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?