The FBI and CIA share the same mission of preventing and stopping terrorism but picked different paths after 9/11. The FBI wouldn’t participate in the “ghost planes” and enhanced interrogation techniques that the CIA and Department of Defense were doing. They remained focused on bringing people back to stand trial.
The FBI believes that the U.S. criminal justice system is capable of much more than the CIA and DOD typically believe it to be, which has been a constant tension in the last decade.
The two agencies fundamentally disagree on the use of enhanced interrogations. The bureau doesn’t believe those kinds of interrogations work and sees the techniques as counterproductive and ineffective.
How can two federal agencies have such fundamentally different world-views?
Generations of institutional DNA have shaped both of these positions. But you’re absolutely correct: They are diametrically opposite views, and that’s strange. Both views can’t be right.
From your reporting, have you come to side with one agency’s method over the other’s?
I was obviously coming at this more from a FBI standpoint, although I did speak with military and CIA officials on this issue. The bureau can point to a lot of examples where its own techniques were effective.
On the other side, I have never heard of a specific example where enhanced interrogation led to stopping an unfolding terror plot. The traditional excuse is that there have been successes that “we cannot talk about.” But I, as a reporter, am dubious of such blanket statements or anytime a public official says something works but can’t say why.
Talk about the name of your book, “The Threat Matrix.”
It comes from the name of a document that came into existence after 9/11. The federal government everyday would compile this “threat matrix,” a 12- to 20-page intelligence spreadsheet of unfolding terror plots and terrorists’ whereabouts — any information dealing with terrorist threats flowing into the nation over the course of a 24-hour period.
It was a daily catalogue of the worst-case scenarios that the FBI and CIA directors would review with President [George W.] Bush every morning in the Oval Office between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.
Why was it so important?
Understanding the “threat matrix” is key to understanding the nation’s response to 9/11 because this document profoundly influenced the thinking of our leaders. People were concerned about what the next wave of attacks would be.
There’s a chapter in the book that is completely about this document, which was filled with really bad information — inaccurate information. A lot of these plots were a result of a bad game of telephone.
Evan Thomas, then of Newsweek, broke a famous example that occurred a month after 9/11. There was a report in the document that a nuclear weapon was onboard a train heading to Pittsburgh. It caused a big spin-up, but the report was traced back to a misheard conversation in a Ukrainian bathroom.
It became President Bush’s dark joke during these meetings. He would ask, “Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?”