FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at the Ford School of Public Policy Friday. Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography.

Students and faculty gathered to hear FBI Director Christopher Wray speak at the Ford School of Public Policy Friday morning as part of the Rosenthal speaker series about his career and federal law enforcement more generally. His remarks were followed by a panel of questions from faculty experts on topics including domestic terrorism, cybersecurity and civil liberties.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, interim dean at the Ford school, introduced Wray before he spoke. Wray reflected on his career and the influence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

“It’s vitally important that our agents and analysts not only remember 9/11 as a historical moment but also understand and feel the urgency of that moment, one that continues to reverberate in how we carry out our day-to-day jobs,” Wray said.

The event then transitioned into a discussion between Wray and faculty experts. John Ciorciari, associate dean for research and policy engagement, began the conversation by asking how the FBI is working to address gun violence.

“(Active shooters) are a direct assault on the feeling of safety that people in communities have, which is fundamentally what law enforcement is designed to try to help address,” Wray said.

Wray then outlined the role of the FBI in response to gun violence, which includes forming task forces and providing firearm background checks, active-shooter training and additional services in preparation for an active-shooter scenario.

The next question came from Javed Ali, associate professor of public policy, who worked at the FBI between 2007 and 2018. Ali asked how the FBI is addressing the challenge of increased domestic terrorism, specifically in the form of violent racially motivated extremists

“Protecting Americans from (a) terrorist attack, both domestic and international, remains the FBI’s number one priority,” Wray said. “If you see something, say something.”

Ali then turned the conversation to cybersecurity. Wray said he has seen increasing overlap between state actors’ and cybercriminals’ activity.

“What we’re seeing more and more is what we call a blended threat, which is the line between … a nation state engaging in malicious cyber activity and cybercriminal activity kind of merged together,” Wray said. “You’ll have, for example, governments like Russia, China, Iran, hiring … cybercriminals to do their work for them.”

Joy Rohde, associate professor of public policy and history, asked about the potential for TikTok to pose a national security threat.

“A number of students have questions about TikTok,” Rohde said. “You (Ali) recently shared with lawmakers your concern that the app is a serious threat to U.S. national security. Legal and technology experts seem to have mixed views on the nature and especially the imminence of the threat.”

Wray said he was concerned over the ability of the app to control the recommendation algorithm and collect and save data on users, warning that ByteDance, the parent company of the app, was controlled by the Chinese government.

“All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and has a mission that is very much at odds with what’s in the best interest of the United States,” Wray said. “That should concern us.”

Ann Lin, professor of Chinese studies and associate professor of public policy, continued the conversation on China by asking him to unpack accusations that the FBI has unfairly accused Chinese-American university science faculty of sharing sensitive information with the Chinese government in the past few years.

“Several cases against Chinese scientists have gone to federal court in the last two years, only to have juries find those defendants not guilty or federal judges dismiss many of the charges,” Lin said. “So advocates for these faculty would say that the failure to convict here is because the evidence was never very strong against them to begin with.”

Wray then addressed the laws and policies behind the FBI’s actions against cybersecurity and information sharing.

“We base our cases on the facts and the law, and sometimes our cases are successful and sometimes they aren’t,” Wray said. “We do not base our cases on race, ethnicity or national origin, and we haven’t.”

In response, Lin asked about how to find space for Chinese Americans to exist as themselves amidst the conflict between the United States and China. Wray said the problem was not with the Chinese people but with the Chinese government.

“We view Chinese Americans here as being with us,” Wray said. “Chinese Americans here are … in the crosshairs of the Chinese government. We need to work with them.”

To conclude the event, Rohde asked how the FBI is balancing the dangers of cybercrime with the harm to the public trust that comes from large-scale surveillance. In response, Wray denied large-scale monitoring, stating it was “largely overblown.”

“We don’t engage in large-scale monitoring on companies, networks and infrastructure or universities — that’s not what we do,” Wray said. “We don’t, we can’t.”

Rohde also asked about the troubled historical relationship between the FBI and civil rights activists, such as the surveillance campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X.

“We’ve made mistakes,” Wray said. “But what I think distinguishes the most high-performing organizations in the world is not whether they’ve made mistakes or not … It’s what we learn from mistakes. And I’m actually very proud of the things that the FBI has learned from some of these mistakes over the years.”

Public Policy senior Dora Koski gave her thoughts on what Wray said after the event.

“I just felt a little disconnect between the questions that were being asked and how he was answering them a little bit, but I think it was very eye-opening, and it was really important to be able to see his perspective on the FBI,” Koski said. “I think the fact that they really rely on the U.S. public to call the authorities when they are concerned about their neighbors is definitely a point to take note of.”

Daily Staff Reporter Madison Hammond can be reached at madihamm@umich.edu.