FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before an appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before an appropriations subcommittee on Thursday. Patrick Semansky/AP

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Wray acknowledges Trump budget cuts, declines to respond to political jabs.

Given all the rhetorical attacks on the FBI over the past two years, it came as no surprise that Director Christopher Wray was asked by lawmakers to comment on employee morale.

At a Thursday House Appropriations Committee hearing on the bureau’s fiscal 2020 budget request, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., pointed to “the negative press coverage” and an administration “that has gone to unprecedented lengths to criticize the FBI as an institution.” He asked Wray whether the “unfair” treatment and “political polarization” had taken its toll.

“The men and women of the FBI are resilient,” Wray replied, adding that he had recently visited all 56 of the bureau’s field offices. “While there are plenty of opinions about the FBI out there,” his interactions with law enforcement partners at the state and local levels, prosecutors, judges, community groups and the private sector “frankly, have been uniformly positive,” he said.

In fact, “Since October we’ve had more people apply to be special agents than in any previous fiscal year,” he said. Pressed on whether political attacks have hurt, he said, “I don’t think it’s my place to weigh in and comment on political speech. We’re focused on getting the work done. The FBI is strong, and improving all the time.”

The FBI did not respond to Government Executive requests for the latest applicant numbers, which had dropped over the past several years.

As he addressed plans for budget cuts, Wray reported that FBI recruiting is focused on candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math. “The whiz kids are in short supply—even Silicon Valley can’t find enough,” he said, adding that the FBI competes “on mission.” But the technology capabilities—which are crucial in such areas as thwarting cyber-attacks and using data analytics to anticipate criminal behavior—are not confined to just recruiting computer analysts, he said. “We have to raise the proficiency level of the whole workforce,” not just a special unit, because “every issue today has a cyber dimension.” The goal now is to train everyone so that the “cyber blackbelts” can focus on strategic issues.

Progress is also being made in achieving a diverse workforce, Wray added, saying he had personally been to job fairs and that recruiters are engaging Historically Black Colleges and Universities and community groups using social media imagery. “Diversity was up in our last class” of recruits, he said, and the percentage is also up among applications. Wray has made certain rookie employees visit the Holocaust Museum, the Martin Luther King Memorial and the 9/11 memorial as reminders.

In laying out the FBI’s main law enforcement challenges, Wray selected “preventing terrorist attacks” as the top priority. That’s in addition to homegrown violent extremists, foreign intelligence services and operatives, Internet-facilitated sexual exploitation of children, violent gangs and criminal organizations, as well as public corruption and corporate fraud.

The law enforcement community is “going dark,” he said, citing the increased use of encryption and other apps with which criminal enterprises “carve out a space.” The FBI, he said, “must be more agile, just to keep pace with technology.”

The administration’s $9.31 billion request “will support 35,558 positions (13,201 special agents, 3,115 intelligence analysts, and 19,242 professional staff), and $51.9 million for construction,” Wray’s written testimony noted. “When compared against the fiscal 2019 enacted level, the fiscal 2020 request level represents a total decrease of $267.8 million, including an increase of $65.3 million in the salaries and expenses account and a reduction of $333.1 million in the FBI’s construction account,” he added. “The request also includes two rescissions from funding appropriated in prior fiscal years—$60 million from the FBI’s salaries and expenses account and $159 million from the FBI’s construction account.”

House Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said the portion for salaries and expenses is “only $65 million above last fiscal year, and includes some targeted investments.” However, this increase is “not enough to cover your new and continuing program costs without some significant 'efficiencies' and cost-cutting,” he said. 

Serrano quizzed the director on the “.over-emphasis on pursuing so-called `Islamic terrorism,’ at the expense of important FBI missions like civil rights investigations and white-collar crime.” He added: “My concerns have grown along with the rise of white nationalist extremism.” Such extremism was not expressly mentioned in Wray’s testimony, Serrano noted.

Wray cited some bureau successes in that area, such as the conviction and sentencing last week of the man who caused the death and many injuries during the neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. He said domestic racial terrorism is dealt with both through the Joint Terrorism Task Force and through the FBI’s civil rights program’s hate-crime enforcement operations. “In general, domestic terrorism has changed,” Wray added. “There is less structure, it’s less organized, with fewer groups and more uncoordinated, one-off individuals, which presents its own challenges.”

No question about it, Wray added when asked about adequate resources, “we’re stretched thin.”