WASHINGTON — Republican senators sharply criticized FBI director James Comey Tuesday for his agency’s handling of recent terrorism incidents, including a bombing in New York and a shooting in an Orlando nightclub.
“Let’s just admit we’re not perfect and we made mistakes here,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on global terrorism. “Because if we don’t admit to mistakes we’re not going to get better.”
Paul said the FBI should make better use of existing tools instead of requesting more power. In addition, he suggested officials keep investigations open longer to prevent potential terrorists from slipping through the cracks after inquiries are closed — citing recent incidents as examples.
Comey defended the agency’s handling of both attacks and pledged transparency. But he did not concede to missing important details in either case.
“Sitting before you is a deeply flawed and fallible human being who believes deeply in admitting mistakes when they’re made,” Comey said.
In 2014, FBI officials investigated Ahmad Rahami — the 28-year-old accused of setting off bombs earlier this month in New York and New Jersey — but found no links to terrorism and subsequently dropped their case. The FBI also investigated and questioned Orlando gunman Omar Mateen several years prior to his June rampage.
Appearing with Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the landscape of terrorism has become less predictable and more dangerous since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. We have moved from a world of “terrorist-directed attacks” to one in which internet propaganda and self-radicalization take center stage, Johnson said.
Johnson pointed to recent bombings as examples of the “evolving” threat of homegrown extremism and the imperative of working more closely with community leaders.
“In my view, we need to … help Muslim leaders build a counter message,” he said. “I’d like to see a greater partnership between community leaders and those in the tech sector … to develop this counter message.”
In a statement, Johnson said efforts to increase community building reached a new level last year with the creation of the Office for Community Partnerships. That office, he said, serves as a central hub for countering violent extremism and “empowering communities” by building partnerships with local leaders.
Despite a recent downturn in the number of Americans traveling abroad to fight for the Islamic State, officials at the hearing expressed deep concern about a “diaspora” of terrorists who may flow from Syria and Iraq into the Western hemisphere.
Comey highlighted a need for the U.S. to work with its allies in Western Europe to confront the growing threat of terrorism even as The Islamic State group is pushed back on the battlefield.
“The caliphate has been steadily losing territory [and] there’s going to come a point where it’s going to be essentially crushed,” Comey said. “Through the fingers of that crush are going to come some very bad people.”