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Q&A: Garrett Graff, Author of The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror

2:28 PM, Apr 16, 2011 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Graff: That observation is absolutely correct. A lot of people have asked me whether the book is pro-FBI or anti-FBI. I think that the answer is that it's neither. The book traces the incredible work of a lot of highly dedicated street agents who are often struggling against a very cautious and tradition-bound bureaucracy. The FBI, to a certain extent, succeeds in spite of itself. The common thread of the book — from Mafia cases in the 1980s to the al-Qaeda cases of the 1990s — is that in many of its biggest victories the agents responsible were working without the support or the attention of headquarters. That's a big problem. Unfortunately, there's not an easy answer to it — much of the intelligence sharing between agencies has improved from 9/11 and some of those "stovepipes" have been broken down, but it's still probably not where it should be.

Bureaucracies are funny beasts. Agents joke that "bureaucracy" is literally the FBI's middle name and in fact in many ways the headquarters bureaucracy of the FBI has only expanded under Mueller's tenure, with lots of new analysts and managers studying "strategic" threats and trying to be better about looking at the big picture. But a lot of agents wonder whether any of those changes have made their jobs investigating cases or plots better-and the answer is often no. Where there has been a lot of evolution is in technology. Bob Mueller thought in 2001 his original job was going to be fixing the FBI's antiquated computer system. I tell the story in the book of how FBI agents in San Francisco in the summer of 2001 couldn't transfer an email securely to agents in New York, so they saved it to a floppy disc and flew to New York on a commercial airliner to hand-deliver the disc. Now at least agents have BlackBerrys and access to the internet at their desks.

TWS: Organizationally and operationally, how will the FBI be different a decade from now?

Graff: 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 there will be a resurgence as gangs and criminals see 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.

You can purchase Graff's book on Amazon here.

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