In The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, journalist Ronald Kessler reveals startling new inside information about the FBI — from J. Edgar Hoover's blackmailing of Congress to the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. The excerpt below gives an inside view of the bureau's reaction to terrorism.
Chapter 36, "The Marine"
At 2:20 a.m. on October 2, 2001, Robert Stevens, a sixty-three-year- old photo editor at tabloid publisher American Media, was admitted to JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, Florida. Vomiting and confused, he had a 102 fever. The next day, doctors determined that Stevens had contracted anthrax by inhaling spores. On October 4, doctors called a press conference to announce the confirmation of anthrax. They believed Stevens to be an isolated case. Perhaps he had contracted it in the woods.
A day before Stevens was admitted, Erin M. O'Connor, a thirty- eight-year-old assistant to Tom Brokaw, went to the doctor with a low- grade fever and a bad rash. The doctor suspected anthrax and prescribed Cipro. That same day, Ernesto Blanco, seventy-three, an American Media mail room employee, was hospitalized with pneumonia. By October 5, Stevens had died, the first known anthrax fatality in the United States since 1976.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found anthrax spores on Stevens's computer keyboard and in Blanco's nasal passages. The agency decided that the American Media building should be sealed.
Soon, there were more anthrax cases, from Washington to New York. At first, it seemed to be another attack by bin Laden. Unlike the September 11 cases, Mueller allowed the Washington Field Office to direct the anthrax investigation. The case did not appear to have the global dimensions of the terrorist attacks. Agents headed by Bradley Garrett, who had been working on the disappearance of Chandra Levy and a possible obstruction of justice charge against Representative Gary Condit, were pulled off the celebrated case.
The FBI traced the new anthrax cases to letters addressed to Brokaw, to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, to Senator Patrick Leahy, and to other news outlets. The letters went through mail-processing facilities in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, and the Washington sorting center on Brentwood Road. Through cross contamination, traces of anthrax turned up at mail rooms used by the White House, the State Department, the CIA, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings. More traces were found at the Morgan Station postal facility in Manhattan and at other sorting centers in New York. Spores turned up at ABC and CBS as well.
At one point, the House suspended work, and three Senate office buildings were closed. In all, eighteen people contracted anthrax, either though skin contact or inhalation. Five died.
On September 25, more than a week before any anthrax cases had been detected, NBC security called the New York Field Office about a letter addressed to Brokaw containing white powder. The letter was mailed on September 20 in St. Petersburg, Florida. O'Connor, Brokaw's assistant, opened it. It turned out that this letter, unlike the second one she opened, was a hoax. It contained talcum powder.
Still, Mayor Giuliani criticized the FBI for being slow to react. The two agents who showed up at NBC normally were assigned to investigate drugs. They had no idea anthrax might be involved and treated the case like an illicit drug case. Without explanation, they were told that O'Connor was not available to be interviewed. The agents put the letter in an evidence vault instead of having the powder tested. They waited until they could interview O'Connor.
Subsequently, O'Connor developed anthrax from the second letter. On October 6, one of her doctors notified the city health department, which notified the FBI. Only then did Barry Mawn became aware of the delay in investigating the first, bogus letter. He made sure the powder was tested immediately. Since that letter turned out to be a hoax, the delay did not make any difference.
The call from NBC about the first letter was "one of maybe about eight thousand leads we had received," said Mawn, who was working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. "The letter should have been sent to headquarters for immediate testing. The agents who normally pursue drug cases handled it like a drug case," he said.
At the Washington Field Office, Van Harp pursued three theories: that the anthrax letters came from al-Qaeda, from a domestic right- wing terrorist group, or from a lone suspect like the Unabomer. After a month, the bureau had developed enough investigative information to suggest that this last possibility was the right one. As the investigation into the airplane attacks began to wind down, Harp had practically the entire office of 659 agents working the anthrax case.
In the middle of it, Al Kamen of the Washington Post noted that an FBI advisory warned citizens to look for indications that a letter or package might be suspicious and might contain anthrax or a bomb. The indications might include excessive tape or string, protruding wires, no return address, or a strange odor. Recipients should also be on the lookout for misspelled words, the poster said. In addition, the FBI advised recipients to check to see if it's "Possiblly sic mailed from a foreign country."
"Yikes!" Kamen commented. "They've taken over the FBI!"
In the months leading up to the September 11 attacks, the CIA, whose job it is to spy overseas, and NSA, which intercepts communications, had been picking up fragmentary intelligence that al-Qaeda might be planning another attack on U.S. interests. An intercept picked up Osama bin Laden telling one of his four wives to return to Afghanistan immediately. "There is a big thing coming," an al-Qaeda operative said.
"There was general intelligence that al-Qaeda was up to something," Mawn said. "We heard the drums beating. There were specific threats about Yemen. We thought there might be an attack overseas."
That the attacks came as a surprise was widely called an "intelligence failure." The term implies that the CIA and FBI have a foolproof way of detecting attacks and crimes before they happen. To be sure, some developments should be detected and, when they are not, can legitimately be characterized as failures. For example, the CIA failed to detect movements indicating that India and Pakistan were about to detonate nuclear test weapons in 1998. With satellite coverage, there was no excuse for not warning of such a development. But no one would suggest that when a bank has been robbed or the federal building in Oklahoma City blown up, the FBI "failed" to detect the plot.
Penetrating an organization like bin Laden's was extremely difficult. While twenty-year-old American John Philip Walker Lindh joined the Taliban and met bin Laden several times, he learned few secrets. For his inner circle, bin Laden was careful to recruit fanatics whom he or his people had known for years. The fact that even after the U.S. government offered rewards that began at $5 million and eventually zoomed to $25 million, no one turned him in demonstrates how loyal his organization was.
In the year before the attacks, George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that bin Laden posed the "most serious and immediate threat" to the United States. But an assessment from the CIA director was hardly needed. Anyone who read the newspapers or watched television knew of al-Qaeda's previous attacks and threats.
Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Islamic leader who was convicted of plotting to bomb the United Nations, the FBI's New York Field Office, and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, urged followers to "break and destroy the morale of the enemies of Allah" by attacking their "high world buildingsand the buildings in which they gather their leaders." Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 plot on the World Trade Center, told FBI agents as they flew in a helicopter over Manhattan that the World Trade Center would not "still be standing if I had enough money." In 1995, a terrorist based in the Philippines threatened to fly a plane loaded with chemical weapons into the CIA at Langley and to blow up twelve U.S. airliners. All these plots were linked to bin Laden, and all were made public.
In retrospect, no one took the threats seriously enough. The Clinton administration's response to the bombings that bin Laden masterminded of the two American embassies in East Africa only demonstrated America's weakness and lack of resolve. In response to the attacks, the United States launched two strikes, one on training camps where bin Laden was supposedly hiding and one on a pharmaceutical plant where the CIA believed chemical weapons could be made for bin Laden.
Certainly American arrogance played a role. How could people with unpronounceable names living in caves threaten American might and technology? But al-Qaeda had a sophisticated appreciation of America's vulnerabilities. The FAA allowed knives up to four inches long to be taken on airplanes. Without any difficulty, the hijackers could pack knives and box cutters that they would use to threaten passengers and crew. Thanks to lax regulation and the airlines' shortsighted fixation on cost cutting, airline security had long been a joke.
Hijacking airplanes and plunging to one's death is not exactly high tech. But the FBI soon learned that the dead hijackers had been as sophisticated as KGB officers at concealing their activities. They used phony names and public libraries for communicating on the Internet. They used couriers and codes embedded in graphics to convey their messages, a system called steganography. They listed Mail Boxes outlets as home addresses and transferred money through an ancient secret system called hawala, which relies on trust to move sums around the world.
"To me, they acted like normal human beings, nothing abnormal," said Henry George, a flight instructor who taught Atta and another hijacker to fly. "They were polite, maybe even shy."
To finance the plot, the hijackers used at least $500,000 funneled by Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a fugitive believed to be al-Qaeda's finance chief. At least $325,000 of the money was disbursed through ATMs, money orders, and credit cards, the rest in cash. Al-Qaeda operatives hatched the plot in Germany with connections in France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Bosnia, and the Czech Republic.
Most important, to avoid detection, each group or cell targeting a plane kept itself totally separate from the others. As specified in an al- Qaeda training manual, the hijackers themselves did not go to mosques or see other Muslims. Some of them even drank alcohol, which was forbidden by Islam.
"There was no information about them before the attacks," Mawn said. "I'm still shocked and amazed it happened here. These people didn't necessarily bring attention to themselves. All but one was here legitimately. They were not involved in criminal activities. They were separate and unaware of each other until the end."
L ooking back, the one hope of foiling the plot might have been determining what Zacarias Moussaoui was up to when he was taking lessons at the Pan Am Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota. On August 15, 2001, an official of the school called the FBI and reported that Moussaoui, a thirty-three-year-old French national of Moroccan descent, wanted to concentrate on navigation and midair turns, not landings or takeoffs. He lacked flight skills and was belligerent and evasive about his background. He paid $6,800 of the $8,300 fee in cash. The biggest plane he had ever flown was a single-engine Cessna, and then only with an instructor. Yet he wanted to learn to fly "one of these Big Bird," as he put it in an E-mail to the flight school — a Boeing 747-400 or Airbus A-300.
Minneapolis was not exactly a hotbed of terrorists. To Dave Rapp, the Minneapolis counterterrorism agent who got the case, this was like Watergate to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The agent pursued it as if it were the threat it turned out to be.
During an interview at FBI headquarters, I saw the agent's original classified report sitting on the desk of an FBI official. It was a foot high and included a four-inch stack of printouts of the contents of Moussaoui's computer obtained after the attacks.
While Moussaoui's actions were suspicious, there was nothing to tie him to a foreign power or foreign political faction, a requirement to obtain a FISA warrant to wiretap his calls or search his computer. French intelligence officials said only that he had connections to radical Islamic extremists. When the FBI finally was able to look at his hard drive after the events of September 11 provided more evidence linking him to the hijackers, it found information about airplanes, crop dusting, and wind currents. That in itself would not add to the evidence needed to obtain approval to conduct electronic surveillance of him under FISA.
Because of the lack of evidence, FBI lawyers at headquarters told the Minneapolis agent they could not support either a FISA or criminal warrant. Lacking that, the FBI decided to turn him over to the INS. He was incarcerated on August 16 because his visa had expired.
Chertoff, for one, thought that if the wall between the FBI and Justice Department on FISA applications had not existed, agents working with prosecutors and Justice Department legal advisers might have devised a way for the FBI to develop the information needed to obtain authorization to intercept Moussaoui's communications.
As part of new antiterrorism legislation, Chertoff inserted language that would make it even clearer that a counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigation could morph seamlessly into a criminal case without posing any legal problems. Now information learned from FISA wiretaps and bugs could be used for prosecutions if "a significant purpose" rather than "the primary purpose" of the original application was to obtain intelligence. It was a semantic change that demonstrated that FISA as originally enacted never prohibited prosecutors and FBI agents from consulting with each other when FISA applications were considered. Yet the harmful attitudes spawned by Richard Scruggs, the Justice Department's counsel for the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review who first claimed that such a demarcation was required, lived on. Even after the change in the law, agents and prosecutors were still wary of consulting with each other. When I told him that nothing had, in fact, changed, Chertoff said, "I think there has been a change in thinking, but I think we have more work to do."
"It's about turf and control, not about what's right for the country," said former spy prosecutor John Martin.
Besides the FISA problem, civil libertarians, privacy advocates, extreme conservatives, and tech industry lobbyists had succeeded over the years in imposing restrictions that made no sense on FBI investigative operations. To be sure, Americans should always be wary of the FBI's power. The bureau is a paramilitary organization that responds to its leader. Should a politically motivated director take over, it is possible he or she could order illegal activities that might initially be concealed.
Of the bureau's ten directors, three — William J. Burns, J. Edgar Hoover, and William S. Sessions — abused their position. A fourth, Louis J. Freeh, almost destroyed the bureau through colossal mismanagement born of sheer donkeylike stubbornness and arrogance. As with presidents, FBI directors wield tremendous power and are constantly courted, and this can lead to a sense of entitlement.
"The life of the White House is the life of a court," George E. Reedy wrote in The Twilight of the Presidency. The president "is treated with all the reverence due a monarch."
To a lesser extent, FBI directors are treated the same way. "The power and the privileges go to their heads," said former FBI deputy director Weldon Kennedy. "They start to believe what they read about themselves and react to the deferential way people respond to them."
But agents themselves have a clear appreciation of the need to remain within the law. They joined the FBI to do good, to risk their lives if necessary to make sure others are safe. Nearly all FBI agents would turn in their badges before committing an illegal act. The bureau's record speaks for itself. Not since the days of Hoover and L. Patrick Gray has the FBI as an organization engaged in illegal conduct.
Since that time, innovations in communications have made it far more difficult for the FBI to conduct electronic surveillance. Instead of using one phone, criminals use cell phones and pay phones, not to mention E-mail and the Internet, often with the help of sophisticated encryption software.
Yet even after September 11, privacy advocates continued to oppose any change that would allow the bureau to keep up with the bad guys. Thus, the bureau could obtain authorization to wiretap specific phone numbers or to intercept E-mail from specific addresses but could not target the communications of an individual regardless of which phones or E-mail addresses he or she used. To keep up with a suspect who switched from a disposable cell phone to a pay phone to a fax, the bureau would have to obtain new court authorization every time. It was easier to obtain wiretap authorization against organized crime figures than against terrorists. Even when the FBI had probable cause and court authorization, it could not easily intercept and read coded electronic messages. That was because, during the Clinton administration, Congress would not pass legislation requiring software manufacturers to include in their products ports that would allow the FBI to unscramble the coded communications. The software industry maintained that allowing law enforcement to defeat encryption detracted from the value of its products. The same kind of opposition prevented the FBI from unscrambling coded digital phone calls. Terrorists could buy encryption programs at any CompUSA and assure themselves that the FBI would not be able to unscramble their messages. What was the point of allowing court-ordered interception if it could not be carried out?
Despite the fact that no court had found that FISA as implemented by the Justice Department posed any legal problem, the American Civil Liberties Union even questioned legislative changes allowing the FBI to consult early on with prosecutors in intelligence investigations, as it once had. The ACLU's opposition to national ID cards illustrated its fuzzy thinking. The organization had no problem with driver's licenses or national Social Security cards, which could easily be counterfeited. When it came to similar cards that were reliable and would allow more intelligent screening of passengers at airports, the ACLU raised the flag of civil liberties concerns, saying the cards would centralize private information in a data bank. The fact is that anyone with $35 can obtain the same information on-line. Rather than allow positive identification of passengers, the ACLU was willing to have them subjected to intrusive and time-consuming body and luggage searches.
In a typical statement of the case against the FBI's proposals, Earl C. Ravenal of the Cato Institute wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "The debate about encryption is nothing less than the Armageddon of government police power versus the heart and soul of the U.S. Constitution."
Civil libertarians complained that the number of FBI wiretaps had increased to record numbers. That was like complaining that the number of arrests had increased. The number of wiretaps rose because crime was increasing and the FBI was doing a better job of going after it. What was important was whether the wiretaps were legal and whether the FBI was abusing its authority. Each wiretap had to be approved by a judge, so it was not a question of infringing on rights. It was a question of making it at least as easy for the FBI to do its job as it was for criminals to do theirs.
The critics seemed to think that FBI agents relish wiretapping. In fact, because of the paperwork involved, it is the least appealing part of an agent's job. Because of lack of resources, the FBI literally cannot transcribe and translate all the wiretapped material it receives.
If the FBI cannnot be trusted to wiretap within the framework of the law, why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons? What is the point of having an FBI if it is sohobbled that it cannot perform its mission? Whose rights were violated more, those whose phones are tapped by court order or those who died in the September 11 attacks?
If the FBI ever does abuse its authority, the appropriate response would be to prosecute those responsible and institute more oversight, not to diminish the number of wiretaps or make it more difficult to wiretap so that criminals can get away and terrorists can attack again.
Because of the relentless criticism and congressional restrictions, the FBI became so gun-shy that even though terrorists were known to hatch their plots there, the FBI was averse to following suspects into mosques. Because he was a cleric, FBI and Justice Department lawyers debated for months whether to open an investigation of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.
"I remember discussions when we said, unfortunately, it will take a tragedy before the issue of the tools we need is recognized for what it is," said Larry Collins, the former SAC in Chicago. "Maybe a congressman's daughter has to be kidnapped, and we can't track her. Congress tied our hands."
"A crime practically had to be committed before you could investigate," Weldon Kennedy, the former FBI deputy director, said. "If you didn't have that, you couldn't open an investigation."
After September 11, Ashcroft pushed through the legislation that the FBI had been requesting for years, along with some additional measures. Now grand jury information can be shared with the CIA. Judges can approve roving wiretaps that follow a suspect to each phone he used.
In December 2001, Moussaoui was indicted. According to the indictment, the September 11 plot began in early June 2000, when Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who would pilot the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, arrived in the States. Soon, money for the operation started coming in. Because another hijacker, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, could not obtain a visa to enter the United States from Germany, Moussaoui, an understudy who was to replace other hijackers if needed, was to take his place as the twentieth hijacker. All the planes except the one that crashed in Pennsylvania had five hijackers. The Pennsylvania plane had four.
The indictment, which named bin Laden as an unindicted coconspirator, said Moussaoui was trained by al-Qaeda and received $14,000 from one of the terrorists in Germany. He allegedly bought knives and flight training materials and received wire transfers of money from abroad at about the same time as the other hijackers.
If Moussaoui was to be the twentieth hijacker, the FBI had placed him out of commission. Unfortunately, even if the FBI had been able to find out what Moussaoui was up to, it would not necessarily have been able to uncover the plots against the other planes.
I n retrospect, despite the wiliness of the hijackers and the difficulty of penetrating al-Qaeda, the FBI, with the right focus and commitment, could have done far more. Under Freeh, Congress increased the FBI's budget to combat both domestic and foreign counterterrorism from $118 million to $423 million a year. The number of agents assigned to counterterrorism increased to 2,650. After September 11, that seemed a ridiculously low number.
Robert M. Blitzer, who was over terrorism prior to the attacks, said the bureau simply did not have the resources to deal with the problem. Bureau officials like Buck Revell and Bill Baker, who early on recognized terrorism as a problem, had long gone. Many who remained did not have the intellect to devise new strategies for dealing with the threat or, if they did, found that Freeh would not listen.
"I don't think Freeh ever trusted any of us," Blitzer said.
Under Freeh, the infrastructure for combating terrorism — computers, analysis, and translators — disintegrated. Blitzer recalled being inundated by threats and leads coming in from the CIA, State Department, NSA, and DIA. The FBI could not analyze it all, much less follow each lead to its logical conclusion.
"The FBI, because of lack of resources, was not able to analyze and exploit all of the intelligence on bin Laden," Blitzer said. "I would have reams of stuff on my desk. It was frantic. I came in on weekends. There was an ocean of work. We got thousands of threats every year. I would ask myself, `What should we do with this? Is it real or not? Where should I send it?' We were trying to make sense of it. I don't think we ever came to grips with it."
The FBI should have been recruiting Arab-American agents to develop informants, Blitzer said. "We had no infrastructure. We had no analysts. Agents had to share computers. I am good on computers and couldn't figure out the FBI's computers, which were 386s. If an agent could find a computer, he typed up his reports himself. We couldn't afford to pay stenographers. We were paying agents $80,000 to $90,000 a year to type up reports."
While the terrorists communicated by code on the Internet, agents had computers that lacked CD-ROM drives. Because of the lack of analysts and computers, "We didn't know what we had," Bob Bryant, the former deputy director, said. "We didn't know what we knew."
Even with more resources, fewer restrictions, and more focus, "I'm not sure we could have detected the plot," Mawn said. But, since September 11, "probably the entire government response has made a difference. We have people on the run. We're making it hard for them to communicate. We've disrupted their activities. We've frozen millions of dollars of individuals and organizations that allegedly fund terrorism. Now the guards at the tunnels are checking cars. Before, they stood around in the corner having coffee."
While passengers likely will never again allow a hijacker to get away with crashing a plane into a building, FBI officials believed that until all baggage was x-rayed or tested for bombs, the airlines would not be totally safe.
For the most part, FBI agents had no problem with the aggressive steps instituted by Ashcroft and Chertoff to prevent more attacks. Prosecutors always had discretion about whether to jail noncitizens who had violated immigration laws. If there was a possibility any of them might be al-Qaeda members, jailing them would remove the threat and still fall within the law. Unlike the Japanese detained during World War II, those jailed had violated criminal laws and were not American citizens. As it turned out, of those jailed, only Moussaoui was believed to have a possible connection to the plot.
Within the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was considered a joke, totally ineffective at doing its job. Putting violators in jail amounted to carrying out the job the INS should have been doing all along.
"Our job is to protect American lives, but we don't believe that is inconsistent with honoring the American Constitution," Ashcroft said.
Similarly, FBI officials had no problem with military tribunals. Citing the use of a military tribunal to try the eight Nazi saboteurs who landed in June 1942, former Attorney General Bill Barr suggested the idea to Ashcroft. To bureau officials, it made no difference how suspects were tried. The FBI investigates; it does not prosecute. The issue is one of philosophy, not of the law.
On the other hand, agents saw several of Ashcroft's other ideas as being clearly off base. In particular, agents viewed as pointless Ashcroft's directive that U.S. attorneys write five thousand noncitizens from Middle Eastern countries to ask that they come in for interviews by local police. With more than eleven thousand agents, the FBI could have conducted the interviews quickly, quietly, and far more effectively than local police. In some cities like Los Angeles, that is exactly what happened. The initiative produced virtually no useful information, while needlessly raising concerns of Arab Americans who already feared that they might be targeted unfairly.
"Ashcroft wants to show he is doing something," said a Washington Field Office agent.
Ashcroft's practice of acting as the spokesman for the FBI also troubled agents, who thought the attorney general came across as if he were the FBI director while Mueller was his deputy. Four months after the attacks, Webster mentioned to Mueller and to Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general, that Ashcroft should give Mueller more space. It was important that the FBI "have a certain level of independence," Webster said, both because the bureau might have to investigate administration officials and because of the need to have "clarity of responsibility."
"The troops wonder who is the boss," Webster said to me. "It's better to let the director be the director."
Mueller thought that initially, Ashcroft should take the lead. It would reassure Americans that the FBI and Justice Department were no longer fighting with each other and would also show that the problem- plagued FBI was under control. All along, his idea was that he would eventually assume a higher profile. In any case, on a tour of the Middle East and Asia, Mueller suddenly began giving press conferences by himself; Ashcroft was nowhere to be seen.
When the FBI and later Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge began to sound alerts based on fragmentary intelligence warnings of new attacks, pundits asked, "What should people be alert for?" Most Americans had no experience with security issues and threats. But they learned quickly. On December 22, 2001, an observant flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami noticed Richard C. Reid trying to light plastic explosives packed into the hollowed-out heels of his black suede high-tops. Reid turned out to have al-Qaeda connections. Passengers restrained him, saving the plane from destruction. That is what it meant to be on the alert.
As the FBI began distributing information about the hijackers, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he received from the FBI a list of people to watch for but no photographs, dates of birth, or physical descriptions. He implied that the FBI was withholding the information from the police. But the FBI did not provide the information because it did not have it. Even determining the hijackers' real names had been a challenge.
While SACs and local police chiefs in a few cities may not have gotten along, the fact is that for decades the FBI closely cooperated with local and state police through joint terrorism task forces. As in the New York task force, police assigned to these units worked side by side with FBI agents in field offices. They were given security clearances and saw the same information FBI agents saw. Of the fifty-six field offices, thirty- five had such task forces. Similarly, FBI agents worked at the CIA's Counterterrorism Task Force, and CIA officers were assigned to the FBI's Counterterrorism Division.
"Lack of cooperation is much ado about nothing," Mawn said. "There are apt to be cases where people don't get along. In one of my assignments, I didn't trust the guy. But if there's a public safety issue, we're going to get the information out."
A fter four months in the job, Mueller restructured the bureau and began elevating the people he had come to trust. While Mueller would not criticize his predecessor, the changes — emphasizing technology and analysis--made it clear what Mueller thought of Freeh and some of his policies. Most of his changes corrected Freeh's misjudgments.
While Freeh ignored the FBI's hopelessly outdated computers until his last months in office, Mueller appointed Bob Dies chief technology officer reporting directly to him. Instead of snubbing the SAC Advisory Committee, as Freeh had, Mueller placed it at the top of the organizational chart reporting to him. While Freeh ignored planning, Mueller created an Office of Strategic Planning reporting to him. A new Security Division was established to try to prevent another Robert Hanssen case. An Office of Analysis was created for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
Instead of acting defensively to criticism about lack of cooperation with local law enforcement, Mueller added an Office of Law Enforcement Coordination to improve liaison with state and local police and public safety agencies. Mueller's top aide, Dan Levin, who was Mueller's aide in San Francisco, stayed in the background, as Webster's aides had. In contrast, Freeh's aide Bob Bucknam tried to involve himself in operational matters.
At Quantico, Mueller ordered a training program for analysts and more training in data mining and leadership. Asked what leadership means, Mueller got a gleam in his eye as he referred to his Marine Corps training. "There are certain things you are taught in the Marine Corps that stay with you forever," he said as he sat at the head of his conference room table. "You don't ask people to do things you are not willing to do yourself. You work harder than those you would lead. You praise in public and criticize in private. You delegate." The foundation of leadership is integrity, Mueller said. "With that goes speaking your mind, not dissembling, being blunt. It's not easy to criticize people, it's not easy to move people. Those are all difficult things that are all part of leadership."
In the past, directors met once a year with all SACs. In the space of four months, Mueller held two SAC meetings. Each lasted two days and included a visit to the White House for a pep talk from Bush and talks by Secretary of State Colin Powell and CIA Director George Tenet. SACs gasped when Mueller used a laptop computer and a PowerPoint program to illustrate the points he was making. Mueller kept their cell phone numbers in his Palm handheld computer. Even the FBI tour, once it reopened, was to reflect the new direction, including new exhibits on cybercrime.
As Mueller saw it, instead of responding to changes in threats as they arose, the FBI had to anticipate and plan for them. "Five years from now, is it going to be al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group we need to focus on?" he asked. "If it is some other terrorist group, we ought to start thinking now about the language skills we'll need, the cultural understandings, and the types of analysts we'll need to address the challenge down the road."
Stories by Jim McGee of the Washington Post gave the impression that Mueller planned to turn the FBI into an agency that focused largely on counterterrorism, prevention, and intelligence gathering, as in Hoover's day, without undertaking long-term investigations. That was untrue. In his meetings with SACs, Mueller talked about the need to make incremental changes in the FBI's mission. Compared with the handful of federal laws the FBI enforced when the agency was created in 1908, it now had five hundred laws to enforce. In most cases, Congress gave the FBI additional jurisdiction without providing additional agents.
Tracking delinquent dads was on everyone's list of violations that the FBI should not be involved in. Most drug cases could be handled by the DEA. Local police in most areas could handle bank robberies and carjackings. Just as Clarence Kelley got the FBI out of the business of investigating individual car thefts, Mueller was setting priorities. The beauty of Hoover's creation was that agents received broad training and could be shifted from one criminal program to another as the need arose.
"I think it's a mistake to think the FBI is just going to do terrorism, and everybody can go rob banks," Chertoff said. "I do think there will be a shift in focus, with the bureau deploying more of its strength to areas where it adds unique value — terrorism, national security, complex organized crime, and white-collar crime cases. Carjackings, federal program fraud cases, delinquent dads can be done by others. This forces us to be smarter about not having duplication of effort. It's probably something we should have done a long time ago so that everyone sticks to his knitting and does what they do best."
Nor was the bureau about to end long-term investigations. Quite the opposite. To be sure, more attention would be given to shutting down plots immediately using any law available — immigration violations, material witness warrants, lying to the FBI. "We don't necessarily need to convict people of a grand conspiracy if we can convict them of something straightforward and get them off the street right away," Chertoff said. When the U.S. military in January 2002 found videotapes of five apparent al-Qaeda members discussing a suicide attack, the FBI released the tapes to see if anyone could identify or find them. In the past, the FBI would have conducted a quiet investigation.
But everyone in the bureau and Justice Department recognized that the only way to make a real difference in fighting terrorism was to penetrate organizations with informants and electronic intercepts, in investigations that could take years. No one talked about returning to the unfocused and often illegal intelligence gathering of the Hoover days. Nor did anyone consider using torture, another creation of a few in the press.
In reorganizing the bureau, Mueller appointed four executive assistant directors to oversee eleven divisions. It was more or less the structure every director except Webster and Freeh had used, one that Mueller discussed with Webster at their lunch at the Metropolitan Club. It took pressure off the deputy director and provided a line of FBI officials who could make policy and meet with leaders of foreign law enforcement and intelligence organizations.
Mueller removed key officials who did not measure up to his standards. He removed Sheila Horan as acting director of the Counterintelligence Division because, after he found she was generally not on top of the subject, he felt she did not appropriately brief him on a Chinese counterintelligence case, failing to warn him of problems with it. Perhaps more than anything else, that defined the difference between Mueller and Freeh: Freeh banished people for telling him the facts, whereas Mueller banished those who did not give him the facts. Mueller was determined not to have another Wen Ho Lee fiasco on his watch. But because Freeh had driven away so many talented FBI officials, Mueller had a depleted lineup to choose from when replacing bureau executives.
After six months on the job, Mueller had chosen his own people for nearly all the top slots in the bureau, including a black woman to be assistant director over training. Bright and articulate, forty-four-year- old Cassandra M. Chandler, a lawyer who was once a television news anchor in Baton Rouge, most recently headed the FBI's criminal and domestic terrorism analysis.
As executive assistant director over counterterrorism and counterintelligence, Mueller elevated Dale Watson, who had been in charge of counterterrorism alone. In that job, Watson had been trying to make the bureau more proactive. Having previously been detailed to the CIA as deputy operations director, Watson, who looks like a college professor, was superbly qualified to lead the bureau's efforts in the national security area. "Before, we were going from one crime to another," he told me. "We are now working on how to prevent attacks five years from now." When Pickard, who had been acting director when Freeh left, retired in November 2001, Mueller decided to do without a deputy so he could force the changes he wanted. He wanted to learn the bureau so he could feel comfortable that the right decisions were being made. He thought the job of deputy director probably entailed too broad a range of responsibilities in any case.
Rather than micromanaging, Mueller saw himself as supervising. "I like to be included on the important decisions," he said. "I'm responsible for everything that happens. That being the case, I want a certain comfort level that this is being done the way I would like it to be done even though I have not been an FBI agent. I have a tremendous amount to learn. I need advice from those who have been there and done things that I have not."
Mueller said it was important for bureau officials to make their own decisions. "We're all going to make mistakes," he said. "I've made any number of mistakes. So long as they're made in good faith and you are doing the best you can, I just want to know about them, and we'll move on."
When Bob Dies told him it would take three years to bring the FBI's computer systems up to the level of most homes and offices, Mueller said he wanted it done sooner. "The work of the FBI is information," Mueller told me. "We don't do as good a job as we should in gathering the information in digital form, being able to analyze it using the software tools out there, and disseminating it digitally either within the FBI or to the CIA, Customs, DEA, INS, or state and local police. We have to drive the bureau into the twenty-first century. The bureau should be the most technologically proficient investigative agency in the world." With an extra $100 million on top of the $300 million already required, Dies said he could do the planned computer overhaul in fourteen months.
Even before September 11, Dies found that, when Congress learned how disastrous the problem was, it was completely willing to fund new computers. When Freeh was in charge, Congress did not believe the FBI was capable of knowing what it needed, much less how to obtain it. Dies insisted on allowing only brand-name companies to bid. Soon, thousands of new Dell machines began arriving at FBI offices throughout the world. Dies began putting in high-speed networks so field offices could communicate with each other more quickly, and he made dozens of other immediate changes. To avoid any conflicts of interest, Dies's son Jason, who had urged his father to apply for the job at the FBI in the first place, was no longer its IBM account representative.
But some clung to the old ways. Despite Mueller's position that the bureau must do a better job of admitting its mistakes and letting the facts speak for themselves, Kathleen L. McChesney, whom Mueller promoted to executive assistant director over law enforcement services, said that she would rather I not go on a tour of Quantico that had been set up for me. In a similar apparent attempt to distance herself from any possible criticism of the bureau, McChesney wrote in August 1993 on FBI stationery to my then publisher's legal counsel to ask for removal of her name in the acknowledgments to the paperback edition of my previous book on the FBI. She said that on at least two occasions, I contacted her but she said she was "not interested in providing information to him for his book." When the legal counsel reminded her that, with her permission, my interview with her had been tape- recorded, McChesney lapsed into silence, and her name remained in new printings of the book.
McChesney's more recent objection to my visit to Quantico resulted in its cancellation. However, John Collingwood intervened, and I spent most of a day at the training facility— shooting the Glock semiautomatic; responding to simulated shooting scenarios; sitting in on a class on use of deadly force; revisiting the Hostage Rescue Team facility and Hogan's Alley, where agents are trained in making arrests; and interviewing the acting assistant director over training. The episode was a reminder that, thirty years after Hoover's death, the dictum about not embarrassing the bureau was alive and well, even at the highest levels of the FBI.
Still, under Mueller, the bureau appeared to be in good hands, its mission once again redefined by war. By January 2002, the bureau had narrowed the focus of the anthrax investigation to employees of military laboratories capable of making the form of anthrax that killed victims in Florida, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. They included the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The FBI concluded that the physical properties of the finely powdered anthrax sent to Capitol Hill were consistent with secret U.S. processes for producing it. From knowing virtually nothing about anthrax, bureau officials like Van Harp had learned so much that they thought they qualified for degrees in microbiology.
The strength of the FBI was demonstrated by the fact that, in the middle of pursuing terrorists and anthrax suspects, the New York Field Office took down seventy-three leaders and associates of the Genovese Mafia family.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the FBI had at least 150 ongoing investigations into possible al-Qaeda activities in the United States, compared with virtually none before the attacks. While very few of those investigations was likely to lead to anything, it was the kind of effort necessary to root out the problem.
"Every single lead is being followed now," a bureau official said.
Some of the leads arose from interviews by ten FBI agents Mueller sent to interview al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan before they were shipped to a detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. "We asked them, 'Where is bin Laden now? Sipping tea on a yacht somewhere? And where are you now?"' an agent familiar with the investigation said. "That often worked. These are not hardened criminals such as you find in the United States."
While Mueller became involved in key decisions like whether to conduct a surveillance, he respected the opinions of bureau officials, sought their advice, and listened carefully before making up his mind. Three times in his first four months in office, he found the time to meet informally over doughnuts, cookies, and coffee with thirty-five reporters who regularly cover the bureau.
With his aversion to hearing bad news or countervailing views, Freeh had corrupted the normally open deliberative processes of the FBI. Going back to the Hoover days, the most appealing feature of FBI agents was their honesty. It will take time to undo the damage.
"I think we all breathed a sigh of relief that Freeh was not here on September 11," said a longtime bureau supervisor.
But no one likes change. Within the bureau, Mueller's forcefulness, restructuring, centralization of the terrorism investigation, and closeness to the Justice Department evoked the kind of low-grade grumbling that could be heard even under William Webster, the most successful FBI director. Mueller, like Hoover, may not be warm and fuzzy, but he got the job done.
"I want people to tell me they are unhappy and that this change is wrong for these reasons," Mueller said. "I don't want people to come in and say we should do it this way because we have always done it this way. That argument doesn't go very far."
"No matter who sits there, Jesus Christ himself could come back and have the misfortune to be made director, and they would forget everything that happened during Christianity," John Otto, the former acting FBI director, said.
After September 11, the FBI performed flawlessly, helping to restore confidence in the agency. The FBI has always been a symbol of America. Whether hunting down John Dillinger or handing a kidnap victim back to a parent, the FBI has succeeded far more often than it has failed. Once again, Americans could feel proud of their G-men. They are true heroes, willing to give their lives to preserve America's freedom. Yet in the end, "I don't know how you stop people who are willing to kill themselves," said an FBI agent assigned to the SIOC. "It's like assassins who want to kill the president. The Secret Service will tell you there's no way to stop them, if they want to die."
Barry Mawn still thinks about the woman's leg on the street after the World Trade Center attack. Late in the afternoon of December 31, as he prepared to lead FBI agents deployed to Times Square for New Year's Eve, Mawn said, "I'm praying nothing happens." On the first day of the New Year, he said, "Praying worked."
Excerpted from The Bureau by Ron Kessler, with permission, St. Martin's Press, May 2002.