What Should Be On New FBI Director's To-Do List?

For the first time in years, there's new leadership at the FBI. Attorney General Eric Holder conducted the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday. While Jim Comey starts his job Thursday, he's been working to get ready for years — preparing for threats ranging from terrorist bombings to cyber attacks.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CEREMONY)

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: So Mr. Comey, are you ready to become the FBI director?

JIM COMEY: Yes, sir.

HOLDER: All right.

INSKEEP: For the first time in years, there is new leadership at the FBI. Attorney General Eric Holder conducted a swearing-in ceremony yesterday at the Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEREMONY)

HOLDER: Jim Comey will become the seventh director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and I can't think of anybody more qualified to assume this position.

INSKEEP: Jim Comey starts his job today. But he's been working to get ready for years, preparing for threats ranging from terrorist bombings to cyber attacks.

NPR's Carrie Johnson was at the swearing-in and has this report.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Jim Comey has no plans to shake up the mission of the 105-year-old agency. So he told senators at his confirmation hearing that preventing al-Qaida attacks and defusing cyber threats will remain top priorities for his FBI.

COMEY: I can only say with confidence that I believe it's very important for the next director to continue the transformation of the FBI into an intelligence agency, to continue that cultural change.

JOHNSON: But after Comey arrived at the bureau about a week ago for briefings about Syria and Yemen, he learned this: Budget trouble means the FBI won't be able to hire any new agents in 2014. And current agents will face three weeks of unpaid furlough days when the new fiscal year starts next month.

Reynaldo Tariche leads the FBI Agents Association. He says the belt tightening has already begun.

REYNALDO TARICHE: Agents from around the country are being restricted in how much they can use their car, which means that sometimes surveillances aren't going to get done. And maybe a potential case would not be made just for the simple fact that they're restricting our gas budget.

JOHNSON: Their gas budget, Tariche says that matters for agents out West, where crime scenes and witnesses can be an hour's drive away.

TARICHE: I've been in the FBI for almost 24 years and I never recall rationing of gas for FBI agents.

JOHNSON: Tariche worries those conditions will lead veteran agents to leave for more lucrative jobs in the private sector. And that could exacerbate a longtime problem with turnover at the FBI.

Former Inspector General Glenn Fine says something's lost when those agents walk out the door.

GLENN FINE: When I was there, I think the average tenure of a special agent in charge of an FBI field office was 14 months - that's a short time. People come and go and they lose the institutional memory and the relationships that these people have built.

JOHNSON: Fine says the budget cuts could make it hard for new director Jim Comey to make progress on another front: making sure the FBI's computer systems are up to date.

FINE: The FBI is in the business of collecting and analyzing information. And without adequate information technology, they can't do that job as effectively as they should. So he needs to make sure the information technology of the FBI is current, upgraded and world-class at all times.

JOHNSON: It was only a decade or so ago that FBI agents couldn't connect to the Internet from their desktop computers, Fine says. Now the question is whether the bureau can go toe-to-toe with cyber thieves who steal money and secrets, not to mention trying to nab terrorists. Comey addressed that concern about cyber attacks in July in his testimony to the Senate.

COMEY: This is a vital area to be addressed and to understand where we're falling short, and then to make appropriate tradeoffs. If I can't get the money and resources, or to shout to the heavens I need the money and resources, from this vantage point I don't know, but it will be something I'll focus on very early.

JOHNSON: Even if Comey manages to wheedle some extra cash out of Congress, that won't solve one of his remaining challenges: information overload.

Michael German is a former FBI agent who now works at the American Civil Liberties Union.

MICHAEL GERMAN: If you look back on the Fort Hood shooting, the agents and analysts were overwhelmed by the volume of data they were being required to look through.

JOHNSON: German says recent leaks about U.S. dragnet surveillance also heighten his worry that too much information is being gathered. That's the problem: Figuring out what's worth pursuing in a sea of data. It's the new FBI director's problem too, as he sifts through a sea of demands in his first full day on the job.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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