FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a visit to the Norfolk Field Office in Chesapeake on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a visit to the Norfolk Field Office in Chesapeake on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Kendall Warner/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — The Chinese government is the single greatest threat to the economic and national security of the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday at the bureau’s Norfolk Field Office.

Noting that he was in Hampton Roads — home to the world’s largest naval base and several other crucial military installations and defense contractors — Wray said risks from across the Pacific must be a primary area of national focus.

Wray’s comments come less than two weeks after an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton shot down a Chinese “spy balloon” off the South Carolina coast. The balloon had sailed across the continental United States for about a week.

“There is no greater threat to our economic security, our national security, our innovation, our ideas, than the Chinese government,” the FBI director said in a Q&A with local media. “I’ve said that repeatedly since I started in this job, and it has only become more true in many ways with time.”

As the lead federal agency combating cyber threats and intelligence theft, he said, the FBI is working to protect military and economic assets “that are rightly admired around the world by our friends and envied all over the world by our adversaries.” “We need to help our national security establishment but also the business community better protect itself from the threats that come from the Chinese government,” Wray said.

“The Chinese government has the largest hacking program in the world — bigger than every other nation combined. And they’ve stolen more of our personal and corporate data than any other nation.”

Wray has led the FBI — with about 35,000 employees across the country — since November 2017.

He was visiting the agency’s Norfolk Field Office in Chesapeake, including talking with local FBI leadership and recognizing a citizens group, the “FBI Norfolk Citizens Academy Alumni Association,” for its seventh straight Chapter of Excellence award.

He also spoke with local media outlets for about 30 minutes. Wray will give the keynote address Thursday at a national security symposium at Christopher Newport University in Newport News.

In recognizing the alumni association — a group of citizens who “graduated” from an FBI program to teach them about the agency’s operations — Wray said the association quickly “rose to the occasion” after the recent mass shooting at a Chesapeake Walmart.

They provided food, coffee, and hand sanitizing supplies to FBI employees and officers from the Chesapeake Police Department. “If there was something our people needed, the Norfolk chapter was there to provide it,” Wray said.

The citizens’ chapter, he added, hosts an annual educational and networking event for members across the country, which Wray said is the largest of its kind nationally.

And he said the group runs an annual symposium for the FBI and Hampton Roads law enforcement partners — from police to sheriff’s offices and federal agencies — to share ideas.

“It generates a ton of valuable discussion,” Wray said of the symposium. “It’s a great opportunity to talk about what we’re seeing in the field, to share which strategies are working best and learn about new ways to engage with our communities.”

At the news conference, Wray also addressed whether he believes FBI agents working local cases around the country enjoy less public trust these days because of all the Washington politics surrounding investigations at the FBI’s highest levels.

Wray said he has a “unique lens on all this” because he’s been to all 56 FBI Field Offices around the country at least twice, has met with law enforcement partners from each state, as well as with “foreign partners, business leaders, community leaders, judges, victims, their families.”

“Nobody likes to see the organization that they’ve dedicated their careers, really their lives to, unfairly criticized,” Wray said. But, he said, “I can tell you what I see every day is an FBI that is respected and trusted.”

It’s an agency, he said, “that folks turn to when things are most on the line.”

That’s manifested, Wray said, by successful investigations involving the Chinese threat, violent crimes, crimes against children, and disrupting terrorist attacks. It’s also reflected in attracting quality employees in a tight labor market, he said.

“At a time when law enforcement in this country is experiencing real challenges with recruiting and retention,” Wray said, “the FBI is attracting applicants in near-record numbers.”

“Our recruiting has actually gone through the roof of people wanting to devote their lives to working with the FBI,” he said, “And so frankly from that perspective, I feel very good about the trust and confidence in ways that really matter to the American people.”

Moreover, Wray said, police departments struggling with manpower issues across the country are still devoting full-time officers to FBI-led task forces, such as the regional task forces in Hampton Roads combating terrorism and violent crime.

“They have a shortage of officers and yet they see the value in putting their officers on our task forces when they arguably cannot afford to spare them,” he said. “And I think that’s a powerful testament to the trust and confidence that our partners have in us as well.”

The FBI, Wray said, is doing the work “not for popularity contests on social media ... or to win the adoration of pundits and political figures.”

©2023 The Virginian-Pilot.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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