FBI director James Comey faced questions Tuesday about the agency’s handling of the Orlando shooter investigations prior to the day that Omar Mateen massacred 49 people in a Florida dance club June 12.
Comey spoke to a group of security-industry professionals at the Orange County Convention Center, three months and a day after the attack.
The head of the National Association of Security Companies asked why the FBI didn’t inform global security company G4S, which had employed Mateen as an armed security guard at Indian River County courthouse until 2013, that he was on the terror watch list.
“When the FBI is investigating someone, it can be perceived as a little disappointing for that employer not to know that a guy is on the terror watch list, especially if he’s an armed security guard,” said Steve Amitay, executive director at NASCO, when Comey took questions from the audience.
“I don’t think there’s a clean answer,” Comey said. “We have to talk to each other about what is possible.” He said the agency wouldn’t want to damage an innocent person’s livelihood, and would also not want to alert someone who is a “bad guy.”
He continued, “How do we productively have that conversation with their employer, if they’re a security guard, without running afoul of either of those things? We have a legal obligation to protect personal information about people were investigating.”
Comey summed up his perspective by encouraging NASCO to keep bringing up the issue.
“Especially, in the wake of Orlando, I hope you are already talking to our folks of what we can learn to do better,” Comey said.
Afterward Amitay said NASCO has been wanting disclosures about terror investigations for its industry for years, and Orlando just highlighted how important the issue is.
“Security guards have access to sensitive facilities, gas plants, water plants. They are also a first line of defense in many cases,” Amitay said. “The FBI could have put management at Mateen’s company on alert. If the employer wants to fire the person, they could take the heat for that.”
Amitay said he’s not as concerned about people on the terror watch list working in retail or some other profession. He said NASCO has proposed setting up a third party, possibly in the Department of Homeland Defense, who would disclose to employers when a suspect on the watch list works in a sensitive field.
Comey also addressed cybersecurity and data privacy in his comments.
He said encrypted data is becoming a bigger and bigger threat to law enforcement.
“There’s never been unrestricted privacy in the United States. Judges could always compel you to testify or to allow searches. But now a huge portion of American life is off limits (because of encryption),” Comey said.
He said he loves Apple products and realizes that data in Apple’s iCloud is encrypted, but “if we serve them with a search warrant they give us what we ask for.”
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