about that guy every night for five years. So I think it's made me a better prosecutor and investigator for being able to feel better what victims of crime experience."

James Comey: I was a high school senior and home alone one night with my younger brother. And a guy - gunman kicked in our front door at our home in New Jersey and held the two of us captive. We escaped. He caught us again. We escaped again. So a pretty horrific experience.

Scott Pelley: Horrific how?

James Comey: Well, frightening to anybody but especially to a younger person to be threatened with a gun and to believe you're going to be killed by this guy.

Scott Pelley: You believed you were going to be killed?

James Comey: I did.

Scott Pelley: What happened to that guy?

James Comey: He got away. My recollection was he was part of a pattern of rapes and robberies, home invasion rapes and robberies in that area of northern New Jersey.

Scott Pelley: Does that inform your work today in any way.

James Comey: It does, but probably in a way that would surprise people. I think it most affects me in giving me a sense of what victims feel. And that even the notion no one was physically harmed, doesn't mean no one was harmed. Because I thought about that guy every night for five years. So I think it's made me a better prosecutor and investigator for being able to feel better what victims of crime experience.

He's been a federal prosecutor most of his career. In 2003, President Bush appointed him deputy attorney general, number two at the Justice Department. But after two years he left for private industry, telling his wife that it was her turn to do what she wanted. Then the phone rang last year.

James Comey: The attorney general called and asked me if I was willing to be interviewed for FBI director. And the truth is I told him I didn't think so, that I thought it was too much for my family. But that I would sleep on it and call him back in the morning. And so I went to bed that night convinced I was going to call him back and say no.

Scott Pelley: What happened?

James Comey: I woke up. And my amazing wife was gone. And I found her down in the kitchen on the computer, looking at homes in the D.C. area. Which was a clue. And she said, "I've known you since you were 19. This is who you are. This is what you love. You've got to say yes." And then she paused and said, "But they're not going to pick you anyway, so just go down there and do your best. And then we'll have no regrets."

Scott Pelley: At least you would have tried.

James Comey: Right.

Scott Pelley: So you met with the president.

James Comey: I did.

Scott Pelley: What happened?

James Comey: Had to give my wife some bad news: that her confidence in them not picking me was misplaced.

That pick gives Comey a ten-year term. He intends it to be a decade that transforms the FBI again. To fight crime and espionage online.

"There are those who've been hacked by the Chinese and those who don't know they've been hacked by the Chinese."

James Comey: Cybercrime is becoming everything in crime. Again, because people have connected their entire lives to the Internet, that's where those who want to steal money or hurt kids or defraud go. So it's an epidemic for reasons that make sense.

Scott Pelley: How many attacks are there on American computer systems and on people's credit card numbers and the whole mass of it? What does a day look like if you're concerned with crime in cyberspace?

COMEY: It would be too many to count. I mean, I think of it as kind of an evil layer cake. At the top you have nation state actors, who are trying to break into our systems. Terrorists, organized cyber syndicates, very sophisticated, harvesting people's personal computers, down to hacktivists, down to criminals and pedophiles.

Scott Pelley: What countries are attacking the United States as we sit here in cyberspace?

James Comey: Well, I don't want to give you a complete list. But I can tell you the top of the list is the Chinese. As we have demonstrated with the charges we brought earlier this year against five members of the People's Liberation Army. They are extremely aggressive and widespread in their efforts to break into American systems to steal information that would benefit their industry.

Scott Pelley: What are they trying to get?

James Comey: Information that's useful to them so they don't have to invent. They can copy or steal so learn about how a company might approach negotiation with a Chinese company, all manner of things.

Scott Pelley: How many hits from China do we take in a day?

James Comey: Many, many, many. I mean, there are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who've been hacked by the Chinese and those who don't know they've been hacked by the Chinese.

Scott Pelley: The Chinese are that good?

James Comey: Actually, not that good. I liken them a bit to a drunk burglar. They're kicking in the front door, knocking over the vase, while they're walking out with your television set. They're just prolific. Their strategy seems to be: We'll just be everywhere all the time. And there's no way they can stop us.

Scott Pelley: How much does that cost the U.S. economy every year?

James Comey: Impossible to count. Billions.

Scott Pelley: Sounds like cybercrime is a long way from Bonnie and Clyde for the FBI.

James Comey: Bonnie and Clyde could not do a thousand robberies in the same day, in all 50 states, from their pajamas, halfway around the world.

Scott Pelley: The FBI's had legendary problems upgrading its computer systems. Are you now to a place where you're satisfied that you're meeting the cybersecurity threat?

James Comey: We've made great progress coordinating better as a government. When I last left government, my sense of us was kind of like four-year-old soccer. So like a clump of four year olds chasing the ball, we were chasing it in a pack. We're about high school soccer now. We're spread out. We pass well. But the bad guys are moving at World Cup speed. So we have to get better.

Scott Pelley: Do people understand, in your estimation, the dangers posed by cybercrime and cyber espionage?

James Comey: I don't think so. I think there's something about sitting in front of your own computer working on your own banking, your own health care, your own social life that makes it hard to understand the danger. I mean, the Internet is the most dangerous parking lot imaginable. But if you were crossing a mall parking lot late at night, your entire sense of danger would be heightened. You would stand straight. You'd walk quickly. You'd know where you were going. You would look for light. Folks are wandering around that proverbial parking lot of the Internet all day long, without giving it a thought to whose attachments they're opening, what sites they're visiting. And that makes it easy for the bad guys.

Scott Pelley: So tell folks at home what they need to know.

James Comey: When someone sends you an email, they are knocking on your door. And when you open the attachment, without looking through the peephole to see who it is, you just opened the door and let a stranger into your life, where everything you care about is.

Scott Pelley: And what might that attachment do?

James Comey: Well, take over the computer, lock the computer, and then demand a ransom payment before it would unlock. Steal images from your system of your children or your, you know, or steal your banking information, take your entire life.

Scott Pelley: We have talked about a lot of menacing things in this interview. Do you think Americans should sleep well?

James Comey: I think they should. I mean, the money they have invested in this government since 9/11 has been well spent. And we are better organized, better systems, better equipment, smarter deployment. We are better in every way that you'd want us to be since 9/11. We're not perfect. My philosophy as a leader is we are never good enough. But we are in a much better place than we were 13 years ago.

Our conversation with FBI Director James Comey continues here next week when we ask whether the FBI is snooping on average Americans and why he thinks Apple's new iPhone software could be a threat to national security.

Continue with Scott Pelley's interview with Comey, "FBI director on privacy, electronic surveillance."

  • Scott Pelley

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