Subscribe to Breaking News emails

You have successfully subscribed to the Breaking News email.

Subscribe today to be the first to to know about breaking news and special reports.

FBI chief on biggest threats: China spies, terror, rise in violent crime

Chris Wray told NBC News in an exclusive interview that the FBI has over 3,000 open terror investigations, a higher number than previously disclosed.
by Pete Williams /  / Updated 

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

WASHINGTON — Christopher Wray says that in his nearly eight months as director of the FBI, he has not seen "a politicized organization."

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Wray pushed back at criticism from some in the Trump administration and Congress who accuse his agency of favoring Hillary Clinton at the expense of the president.

"What I have seen is people fiercely focused on trying to do the right thing in the right way, free from political influence, consistent with the best traditions that I've always revered about the FBI," Wray said in the interview, which took place at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Virginia.

"At the end of the day, we're going to get criticized no matter what."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Some of the harshest words of criticism of the bureau have come from President Donald Trump, who has said the agency is in tatters. But Wray said he urges the bureau's rank and file to embrace the criticism.

"Our folks are human beings like anybody else," he said. "Would we prefer not to get criticized? Of course. But in many ways we're our own toughest critics."

Wray said the criticism has not affected the FBI's recruiting or retention. The bureau remains highly selective in admitting applicants to become agents, with an acceptance rate of about 5 percent — comparable to the admission rate at Harvard or Stanford. And its attrition rate is 0.8 percent, he said.

Despite the FBI's admission that it failed to follow up on two tips about Nikolas Cruz, charged with killing 17 people last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, Wray said the number of tips has actually gone up since then.

"We were worried, would people suddenly not want to call in?" he asked. "If anything, we've seen exactly the opposite — a sharp uptick. It's been quite significant."

In the interview, Wray also surveyed some of the biggest threats facing America. Countering terrorism remains a top mission, and Wray said the FBI now has more than 3,000 open investigations nationwide — a higher number than previously disclosed — divided about equally among suspected ISIS-directed threats, suspected homegrown violent extremists inspired by global jihadist organizations, and cases of suspected domestic terrorism.

Some cases involve physical or electronic surveillance but all are full-field investigations, beyond simply assessing tips. "This is in big cities and small towns. It's a real problem."

Another growth area for the FBI has been tracking foreign espionage, and Wray said the Chinese are by far the most active. In terms of targeting vital assets, "there's no country that's even close," a threat that he said has been significantly underestimated.

The Chinese government and Chinese companies aggressively go after a range of U.S. targets, from firms in the Fortune 500 to small start-ups, he said, seeking trade secrets as varied as the details of control systems for wind turbines in Massachusetts to the genetic makeup of corn seeds in Iowa.

Some Asian-Americans groups blasted the FBI director for telling Congress in February that Chinese businessmen, students and scholars present such a threat that it demands a "whole of society" response by the U.S.

But Wray defended those remarks in the interview.

"To be clear, we do not open investigations based on race, or ethnicity, or national origin," he said. "But when we open investigations into economic espionage, time and time again, they keep leading back to China."

As for one of the FBI’s traditional missions, Wray called the 4 percent increase in violent crime in 2016 very significant. The figures for 2017 are not yet final.

"In a country our size, a 4 percent increase is essentially equivalent to about 50,000 people. So imagine Yankee stadium sold out, full of violent crime victims, and that’s the difference from one year to the next," he said.

Among the factors causing the increase are crimes tied to the opioid epidemic and the rise in ultra-violent gangs.

Wray took the reins of the FBI when it was reeling from the abrupt firing of his predecessor, James Comey, and said his foremost priority was "to try to bring some stability and calm to the organization." He said he plans to serve out the full 10-year term.

"All I am is focused on trying to see if I can make this place even better than when I found it," Wray said.

Watch NBC's "Nightly News" With Lester Holt on Wednesday and the "Today" show on Thursday morning for more of Pete Williams' exclusive interview with Wray.

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
MORE FROM news