Washingtonian editor Garrett Graff recently published his second book, The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror. THE WEEKLY STANDARD recently had the opportunity to ask Graff a few questions about his book and the FBI's evolving role in national security issues.
TWS: How did you come to write the The Threat Matrix? What is it about the FBI's post-9/11 role that you felt needed to be discussed or that people didn't understand?
Graff: 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.
TWS: The FBI is getting increasingly brought into war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to investigate or interview "cases" that have no American law enforcement nexus. Is that what the FBI was designed for? Should the FBI be better prepared to exist in a combat environment, or should they leave that to military law enforcement?
Graff: One of the biggest changes that Robert Mueller has overseen-out of necessity, I think, rather than choice-was the deployment of thousands of FBI agents into combat zones. The Bureau originally went into Afghanistan and Iraq to look for cases with a direct U.S. nexus-spies hidden here in the U.S., terrorists plotting attacks from abroad, and so on-but they ended up finding their unique skills in criminal investigations, interrogations, and policing were badly needed to help the military gather intelligence and advance the U.S. mission. There was a lot of "mission creep," to the point where the FBI was really taking the lead in many of the bombing investigations and criminal cases in Iraq. It wasn't what the FBI was designed to do, for sure, but agents made it work and I think it's a permanent change: The U.S. will never go to war again without an FBI contingent involved.
What was stunning to me as I got into my research was how unprepared many of these FBI agents were for combat in the first months and years after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. They were being dumped into the middle of combat with just days' notice, unsure of their mission, unsure of their capabilities, and even unsure of what would happen if they got hurt.
Now, since the Bureau is still sending big teams over into those war zones, there's a whole two-week training regimen that they go through in Utah in order to operate in what the Defense Department calls "non-permissive environments." But at the start, the sum total of the preparation was little more than a shopping trip to an REI store. Before the invasion of Iraq, as I tell in the book, the FBI agents were standing in line in grocery stores in Kuwait to buy cell phones and anything else that they'd need in Iraq.
TWS: The FBI seems to be an organization that is defined by two dynamics that are totally opposite and in conflict: Individual excellence and organizational failure. These men and women in the FBI who, based on this book, seem the be some of the smartest, hardest working people protecting the nation, are beset on all sides by an inability to work with other parts of the government. How do they get past petty organizational rivalries (FBI vs. DOD, FBI vs. CIA etc.), and use information technology systems like a normal group of people?
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.