TAMPA — Longtime federal prosecutor James B. Comey took an eight-year sabbatical from the Justice Department in 2005. When he returned to lead the FBI last fall, he brought the viewpoint of a private citizen.
He learned Al-Qaida affiliates had grown virulent in his absence. He discovered it was easier than ever for American extremists to find tools for terrorism.
"That surprised me, because as a private citizen I kind of had this sense we're making a lot of progress. We've beaten core Al-Qaida. Yes and no was the answer," he said Monday during his first visit to the FBI's Tampa field office since he was sworn in as national director on Sept. 4.
After eight months on the job, Comey says he's convinced that the agency's priorities of counterterrorism, counterintelligence and "all things cyber" make sense.
"We now have thousands of foreign fighters in Syria who are making the worst possible kinds of connections and learning the trade craft of terrorism," he said. "We are determined not to repeat the experience of the 1980s, when there was a diaspora of terrorism out of Afghanistan that we can trace directly to September 11th."
His remarks were made during a press briefing in the lobby of the field office after a day of private meetings.
The FBI has about 500 employees in the region, about half of them agents, said spokesman David Couvertier. The director began his day by meeting with them and listening to what was on their minds, before conferring with acting U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley and law enforcement leaders from the region.
The field office is on Gray Street south of Cypress Point Park in Tampa. Comey quipped that if he had known that the office was so close to the beach, he would have moved the headquarters here.
"This is a wonderful place to live," Comey said, "but it also has an astonishing array of challenges the FBI has to deal with."
He said the crimes that keep agents busiest in the region include financial crimes such as healthcare fraud and offenses against children, including sex trafficking and child pornography, which he said "continues to explode online."
Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]