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Graff’s Book Paints History of FBI

There’s a reason an Atlanta-based women’s book club — which traditionally alternates between chick lit and nonfiction — grabbed Garrett Graff’s newest 600-page book, “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror” for a summer read.

There are no bulletproof vest-ripping, undercover-cop love scenes, but it’s a thriller nonetheless.

Graff, editor of Washingtonian magazine, talked with Roll Call about his book, which was published just months before Congress approved the two-year extension of FBI Director Robert Mueller’s 10-year term.

Tell us about your book.

The book began as a portrait of Mueller’s tenure. It ended up more broadly tracing the history of the FBI’s counterterrorism program from the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attacks to the attempted Times Square car bombing of last year.

The book focuses on the sheer global reach of the FBI today and its transformation over the past decades from a domestic law enforcement agency to an international intelligence and counterterrorism agency.

The bureau today operates in about 80 countries overseas and has hundreds of agents deployed to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Latin and South America and Europe. The bureau even worked a case from Antarctica.

When most folks think about counterterrorism, their minds often go the CIA or military. How important has the FBI been in the war on terror?

The FBI is and always has been the lead domestic counterterrorism agency. As the threat of international terrorism has grown, the FBI has been forced to expand internationally. So beginning in the 1970s and then accelerating with the bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, the FBI has been right there in the center of the war on terror — years before the rest of the nation paid attention.

Do most people know that the FBI leads counterterrorism?

It depends on whom you talk with. Some people’s ideas of a domestic FBI that chases down bank robbers is pretty outdated.

The breakdown traditionally has been this: The CIA has everything international, and the FBI has everything domestic. But what started out as a black-and-white division between the two has grayed as technology and threats advanced and blurred those boundaries

So is there even a difference between the CIA and FBI anymore?

There are much fewer distinctions between their territories, but the two agencies’ divisions of labor have to do with their functions. The FBI is very focused on law-enforcement: prosecuting and trying suspects in a way the CIA is not.

I talk about this in the book, too. In the decade since 9/11, the U.S. has perfected two major weapons in the war on terror: Hellfires and handcuffs. If we can find the terrorist but can’t actually get our hands on him, the CIA comes in with a Predator drone and attempts to kill the suspect with a Hellfire missile. But if we can get our hands on him, then we put him in handcuffs and bring him to the States to stand trial. That’s the FBI’s method.

How do those two methods influence how the agencies view civil liberties?

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