Days after the horrific terror attack in an Orlando nightclub, FBI Director James Comey warned his agency to brace for a “fair amount of second-guessing about our work,” saying sometimes Americans look for someone to blame and citing “a certain national naivete about whether bad things can really be avoided in all situations.”
“We have taken a pretty close look at our prior contact with the Orlando killer,” Comey said in the message, which was relayed to ABC News. “At this time, it sure looks to me like our folks did what they are supposed to do. But, as we always do, we will take a deep look back to see what we can learn.”
Comey said “the irony” of recent reports “sometimes makes us smile,” with some news accounts suggesting the FBI might be going too far in its counterterrorism efforts, and others questioning whether the FBI has been aggressive enough.
At times sounding more like a philosopher than the head of a major government agency, Comey described “second-guessing [as] a natural part of the human experience,” saying, “It is a natural impulse for people to channel pain and anxiety into a search for answers of all kinds.”
“How did this terrible thing happen? That’s part of who we are as a people, and it can be a good thing if focused on continually finding ways to improve processes, tools, or authorities,” Comey wrote in his message on Wednesday. “Of course, the desire to fix sometimes morphs into an unproductive search for people or institutions to blame, and can reflect a certain national naivete about whether bad things can really be avoided in all situations. And the risk of it becoming unproductive is particularly high in polarized political environments. But I choose to see our second-guessing culture as a healthy part of our remarkable national identity. So please, don’t let second-guessing throw you.”
Comey vowed to respond when “the nature and quality of our work is being distorted.”
In the week since the attack that left 49 dead and scores more injured, the FBI has come under increasing pressure from critics.
The day after the attack, as news surfaced that shooter Omar Mateen had been under the FBI’s microscope years earlier, Comey held a press conference to defend his agency. After Mateen’s coworkers raised concerns in 2013 that he was boasting of ties to terrorists, the FBI launched a preliminary probe -– but after a 10-month investigation, including surveillance, confidential sources and three interviews with Mateen, FBI agents found no evidence to support his claims and determined he didn’t pose a threat.
Another look at Mateen in 2014 similarly found no concrete basis for concern.
Meanwhile, a gun store owner in Florida this past week raised eyebrows when he said he previously warned the FBI about a suspicious man in his store looking to buy body armor. By the gun store owner’s own account, he had no substantial information to offer the FBI at the time he described the suspicious person, and he only connected the dots when he saw Mateen’s photo on the news after the attack. “Unfortunately, given the lack information about this individual, FBI agents were unable to conduct any meaningful investigative follow up,” the FBI said in a subsequent statement.
Then earlier today, only hours after the FBI released an excerpt of Mateen’s phone calls with police but redacted references to ISIS and its leader, the FBI reversed course and released a fuller version of the excerpt.