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 Some people’s ideas of a domestic FBI that chases down bank robbers is pretty outdated.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?
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?”
Who should read your book?
It’s a book aimed at anyone interested in how we got to where we are in the war on terror. It also tells an amazing thriller story about agents putting together amazing cases against the Italian mafia in the 1980s, the Libyan bombers of Pan Am 103 and the early years chasing al-Qaida.
Last question: What are your thoughts on the recent Congressional extension of Mueller’s term?
A big part of the book is on Bob Mueller. He is probably the most essential person in the war on terror. This is someone who started his term as FBI director on Sept 4, 2001. And as I explain in the book, he was literally sitting in his first briefing on al-Qaida at 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
He’s still in office. He’s outlasted four CIA directors, four attorneys general and is working with a second president. He’s the first FBI director to reach the end of the 10 year term, which has now been unprecedentedly extended for two years in recognition of just how critical he has become to the war on terror.
I had heard that this extension was on the table in the beginning of last June, but I don’t think anyone seriously thought it would happen.
The thing that’s interesting about Mueller from a Washington perspective is there are people who disagree with his decisions and some programs he’s implemented, but I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t respect him for his nonpartisanship and work ethic.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.