If the leader of the largest Federal Bureau of Investigation office in the country admits that his agency has, in fact, been tracking individuals in the name of counter-terrorism for years—in a fashion eerily familiar to the way another government body, the National Security Agency, has admitted to doing in recent months—but no one questions him about it, did the surveillance ever really happen?
When speaking before nearly 150 people gathered at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons on Saturday night, George Venizelos, the assistant director of the New York Bureau of the FBI, was blunt about the tactics his office has been using to fight terrorism since September 11, 2001. In his speech, which is part of the church’s Sophocles N. and Louiza Zoullas Memorial Hellenic Lecture Series, Mr. Venizelos shared some of his unit’s information-gathering techniques, touched upon its relationship with other agencies, like the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence groups around the world, and noted the FBI’s policy shift from being crime-solvers to crime-stoppers.
Mr. Venizelos has served as the head of the FBI’s largest field office, which is located in Manhattan and boasts more than 2,500 agents, since October 2012. He joined the FBI as an agent in 1991, working in Boston and focusing on white-collar crimes. In 2003, Mr. Venizelos became the head of New York’s Counter Terrorism Division, which led him to his current position.
Mr. Venizelos described the challenges faced by today’s FBI and the complexity of enforcing 260 federal laws. Since 2001, his agency’s number-one priority has been battling terrorism.
“It really was a massive reorganization of the FBI,” said Mr. Venizelos, who said unimaginable troves of databases are now stored to track criminal activity. “We don’t want to investigate another tragedy and solve the crime—we want to prevent the next one.”
Mr. Venizelos said the FBI works “closer than we ever have before” with the NSA, CIA and all aspects of the military to track criminal activity. “We keep an eye on people, open up case files on various individuals who are people of interest. We work on thousands of people every day,” he said.
The NSA came under heavy scrutiny after it was revealed that it had been tracking the data of American citizens, namely by tapping into the information supplied to telecommunications corporations.
Mr. Venizelos, who would not field any questions from reporters, then said “the biggest challenge is the unknown,” so the only way to stop all terror attacks is to have everyone working together. “That means public, private, corporations—we’re working really close with corporations now,” he said.
Mr. Venizelos added the information his agents gather is “so robust right now, chances are, like it happened in Boston, if something happens, that person is going to be in an FBI file somewhere.” He was referring to the dual bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15 when two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the race’s finish line, killing three and injuring more than 250 people.
He went on to describe the two types of terrorists the FBI is fighting—the ones “planning attacks on America sitting in some cave somewhere,” and the ones who are “kids radicalized on websites, loners.”
When the lecture was over, Mr. Venizelos was asked questions about white-collar crime and terrorist plots targeting New York City’s subways. No one in the audience asked about his prior statements, including those suggesting that the FBI has also been keeping close tabs on American citizens.
Reporters were not allowed to ask questions because, according to church member Dr. Peter Michalos, who introduced Mr. Venizelos, “This is an academic event, not a news conference.”