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Government, Politics & Issues

In St. Louis Visit, FBI Chief Pledges To Help Local Chiefs

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, was in St. Louis Wednesday as part of his planned tour of all 56 of the agency's field offices.

St. Louis was the 36th office to host Comey, who has been FBI director for 11 months. In addition to meeting with local agents, Comey said he uses the visits to "both learn about how it's going and to talk to my partners, especially to say what are we doing well here, what can we do differently; are there things I can take from this community and try to spread elsewhere."  

So what did local chiefs want from the FBI?

St. Louis Metropolitan Police chief Sam Dotson wanted help with chronic gun offenders.

"Missouri, in my opinion, has some of the more lax gun laws of all the 50 states," Dotson said.  "So when we encounter individuals that consistently use fire arms to commit crimes, can the FBI help us develop cases that we can take to the U.S. attorney and get prosecution on a different level and keep the community safe?"

Comey said both he and the new special agent in charge of the St. Louis office, Bill Wood, are eager to help combat violent crimes in the region. Dotson said federal prosecutors also agreed to help.

The chief of the St. Louis County police, Jon Belmar, said he spoke to Comey about additional support for fighting cyber-crime.

Agency Priorities

Counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence remain some of the top areas of focus for the FBI in a post-9/11 world, Comey said. He said he is especially worried about foreigners who go to fight in the Syrian civil war.

"Anything you can learn in a combat  zone, they are learning," he said of the so-called Syrian travelers. "Small arms tactics. Improvised explosive devices and more sophisticated explsiove devices. More sophisticated arms. Obviously, there's a lot of surface-to-air shoulder-fired missiles floating around Syria," he said.

But even more importantly, Comey said, the fighters are crossing that invisible line that happens when you kill someone.

He said the FBI is aware of at least 100 U.S. citizens who have gone over to fight, but the agency knows there are more. The FBI, he added, always prefers to catch someone before they go overseas and prosecute them under terrorism statutes.

In areas like St. Louis that see fewer terrorism-related issues, Comey said, public corruption remains an important focus.

"As I try to tell communities that haven't seen a high-profile public corruption case, it's either because you don't have human beings in power in your community, or it just hasn't happened yet," he said. 

Government Surveillance

Comey said he actually appreciated one thing about the post-Edward Snowden era.

"I like having a good conversation about why I do what I do," he said. "Americans should want to know how is the government working. And we in government, to the extent we can, should answer those questions. My frustration is the wind is blowing so hard. I'm having trouble answering those questions. I'm very proud of how I use the authorities I use."

He said he believed that Missouri's Amendment 9, which specifically gives electronic communications the same protection from unreasonable search and seizure as other forms of property, simply enshrines in law something that's already done. The amendment was one of the few statewide measures to pass the August 5th election. Unofficial results show it getting 75 percent of the vote.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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