Kelly DiNardo interviews Garrett Graff, author of "The Threat Matrix"

  • May 26, 2011

Given unprecedented access, thousands of pages of once secret documents, and hundreds of interviews, Garrett M. Graff takes us inside the FBI and its attempt to protect America.

Garrett M. Graff Q&A by Kelly DiNardo

How did you come to write “The Threat Matrix”? What is it about the FBI post September 11 you felt was important to get across?

The book grew out of a profile I wrote for The Washingtonian in 2008 of FBI Director Robert Mueller. In researching that article, I was surprised by how little attention had been paid to the FBI since 9/11 despite its critical role in the war on terror. Specifically, Mueller—who is now the longest-serving director since J. Edgar Hoover himself, and the only national security official still in his same job since 9/11—has been largely overlooked in the many books and articles written about the war on terror. He gives very few interviews, eschews the Sunday talk show circuit, and has kept a very low profile in his job.

As I started getting deeper into the Bureau, I was surprised by how it didn’t comport with the image I had of its work from pop culture and news shows—it wasn’t just chasing bank robbers, Mafia bosses, and serial killers, it wasn’t just doing work domestically. In fact, the FBI had grown into – without anyone noticing – the first global police force. The Bureau was doing all of this work all over the world that no one realized: It’s engaged in fighting pirates off Somalia, it’s engaged in smuggling cases in Thailand, kidnapping cases in Africa, organized crime cases in Eastern Europe, and even in recent years, had worked its first case out of Antarctica—a cybercrime case that ended up with arrests in Romania. There are hundreds of FBI agents posted overseas now, operating daily in nearly 80 countries. The days of Bonnie & Clyde were long gone.

How long did it take to research and write? What was involved in the research?

From my first interviews to publication was about three years, about two years of which were intense research and writing. All told, I did about a thousand hours of interviews for the book, about 180 different people, almost all of them in person. By the end of the book, I think there were only two people that I wanted to speak with who refused entirely to cooperate. Since it was a mix of history and current events, I was drawing on interviews, archival research, government documents, other reporters’ research, and lots of primary sources like magazine and newspaper articles and congressional hearings. Figuring out what the story was—and where it began—was the hardest part. The first draft of the book was a thousand pages; my editor was very thoughtful and patient as we trimmed it down and focused it.

Was the FBI unprepared on September 11? How so?

The Bureau as a whole was pretty unprepared. Terrorism had always been treated as a top priority, rather than *the* top priority, so it competed with other areas for resources and staffing. There were pockets of excellence—much of the book focuses on two squads in New York, I-49 and I-45, who had been chasing al-Qaeda for more than five years before 9/11—but the executive leadership of the Bureau and particularly many of the field office leaders weren’t that concerned about it. I tell the story in the book of FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was just a week into his job, having started on September 4, 2001, sitting in the FBI Headquarters on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, as he was getting one of his first briefings on al- Qaeda. After someone interrupted the briefing to say that a plane struck the Trade Center, an attack on the homeland was still far from mind: “How could a plane not see the tower? It’s so clear out today,” Mueller wondered out loud.

Your book deals a lot with Robert Mueller. What kind of access did you have with him? What surprised you most about him?

Bob Mueller is a fascinating, enigmatic character — he’s been one of the top national security officials in the U.S. for a decade, through two presidents and the war on terror, yet he’s virtually unknown outside of government. He gives few interviews and keeps a low profile socially. He’s a lifelong prosecutor and a character you don’t find much anymore: He’s intensely patriotic, joining the Marines right out of Princeton and winning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam, and then has spent nearly his entire career as a prosecutor. He ran the criminal division of the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush and then, when he left office was so unhappy in private practice that he came back as a junior homicide prosecutor here in Washington — he just wanted to put bad guys in jail. Personally, he’s intense and focused — he demands a high standard from people around him and works incredibly hard. One person told me he runs with “the energy of the sun.”

He only very reluctantly agreed to speak with me for the book, largely because his staff was convinced that I’d be fair and take the time to do the research and understand the background of the Bureau’s decisions. I spent about 20 hours with him, traveling with him a bunch, visiting field offices, speaking with agents, attending meetings at headquarters, and so on.

While not all of his decisions are popular with the agent corps and he’s had some marked stumbles — the FBI’s failed IT upgrade wasted hundreds of millions of dollars — he’s helped hold the Bureau together through a very difficult period and revamp it to face a new set of priorities and new targets.

What’s especially impressive about his longevity is the FBI director’s job has never been harder— it’s now a 24/7/365 job that it never was before. As recently as the late 1990s, Louis Freeh used to be able to drive by himself up to visit his father in New Jersey. Mueller can’t travel anywhere without secure communications and a security detail.

Historically, the FBI dealt with domestic issues, but that has changed. You deal with a lot of why and how that has changed in your book. What was most striking in the how and why of that?

The U.S. set up its national security system in 1947, with the FBI getting everything domestically and the CIA getting everything internationally. That was a pretty clear division then: A spy was in Moscow or a bank robber was in Kansas City. Over the last three decades, those lines have blurred to a good extent. The FBI still deals with domestic threats per se, it’s just that now, domestic threats can come from overseas. One Bureau executive pointed out to me that the 9/11 plot was planned in three countries and executed in a fourth. Another pointed out that when the FBI begins investigating a cybercrime, it doesn’t know whether it’s facing a foreign government, a terrorist group, a criminal group, a run of the mill hacker, or a teenager down the street. Most of the biggest, most complex threats now originate overseas and so the FBI has pushed out overseas as well. Agents now operate in about 80 countries overseas on a daily basis and there are hundreds of agents deployed to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and so on.

What is the biggest challenge the FBI now faces? How are they tackling it? What is the biggest security threat out there now?

I think that the Bureau over the next decade will continue to evolve down the same path it’s currently on—more focused on intelligence and big picture threats, further advances in IT, and so on. There are two areas, though, that might really force a reckoning for the FBI over the next decade.

For starters, I think that the Bureau has been badly served by public policy leaders. On 9/12, it was given this huge responsibility to stop the next attack, to prioritize national security above everything else. It wasn’t given many new resources to do that. When Britain re-prioritized its counterterrorism responsibilities, it more than doubled the size of the responsible agency. We didn’t. The FBI has only about 30 percent more agents now than it did before the 9/11 attacks. What that’s meant is that its traditional criminal work has been majorly impacted—many areas, like white collar crimes, have seen a 40, 50, or even 60 percent decline in investigations in the last ten years. Mueller pulled 2,000 agents off of working drug cases on the southern border in the years after 9/11, reassigning most of them to work counterterrorism. That comes at a big cost—the huge rise of drug violence in Mexico and along the U.S. border tracks pretty closely with those agents disappearing. Now with local and state agencies facing major budget cuts, it’s possible that we’ll really see a resurgence as gangs and criminals note that there’s a very real vacuum right now in many areas of law enforcement. Whether we’ll decide to invest a great deal more in the traditional criminal side of the FBI to rebuild much of its pre-9/11 capability is still unknown.

The second major area of potential change is I think that we’re just as badly prepared right now for a major cyberattack as we were in 2000 for terrorism. People are talking about it, there are some resources being moved towards it, but it’s not front and center and it’s not a major area of investment. If the first decade of the 21st Century was about terrorism, I think the second decade will be about cybercrime. I think we’re likely to face a “cyber-9/11” attack in the next decade, and I’m not optimistic that we’ll be as ready for that as we should be.

Director Mueller’s ten-year term is up in September and so the Obama administration is sorting through possible successors right now. Traditionally, the FBI director has either been a former federal judge or a former prosecutor. Today, though, I don’t think either of those skill sets is what we need in an FBI director—the Bureau today is a huge organization, its budget is roughly the size of eBay and larger than companies like Visa or Campbell Soup, and with operations in 80 countries overseas, with its intelligence portfolio and ties to geopolitics, it needs someone who has a background in those areas as well.

Future book plans?

I’ve come away from my FBI research with a lot more great stories and am still interested in this topic. It’s likely that my next book will be on a similar topic, although I haven’t settled on a specific story yet. I’m actually heading out soon to spend four days at an FBI facility that I think might be the focus of the next book.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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