Would John O’Neill Recognize Today’s FBI?

August 30, 2011

When the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, among the thousands killed was the one man who may have known more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than any other person in America: former FBI Agent John O’Neill.

As we show in The Man Who Knew (re-airing tonight, check your listings), in many ways, O’Neill was engaged in a double war: He spent six years trying to track down and prosecute Al Qaeda operatives while simultaneously trying to persuade the FBI bureaucracy to recognize the threat.

We asked Garrett Graff, author of the recently published modern history of the FBI The Threat Matrix: The FBI At War in the Age of Global Terror, to bring us up to speed on how the FBI has changed since 9/11.

Would John O’Neill recognize the FBI if he walked in the door today? What’s changed? What hasn’t?

Much of the FBI would still be recognizable to O’Neill — its DNA is still the same — but the bureau has been transformed from top to bottom.

On the morning of 9/12, President Bush gave Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller a clear order: “Never again.” Since that day, the bureau has been almost singularly focused on stopping the next terrorist attack; thousands of agents, analysts, and staff were reassigned to counterterrorism, exactly at John O’Neill had been arguing for years.

The prevention mission — summed up in a phrase you’ll often hear FBI folks say, “Prevent, disrupt, or mitigate” — is now the driving force behind much of what the FBI does, meaning that because of limited resources, the bureau has withdrawn from many of its traditional areas of investigations, like bank robberies, drugs, and white collar crime.

The amazing thing is that 10 years later, Robert Mueller is still the FBI director — he’s now the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself and the first to reach the end of the ten-year term instituted after Hoover. President Obama and the Congress gave him a special two-year extension so that he can serve through 2013.

What happened to the FBI’s New York office in the years after 9/11? In the book, you describe them as “radioactive.”

In the weeks and months after 9/11, the FBI writ large really turned its backs on the New York Al Qaeda squads, partly for bureaucratic reasons and partly, it seems, out of a misplaced sense of blame that the squad messed up and allowed the attacks to happen.

It was a mistake on the bureau’s part, in my opinion, to not fully utilize the incredible knowledge built up in those New York Al Qaeda squads after 9/11 as the FBI nationalized its response to Al Qaeda and transferred much of the focus of the counterterrorism program from New York to Washington. It was quite striking to me in my research how the agents and supervisors were sidelined after 9/11 and how, for the most part, they’ve remained on the sidelines since. Very few of them have risen into executive ranks, although that might now be changing. One of the former New York Al Qaeda agents, Aaron Zebley, was appointed the chief of staff to FBI director Robert Mueller this summer.

What happened to Thomas Pickard?

In one of the odd ironies of bureau life, Tom Pickard was, in a roundabout way, the man in charge of investigating John O’Neill’s death.

After Louis Freeh resigned unexpectedly in the summer of 2001, Pickard became acting director of the FBI until Mueller took over at the beginning of September. Pickard then stayed on as deputy director under Mueller and led the post-9/11 investigation that came to be known in the FBI as PENTTBOM (for Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing), leading twice daily conference calls with all 56 FBI national field offices. He also oversaw the anthrax investigation later in the fall of 2001. He retired from the FBI at the end of 2001, after nearly 27 years in the bureau. He now heads security for a pharmaceutical company in Manhattan.

Has the culture of the FBI changed significantly under Robert Mueller? Would a maverick like John O’Neill be as out of place in today’s FBI?

Truthfully, the bureau’s still not a great place for a maverick like John O’Neill. It’s still very bureaucratic and unforgiving of mavericks — and in some respects the FBI has actually become even more bureaucratic in the last decade as technology as allowed closer supervision of agents and investigations in the field and as the national focus on counterterrorism has meant that more and more decisions about investigations are made at FBI Headquarters and even, sometimes, at the White House. Some of that is necessary — counterterrorism matters are now taken very seriously throughout society as we know — but some of it is quite stifling for the agents working investigations on the street.

What do you think of Richard Clarke’s recent allegation that the CIA deliberately withheld information from the FBI about the two hijackers that were in the U.S. because it was trying to recruit them?

I talked to many FBI agents who do believe that we still haven’t heard the full story of the CIA’s knowledge of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. A decade after 9/11, the whole incident is still mysterious to me. I don’t think that bureaucratic rules — the typical excuse — fully explains the deliberate misinformation and obfuscation by the agency.

Does the FBI understand the nature of the radical Islamic terror threat better today than it did in 2001? Mother Jones recently published a piece suggesting that rather than busting terrorist plots, they are creating them.

This is a very complicated debate filled with a lot of gray. The short answer is that the FBI has amassed an incredible record in the decade since 9/11. In ten years, not a single U.S. civilian was killed in a domestic Al Qaeda attack. That’s impressive no matter how you look at it and reason for the FBI to be proud. Over that period, depending on how you count it, the bureau has unraveled around 40 serious terrorist plots of varying levels of danger. Again, depending on how you count it, only three or four of those plots were what were known as “core Al Qaeda” attacks, that is, planned with the direct knowledge and involvement of bin Laden’s leadership structure. Almost all of the rest involved at least some assistance from FBI informants.

It’s true that many of those plots wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did in the planning stage without the help of FBI informants, yet partly that approach is the result of lessons learned in the early plots after 9/11, where the FBI and prosecutors had a hard time proving that the suspects they were arresting actually intended to carry out their planned attacks, as opposed to the plots being just idle chatter or bravado. The FBI now often helps would-be terrorists carry out their attacks, providing fake explosives, missiles, or car bombs, in order to prove intent. The bureau’s response is it can’t take the chance of letting someone who has expressed a desire to hurt Americans stay on the street; once someone starts down that path, the bureau has to get them off the street and usually that means having informants help in the plot.

If there is a John O’Neill inside the FBI today, what is he worrying about? What is the biggest threat that’s not getting enough attention?

Although the FBI may never see a character as colorful and memorable as O’Neill again, I met a couple of agents in my three years of research who shared similar Cassandra-like traits, agents and analysts who are looking down the road at threats the bureau is poorly positioned to address.

The two biggest threats, which are closely linked, are cyberthreats and Russian organized crime. The whole world is driven by computers today and the ability of criminals, terrorists, and foreign governments to threaten that data and operations is a growing menace. In Russia, especially, you’re also seeing scary links between political figures and criminal organizations that, coupled with worrisome incidents like cyberattacks against the power grids in Estonia and the Republic of Georgia, make me think that the bureau’s threat for the next decade will be online and overseas.

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