FBI nominee stresses cyber and spy powers

FBI director nominee Christopher Wray told senators he will make cyber and the reauthorization of FISA Section 702 top priorities if he is confirmed.

Christopher Wray, President Trump's nominee to lead the FBI, takes questions from senators at his July 12 confirmation hearing.

Christopher Wray, President Trump's nominee to lead the FBI, takes questions from senators at his July 12 confirmation hearing.

If confirmed as the next FBI director, Christopher Wray will drill down on cyber in his first 90 days, and prioritize reauthorizing foreign surveillance powers and finding a solution to the encryption debate, he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wray, who has been in private practice since leaving the Justice Department in 2005, said he is not a cyber expert and will need to get up to speed if confirmed. Senators expressed overwhelming bipartisan support for Wray over the course of the five-hour confirmation hearing.

"Whereas cyber was a sort of discrete topic back in, say, 2005 that had a lot of attention," said Wray, "now in 2017 cyber in many ways permeates every aspect of national security, of the intelligence community, of every type of criminal conduct we deal with. It's become part of the fabric both of our security but also the threats to our security."

Wray, who last served in government as assistant attorney general in charge of the DOJ's criminal division from 2003 to 2005, said he is not familiar with the extent of investments the U.S. is making in cybersecurity, but "it's hard for me to imagine we're doing nearly enough."

"As much as everybody is talking about the threats," he said, "I have the sense that we are just scratching the surface of how grave the threats really are, or at least how grave the threats are about to be before we blink and wake up."

When asked if he would support the notion of creating a cyber unit with Russia to protect elections from hacking, Wray said he would not support doing anything that "was putting us at greater risk as opposed to greater protection."

Wray said he would support efforts to protect future elections from foreign hacking and interference, and that the integrity of elections will be a top priority.

Regarding the debate over encryption and law enforcement -- and the concept that ex-director James Comey referred to as "going dark" -- Wray said he does not believe that so-called back doors are the solution and government needs to strike a balance between privacy and protecting infrastructure and national security.

"I do believe very strongly that technology, the private sector is advancing at such a rapid pace and government...[is] not historically not as nimble in change," he said. "And somehow as a country have to figure out a way to get to be one step ahead of the bad guys and those who would do us harm."

He said he would work with both Congress and industry to get better cooperation on solving the encryption puzzle. "I have been in the private sector and I think I know how to talk to the private sector," he added.

Several senators asked Wray if he supported the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expires at the end of the year. Wray said that while he was not an expert in FISA matters, he had no reason to doubt the intelligence community's argument that 702 is of critical importance. He added that looked forward to learning more about how 702 can be strengthened and enhanced.

Wray also said he had no reason to doubt the intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that he would resist any attempts to interfere in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into whether there was any collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

"I do not consider Director Mueller to be on a witch hunt," Wray stated.

The firing of James Comey, his actions in office, and whether Wray could protect the independence of the FBI emerged as central themes of the hearing. Wray repeatedly said he was his own man and would resign if necessary in the face of undue political interference from the White House or the attorney general.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) provided the most animated exchange with Wray, focusing on the recently revealed email exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and Rod Goldstone regarding a meeting with a Russian lawyer who was allegedly offering derogatory information on Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2006.

Graham pressed Wray to instruct members of Congress that should they receive any such offers, they should immediately notify the FBI.

"To the members of this committee," stated Wray, "any threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state or any non-state actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know."