10 questions with ‘Threat Matrix’ author Garrett M. Graff

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Garrett M. Graff is the author of the new book, “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.”

Graff, who is editor of Washingtonian magazine, recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his book and other topics of interest:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

The book actually grew out of time that I spent writing a profile of FBI Director Robert Mueller for Washingtonian magazine in 2008 — I came away from that piece fascinated at how the FBI of today no longer comported with my pop culture view of the FBI. The Bureau, with little notice or public attention, had gone global — becoming a major tool of U.S. foreign diplomacy, deploying hundreds of agents to places like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and tackling cybercrime, terrorism, and international organized crime at a scale that we’ve never seen before.

2. How unprepared was the FBI on 9/11?

It depends on where you were looking — the New York Field Office had two squads of agents, I-49 and I-45, who had spent years chasing al Qaeda, doing everything they could to get the larger Bureau and the government to pay more attention to the rising threat.

I tell the story in the book of how these agents had chased Osama bin Laden’s organization all over the world beginning in the mid-1990s, sacrificed their marriages, friends, and social lives to the cause, made some big arrests, recruited two top-notch informants from inside al Qaeda, and then ended up rescuing people from the Trade Center in the minutes after the attack — and losing one of their own when the Towers fell. They knew more about al Qaeda than just about anyone in government and yet almost no one paid attention to them.

Yet, at the same time, the top of the Bureau wasn’t as focused on counterterrorism — and Mueller himself was brand new to the job. He was actually getting one of his first briefings on al Qaeda on the morning of 9/11 at the exact moment that reports arrived of the Towers being hit. More broadly, the Bureau had been failing in its attempt to get more money for counterterrorism. Attorney General John Ashcroft actually denied an increase in CT funding on September 10th.

3. Your book deals a lot with FBI Director Robert Mueller. What kind of man is he personally?

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 runs with “the energy of the sun.”

4. How would you evaluate Robert Mueller’s tenure at the FBI? Does it say something that he still remains around so long after 9/11?

After J. Edgar Hoover died, Congress established a ten-year, nonrenewable term for the FBI Director. Since then, there have been five FBI directors and none of Mueller’s predecessors made it the full ten years. He’s now the longest-serving director, which says a lot about how Washington views him and the success he’s had holding together the Bureau during its most trying time since the death of Hoover in 1972. 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.

5. You write of a connection between  “Deep Throat,” now known to be Mark Felt, and the 9/11 attacks. Can you explain that?

I started this book as a portrait of the FBI since 9/11, but I found as I reported it that I couldn’t tell that story without starting earlier. The book actually begins with the turmoil of 1972, after Hoover died and the Munich Olympics exposed how unprepared the U.S. was for international terrorism.

Part of the fallout from Hoover’s days were the big COINTELPRO scandals at the Bureau, which focused on the illegal surveillance programs Hoover ran on groups like the Weather Underground and even people like Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI’s #3, Mark Felt, who we know now as Deep Throat, ended up being one of three people prosecuted for their roles in the “extralegal” activities and the Watergate mess, along with FBI Acting Director Patrick Gray. The man who was brought in to help clean up the mess at the FBI in the 1970s and institute new guidelines on surveillance was someone named Allan Kornblum, who stayed in the role over the next two decades and became such a zealous guardian that he really hampered the ability of agents to gather critical intelligence in the run-up to 9/11. The exact rules put in place to prevent another COINTELPRO ended up help lead to the 9/11 attacks. There are all sorts of theories about what could have “prevented” 9/11, but after all my research I’m pretty convinced that the only thing that really could have stopped the attack was if Kornblum and his rules had allowed the FBI agents in New York to know more of the full intelligence picture.

6. How has the U.S. wasted precious resources on ridiculous goose-chases about obviously false threats?

The name of my book, “The Threat Matrix,” comes from the document which came to define the post-9/11 environment. Every morning, the government started with the “Threat Matrix,” actually a spreadsheet titled “Terrorism Threats to U.S. Interests Worldwide,” that tracked all the intelligence from the previous 24 hours and all the various terrorist threats and plots in the works. What broke down, though, was the vetting — many of the threats on the daily matrix were pretty vacuous and vague but the government didn’t want anything to slip through, so it investigated everything. It was exhausting — and also horrifying for the people who read, briefed, and tracked the threat matrix each day because it was a daily compendium of worst case scenarios. I think that the threat matrix contributed a great deal to the thinking after 9/11 that led to policies like “enhanced interrogations” and “extraordinary renditions.”

7. How concerned are the FBI agents you talked to about a homegrown Islamist terrorist attack? There was just a big battle on Capitol Hill about holding hearings on Muslim radicalization in America, does the FBI see that as a grave threat – and do they see it as a graver threat than other possible lone-wolf terrorist attacks?

It’s pretty clear to most people in counterterrorism that we’re entering a much more dangerous period of Islamic extremism. Bin Laden’s central al-Qaeda organization has weakened, but many of its affiliate groups are now showing an ability to attack here in the United States that they’d never had before. The “homegrown” threat is a complicated one — radicalization is different for every individual — but what’s most threatening about it is many of the people who are popping up on the radar now don’t come with the “traditional” signals, that is, for instance, trips to Pakistan for explosives training or the like. At the same time, you’re seeing signs that a domestic terrorism threat is reemerging — like the indictment of Kevin Harpham this month for allegedly planting an explosive device at a Martin Luther King Day rally in Washington State.

8. Talk about how terrorists plotted to attack President Obama’s inauguration and how that plot was broken up.

The huge crowds of inaugural-goers didn’t know that right up until the morning of the inauguration, the government had grave concerns about a terrorist attack on the event. There were several strings of intelligence that al-Shabaab, out of Somalia, was planning an attack. Agents were deployed around the world to chase it, a polygraph team debriefed an informant in Uganda, and suspects were run to ground in several countries. It all turned out to be false intelligence — something pretty common in counterterrorism circles these days: One group was hoping to leak fake information to the U.S. in the hopes that it would destroy a rival group. CT officials say they see it all the time — even family members pretending to inform on other family members to even scores.

9. Who are the top candidates to replace Mueller? Among them, who do you think would be the best?

There’s not really a top candidate to replace Mueller, actually. That’s one of the big rubs in the process right now. I think overall the Obama administration would prefer for Mueller to just stay, but that would take a special act of Congress. Instead, they’re looking around at a number of current and former top government officials with counterterrorism experience, all of whom come with significant drawbacks. I think a lot of people in the Justice Department feel the person who would do the best job and be the best for the Bureau would be Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, but he’s a political hot potato for his prosecutions of Scooter Libby and Rod Blagojevich.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so about what?

I’m noodling around on a number of ideas related to this general topic — the FBI, global crime, and national security. It’s an immensely important subject, poorly understood by the public and poorly covered by the media, and one that has endless great stories wrapped up in it.