Home News Speeches Protecting Civil Rights: From International Terrorism to Local Hate Crimes
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  • Jonathan Solomon
  • Special Agent in Charge, Miami Division
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Anti-Defamation League, Boca West Lecture Series
  • Boca Raton, Florida
  • February 02, 2008

Good evening. It’s an honor for me to join you tonight. The ADL has been an invaluable partner to the FBI over the years, and so I’m happy to be here to continue building our relationship.

Several years back, I was lucky enough to hear Art Teitelbaum speak at a training conference in Tampa. When I was assigned to be the Special Agent in Charge of the Miami Division, I looked him up. Since then, we have gotten together occasionally, and through him, I got a great sense of the ADL and its mission. Through my friendship with Art, I’ve come to understand that the ADL’s mission and the FBI’s mission actually overlap quite a bit.

We have different functions, of course, but we share common values and common goals. We are both concerned with protecting the lives and liberties of our fellow citizens. We are both dedicated to building communities that stand united against crime and terrorism. And we are both committed to promoting and defending freedom.

The week before last, Andy Rosencranz and David Barkey came by my office for a meeting. We talked about issues of mutual concern—civil rights, freedom, the Constitution…and at that point David asked me if I believed in free speech. I told him there’s nothing I support more. He said, “Good…because you’re giving one in a couple of weeks to our group. And, here’s what I want you to say.”

They did ask me to talk about the FBI’s perspective on extremism, from international terrorism to local hate crimes. That’s quite a bit to cover, but I will do my best, and I’d be more than happy to answer your questions if I’ve left anything out.

Let me start with counterterrorism. When many people of my generation or older think of the FBI, they think of the strapping and legendary “G-Men” of the movies. Younger generations tend to picture FBI agents as the expert profilers on Criminal Minds who can investigate and solve cases within an hour…or as David Duchovny look-a-likes who chase down aliens for a living.

By the way, we still get a steady stream of letters from the public, asking for more information about the X-Files. Our standard response—“Seriously. It’s just a TV show.”

But no matter which ever-so-slightly unrealistic shows people watch, they tend to think of FBI agents as America’s crime-fighters. They view the FBI as the glamorous organization that ferrets out spies, takes down gangsters, dismantles organized crime families, and puts corrupt politicians behind bars.

That’s all true. Well, minus the glamour part.

Combating criminals is still the heart and soul of what we do. But the definition of “criminals” has broadened over the decades, and so has the FBI’s mission. We are not just dealing with gangsters, spies, mobsters, and violent fugitives. We are also combating high tech hackers and cyber criminals, corrupt CEOs, and terrorists.

But the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the FBI’s primary mission immediately became preventing another attack on American soil.

Six and half years later, that remains our highest priority. Now, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m one of the few Jewish Special Agents in Charge in the FBI. Actually, maybe the only one. People sometimes ask me, in the context of counterterrorism, if my life has ever been threatened because of it.

The answer is, yes, only once—when I broke it to my parents that after four years of college and three years of law school, I was going to join the FBI.

Truth be told, they have come to take great pride in my career and are particularly proud that I am here with you tonight.

The fight against terrorism is far from over. Al Qaeda is not an organization that will go quietly into the night. They are focused, they are determined, and they have evolved. We now confront a triple threat.

At the top level, we have the traditional al Qaeda organization. They are finding new sanctuaries. They are promoting from within. And they are regenerating their capability to attack.

At the bottom level, we have homegrown terrorists. We have uncovered cells from New York to North Carolina, and from Ohio to Oregon. They are self-radicalized, and they often seek instruction and inspiration on the Internet.

They operate at varying levels of sophistication—but just because they have no formal affiliation with an established terrorist group doesn’t mean they don’t share the same ambitions. And it doesn’t necessarily make them any less deadly.

And in the middle is the most complex layer. We are finding small groups who have some ties to an established terrorist organization. They may even receive some amount of training or funding from it, but they are largely self-directed. Think of them as al Qaeda franchises. They are a hybrid of homegrown radicals and more sophisticated plotters, and so they are harder to track.

We are not just focused on one of these threats, but all three simultaneously. And we are focused on them not just in Washington and New York, but all over the country—including here in Florida.

As you’ll remember, some of the September 11th hijackers attended flight school in Florida. The first anthrax attack happened right here in Boca Raton.

In 2002, a high-school student crashed a small plane into the Bank of America Tower in Tampa. Everyone’s first thought, of course, was terrorism. And though it appeared the crash was a suicide, a note was found in the wreckage expressing support for Osama bin Laden.

Just last month, Jose Padilla was sentenced in Miami to more than 17 years in federal prison for his role in a conspiracy to help terrorists overseas.

In 2006, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian pled guilty to conspiring to provide support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Last summer, two students from the University of South Florida were indicted for transporting explosive materials across state lines without permits.

And three thousand miles away, members of a homegrown cell pled guilty in December of conspiring to attack U.S. military facilities and Jewish targets. Some of you may remember the case. In fact, Director Mueller shared it at the ADL conference in New York two years ago. It’s worth sharing again, because it shows the startling overlap we now see among traditional crimes, hate crimes, and terrorism.

On September 11th, 2005, a group of men planned to enter a military recruiting center on a busy street in Santa Monica, California, and kill everyone inside. Their plan was to then go underground for a month, and re-emerge on Yom Kippur. They plotted to open fire on families gathered outside a temple in West Los Angeles, preparing to celebrate the holy day.

The members of this homegrown cell hatched the plot in a jail cell in Folsom Prison. They had no official connection to al Qaeda. But they had adopted its cause. They had raised the money, recruited the people, chosen the targets, obtained the weapons, and set the date.

The terrorists were poised to strike—but they made an error. They decided to commit a series of gas station robberies to raise money to finance their attacks. And they got caught. Police in Torrance, California arrested two of the men for robbery. When they searched the men’s apartment, they discovered documents that listed the addresses of military recruiting stations and synagogues.

The officers contacted the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force. From that point, hundreds of investigators worked around-the-clock at an FBI command post to identify the other members of the cell. And thousands more hours were spent backtracking until the entire cell was uncovered.

Fortunately, the team disrupted the terrorists’ plot before they could strike. They have now been brought to justice. And we’re glad to tell the story of an attack that didn’t happen—that’s always our goal. But the case was a chilling reminder of the hate and prejudice that live and breathe within our own society.

These are all examples of terrorism stemming from Islamic extremism. But terrorism is more complex than that. We are also focused on domestic terrorism.

Many people automatically associate domestic terrorism with an event like the Oklahoma City bombing—and they’re right. But there’s more to it.

What makes domestic terrorism different is that domestic terrorists are based or operate solely in the U.S., and their acts target the U.S. government or U.S. citizens.

They can be “right-wing” or “left-wing” extremists, such as white supremacists, anti-government militias, or anarchists. They can be “single-issue” groups, such as animal rights or environmental rights extremists. And they can be “lone wolves” with their own agendas. Think of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Most of the time, such groups and individuals are very careful to keep their actions within the bounds of Constitutionally protected activity. And for the FBI, protecting those civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, is of paramount importance, no matter how abhorrent we might find that speech. Law enforcement can only get involved when that talk crosses the line, turns into violent action, and breaks the law.

You, the members of the ADL, help police that line. You know all too well that in a heartbeat, hateful speech can cross that line and become a hate crime. And if it does, the FBI will aggressively pursue the case.

Investigating hate crimes is the number one priority in our Civil Rights program, and, overall, the number five priority for the entire Bureau.

The reason why hate crime ranks so high—above white collar crime, above organized crime, above drug-related crime—is that hate crimes have a devastating impact not just on individuals, but on entire communities. And groups that preach hatred and intolerance plant the seeds of terrorism in American soil.

As members of the ADL, you know more about extremism, civil rights, and hate crimes than most Americans. So you know there is no single hate crimes statute under federal law—and I know this is something you are working actively to change. But in the absence of that legislation, the FBI investigates violations of four criminal civil rights statutes that do address hate crimes. Sometimes we do this on our own, but most often we work alongside our partners in state and local law enforcement.

By the way, the FBI’s role in investigating civil rights violations goes all the way back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before that, the government believed that civil rights were local matters. But when three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1964, it became clear that civil rights were not being equally protected across all states.

And just as a side note, the FBI still investigates cold cases from the Civil Rights era. These cases are incredibly difficult—many were misidentified as accidental deaths, or were not fully investigated. Much evidence has been lost and many witnesses have died.

But we speak for the victims, and we stand for the friends and families who have not lost hope. And sometimes, we get the result we are hoping for. In fact, in 2005, more than 40 years after the “Mississippi Burning” murders I just mentioned, we arrested Edgar Ray Killen and charged him with three counts of murder. He was convicted later that year.

But even today, with a more tolerant society, stronger laws, and better investigative tools, civil rights and hate crimes investigations remain complex. And on top of that, hate crimes aren’t always easy to identify. What looks like a hate crime to us may not technically be classified that way under the law.

That’s partly because hate crimes are not distinct offenses. They’re traditional crimes such as murder, assault, or arson—but they are motivated by bias against race, religion, disability, or ethnic origin.

Usually, law enforcement officers and prosecutors focus on intentwhen investigating a crime. If any of you are Law & Order fans, you know that’s what makes the difference between Jack McCoy seeking murder charges instead of manslaughter charges. But hate crimes statutes focus on motivation.

The question isn’t so much whether someone meant to commit a certain crime, but why he chose to commit it. Was the attacker motivated by anger or revenge? Or was he lashing out because of a bias against the victim’s race, religion, or ethnic origin? These questions are rarely clear-cut, and so motivation can sometimes be tricky to prove.

Here’s an example. Last December, the Miami Herald reported that a Jewish family woke up one Saturday morning to find messages of hate scrawled all over their house, their driveway, and their mailbox. The words “Adolph Hitler,” “Burn in Hell,” and “Burn Jews” were spray-painted on their property, along with swastikas.

The Miami-Dade police opened an investigation into what appeared to be a clear case of a hate crime. They arrested five teenagers within days of the incident. The detectives working the case asked us to take a look as well.

Working as a team, we ultimately determined that the vandalism was perpetrated by a spurned suitor of a member of the household. They were charged with criminal mischief, instead of a hate crime, because they weren’t motivated by anti-Semitism.

This doesn’t make what the teenagers did any less despicable. The words and symbols they left behind were hateful, and their cruelty had a chilling effect on the victims and the neighborhood. But it does change the way we can prosecute the case.

Unfortunately, hate crimes are on the rise. This past November, the FBI issued its annual hate crimes report based on data which was voluntarily submitted by police departments across the country. I’m disappointed to say that the data indicated that hate crimes had risen almost eight percent.

Over 7,700 hate crimes were reported. Over 50 percent were motivated by racial bias, and about 19 percent were motivated by religious bias.

Breaking down the numbers further, we learned that attacks on Muslims increased 22 percent. Attacks on Jews increased 14 percent. Attacks on Catholics were up almost a third. And hate crimes against Hispanics were up 10 percent.

Now, these numbers are from 2006. But in recent months, we have all read disturbing accounts of this upward trend in the papers.

Nooses have been discovered in schools and workplaces around the country.

In Detroit, a man was charged with a hate crime in December for sending threatening letters to an African-American family and a real estate agent. He was trying to stop one African-American family from moving into the neighborhood, and trying to force another African-American family out.

This past September in New York, a Muslim woman who owns a well-known salon was beaten and robbed. She was threatened by her attackers, who called her a “terrorist” and scrawled anti-Muslim slurs on her mirrors.

And also in New York, four Jewish students were assaulted on the subway this past December during Hanukkah. They were beaten by 10 attackers, who yelled anti-Semitic remarks during the assault. Fortunately, these 10 were arrested by the NYPD before they could get off the train.

On the home front, you might be interested to know that the Miami FBI’s Field Intelligence Group recently conducted a threat assessment of domestic terrorism for this region, and concluded that overall, the threat is fairly low.

This is good news, and we are working hard to keep it that way. But even so, we have seen our share of hate crimes in Florida—or incidents that walk right up to that line.

In September of 2006, someone opened fire on the Islamic Society of Brevard County. We are still actively investigating the incident, and recently increased the reward money to $10,000.

And just two weeks ago, when Cooper City Mayor Debby Eisinger’s campaign manager went out to her car, she found it defaced with a swastika.

As Andy Rosencranz put it, “It’s not just a Jewish issue, it’s an issue for the entire community.” And he’s right.

When bullets fly toward a mosque, everyworshipper inside feels targeted. When a noose is left hanging on a classroom door at a university, it isn’t just the professor who feels threatened. The entire student body feels unsettled and intimidated. When swastikas are etched into a car or spray-painted on the walls of a house, it’s not just the owner that feels violated, but every member of the family, and every resident in the neighborhood.

Every story like this is discouraging. It is important to remember that in some pockets of the country, hate crimes dropped significantly—and this is good news for those communities. Yet the national numbers are sobering.

And from the FBI’s perspective—and I know you share this opinion—even one hate crime in one community is one too many.

Hate crimes don’t just do damage to cars, or mailboxes, or houses, but entire communities. The end result of hate crimes is always loss—loss of relationships, loss of security, loss of trust, and in some cases, loss of life. That’s why we, as a society, must stand together to bind up the wounds left by acts of hate, and must work together to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

For the FBI, this means working side by side with our state and local partners. Partners like Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in Palm Beach County, who serves on the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force Executive Board, along with other distinguished law enforcement leaders in South Florida. We must work together not just on investigation after the fact, but prevention before the fact.

We make it a priority to sponsor training on civil rights and hate crimes for thousands of our state and local law enforcement partners. My agents in the Miami office do this on a regular basis, as do agents in field offices across the country.

Prevention also means getting to know community groups and their leaders. It means listening to their concerns, and educating them about what we can do to help them. And it means building relationships of trust so that they know they can call us and count on us to protect them. Every single one of our 56 field offices has a strong community outreach program.

We have these relationships not just on the local level, but on the national level, with a wide range of civic organizations. The partnership between the FBI and the ADL is a perfect example.

Ours is a relationship that goes back years. Your support of hate crime and terrorist investigations, which are front and center in our day-to-day work, has been essential to us. Your research has helped our agents and analysts as they conduct threat assessments and prepare intelligence reports. And the training you voluntarily provide—from local conferences to classes at the FBI’s National Academy—is always sharp and relevant.

And back in the mid-90s, Abe Foxman and Jess Hordes helped us augment the training we give our New Agents by setting up a specialized tour of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Every single new agent class now attends the presentation, which is a powerful lesson in why our first priority must always be protecting civil rights and upholding the rule of law, no matter what challenges we face.

The presentation has a stunning and lasting impact on our New Agents. It’s been so important that we’ve expanded it to include our top executives and major city chiefs-of-police who train in our National Executive Institute. In the end, no amount of classroom instruction can drive home the horror of what happens when law enforcement abandons its commitment to protect its citizens and becomes instead a tool for oppression.

The Holocaust training the ADL made possible reminds us why the FBI puts such a high premium on training every single employee to respect and defend the rights and dignity of every individual.

We know that history will determine not just whether we succeed in defeating terror and crime. History will also judge us on whether we do so while safeguarding the liberties for which we are fighting. We know that if we win one struggle at the expense of another, we have lost on both counts.

There is not one FBI employee who bears this responsibility lightly. We believe that in the fullness of time, future generations will look back and judge that the FBI accomplished both goals. Because no matter how great the challenges that lie before us, we will not give up, and we will not compromise our values.

We in the FBI are grateful for the ADL’s support as we continue our mission. And you have our support as you continue your mission.

The battle against violent crimes and hate crimes goes on. Yet we remain dedicated to our tasks. We remain committed to our partnerships. And we know that freedom will prevail.

Thank you again for inviting me to be here tonight. I’d be happy to take some questions.

Recent Speeches
Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Tied Together in a Single Ga James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI/BCRI Annual Conference on Civil Rights, 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
A Different Way to Be James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent Memorial Service, FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Privacy, Public Safety, and Security: How We Can Confront the Cyber Threat James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Conference on Cyber Engagement, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Expectations of Privacy: Balancing Liberty, Security, and Public Safety James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Center for the Study of American Democracy Biennial Conference, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH
The Darkest Night Brings the Brightest Stars: Lights of Love, Joy, Hope, a James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Commemoration of the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
Standing Together Against Terrorism and Fear: Tossed by the Waves but Neve James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, NYPD SHIELD, New York, NY
Confronting the Cyber Threat James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sixth Annual Financial Crimes and Cyber Security Symposium, Federal Reserve Bank, New York, NY
Keeping Our Communities Safe Through Shared Perspectives, Information, and James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, Chicago, IL
Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Bending the Lines Toward Saf James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, IL
Strength and Honor: The Legacy of Those Left Behind James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Concerns of Police Survivors Police Week Luncheon, Alexandria, VA