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art cummings

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Art Cummings is special agent in charge of counterterrorism and intelligence for the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office and previously was deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. In this interview, Cummings discusses the "completely different approach" the FBI is taking in its new terror prevention mission; his work and regular contacts with the Muslim community; and the nature the terror threat inside the United States. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 5, 2006.

… One of the things we're looking at is the incident … where a coyote, or people smuggler, threw over the wall near Calexico, Calif., some pictures of some Chinese individuals, alleging that they were headed for Boston with a dirty bomb. What was your reaction when you heard this at the NCTC? … What was the judgment?

The judgment was that this may be Al Qaeda leveraging alien-smuggling operations of some sort from the southern border, to come into the United States to do something.

Credible?

Don't know. We couldn't make a credible judgment until we answered all the other questions. Is it credible that they would possibly do that? The community isn't all on one page on that. I'm certainly not. You don't need to use alien-smuggling operations to get some people into the United States, I don't believe; there are other ways. …

But in this specific instance, the information got to Boston, and it was during the inauguration of the president. …

Right. And … until we can answer those questions, we work the issue. … There's a new paradigm. The old paradigm was, we have no information in our records to show that they're engaged in terrorism. The new paradigm is, we have [no] information to show they're not engaged in terrorism. That is a significant paradigm shift. You basically investigate it and collect against it until you can make a deliberate and informed judgment that they are not involved in terrorism. …

You take it as a real threat until you can --

We don't necessarily believe it. Working it from the bureau's standpoint and from NCTC, it doesn't mean that we're taking it as a given. It means we're treating it as a possibility until we have information that allows us to dismiss it. When you talk about risk management in the intelligence community and in the counterterrorism community worldwide, there are … two models. … One is labor-intensive and much more certain, and one is not as labor-intensive and certainly not at all conclusive. … You're hoping you're right, and we don't have that luxury anymore.

… You're obviously using, in many cases, techniques of collection that you can't make public. Doesn't that cause you problems when you do arrest somebody?

It could, but it's not particularly relevant. … Criminal prosecution in the collection of evidence is incidental to the prevention mission. It is not the objective; it is not the mission. The mission is prevention. And once I identify someone that I believe to be involved in terrorism, that person is but a means for me to collect against the possible operation. …

What do you mean by that?

There is no information to show there is [an Al Qaeda cell in the U.S.] ... The better language would be, 'We know of no Al Qaeda network in the United States.'

… Criminal evidence collection will not happen at the expense of intelligence. Let me give you an example. You go overseas, and there's somebody who plans to conduct an act of terrorism in the United States, and they've gone so far as to actually define it; they're actually planning something. Just the fact that they're planning a terrorist attack against the United States is a violation of federal law. …

What I want is what's in the knowledge that's in their head, not evidence. If we can collect it, we'll collect it, but if collecting it comes at the expense of my understanding of what they have in their head about a terrorism operation, then we're not going to preserve the evidence, … and we'll live with what we have to live with at the end of the day.

That is a completely different approach, and we have [had] experience [with] that plenty of times with our agency counterparts and with our foreign intelligence service counterparts. Here in the United States, the discussion goes on. …

… You made a speech at some convention here in D.C. in early May … You said, "We only prosecute when someone won't play ball with us." What do you mean?

Let me put that in the right context. In a prevention mission, three things happen all at the same time: We have to collect intelligence; we have to understand the nature and the scope of the activities absolutely; we have to know everything this person is involved in if we suspect them in supporting or being part of a terrorist operation -- friends, associates. The reason we do that is we need to find a way of defining the nature of the network. Who else is there? Rarely is it one guy by himself. …

At the same time we're looking at source potential. Many have said the success of the United States government in counterterrorism revolves around our ability to recruit human assets, human sources. … If they're good enough to be a terrorist subject of an investigation, they're absolutely good enough to be considered as a human asset, potential human asset.

So we basically have to deliberately assess as we move forward, could they be a source? … If they have critical access or critical information -- and not many do, frankly, but if they do -- and the delivered assessment is this guy on our side would be a whole lot better for us than in jail, then we're going to pull him onto our side.

One of your field agents said to us, when we were talking to him about prosecution versus prevention -- and this is somebody involved in counterterrorism: "They don't expect us to prevent murder, but they're asking us to do the impossible: prevent terrorism." …

Stopping [every] attack is not realistic. Trying to stop every attack absolutely is the objective. There's not an acceptable attack; we're not going to live in a world where we say, "No, it's OK if they only kill six people in this attack." … So we will do everything we can, and we will succeed a large number of times. We won't win every one.

[Is the FBI] still covering every tip that comes into the Washington field office, … every time somebody takes a picture in the metro and a phone call comes in?

No. We recognize that this is a tourist destination. It's the seat of government. … It's not the picture of the White House or the picture of the Washington Monument; it's the picture of the underside of the bridge. Have we ever found any of them that are planning a terrorist attack based on that? No. … I need to make an informed judgment that that activity was not in support of a terrorist attack. … You've got to be much more than pretty sure. …

… Agents have said this is a waste of their time.

Again, the standard is to do whatever they need to do, … be it just some quick inquiries and a quick interview or more to make the deliberate judgment that this person is not involved. And I will tell you -- I'm not going to get into what acts and what governments -- but post-9/11, [there] have been acts of terrorism where risk management has been employed early on and where individuals known to the governments later on committed acts of terrorism and killed their citizens. Am I tolerant of that? I'm not. I'm absolutely not. …

… When we looked at the [Lodi] case, … it appeared that the two actual people of interest were the two imams, … but they were never charged, and then they were deported. What's the point of deporting them back out there to Pakistan if they're dangerous, and dangerous here?

There's a difference between -- and we've covered it -- collecting evidence and collecting intelligence. Sometimes the intelligence doesn't rise to the level of evidence. Sometimes the intelligence that you have won't make it to court because it doesn't rise to the level of probable cause. … The standard for evidence is one that is very difficult to meet in international circumstances. We have to produce these people in a court of law, or the evidence that goes with them, if we're going to prosecute. Many times, that's a non-starter.

… The basic statements by the prosecution during the trial were that they didn't have any investigation to show that there was a camp that the defendant actually attended, … but news media people, ourselves included, went to look for this camp and can't find it.

And you're not going to. First of all, … if there's a terrorist training camp somewhere in the world, that's not a place I'd want to be sitting. … We don't support terrorist training camps anywhere in the world, and most of the governments that are on our side don't support those. So you have a major political issue on the one hand, and on the other hand, if it's revealed that there's a terrorist training camp, it's not a terrorist training camp anymore; they won't stay there forever.

But when the [special agent in charge] in the case at the beginning, at the time of the arrest, said, "This is Al Qaeda in Lodi, Calif.," … it looked like we were overhyping the case, creating fear -- that one-day, big-headline case, and then here's what we see at the end.

Yeah, but that type of presence shouldn't be seen as overhype. That type of presence should be seen as dangerous, as a problem. We have a pretty high level of confidence, since we took it to it court, that this individual actually did go and attend a terrorist training. That's where my discussion should stop.

But is that Al Qaeda?

It's Al Qaeda in the broader sense, … the broader movement, the broader sympathetic global jihadi movement inspired by Al Qaeda, yes. …

… So when you think these thoughts that are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden or his stated goals and means, is that illegal?

When you think them? No, it's never illegal.

When you say them, is that illegal?

No, it's not. [The] First Amendment is alive and well. … You can say it all day and night. … You cannot facilitate somebody to take an overt act. …

… Is it possible that … that the agents involved who were handling the informant were really not that experienced, and that it's a problem in the FBI these days, because you have a lot of agents who have six or eight years of experience? You don't have the same kind of veteran group that you've had for many years.

Right. Well, we have the same veteran group; we just have a bigger group and more operations, so the percentages go down precipitously. … The average time as a special agent has gone down because we've hired a lot and we've increased, and there [have] been significant retirements as well. So the answer is yes, by definition, the experience level of those agents working counterterrorism has got to be down, or very, very low, compared to what it was. …

Has it affected you that there have been six different heads of the counterterrorism division since 9/11?

It hasn't affected me, because I've always been in a position of pretty good responsibility on counterterrorism operations. …

… But the change of the boss brings in new deputies, brings in new perspective, new philosophy. It's got to affect operations. It's got to affect functioning out in the field, along with a large group of people with, as you described it, minimal experience in a complicated area.

The people running counterterrorism operations day to day, … I don't think that's changed that much. I don't think we've had huge changes in those. …

… How come the FBI only has eight Muslim agents out of 12,000? You had six three years ago.

Well, it's not for lack of trying. It's not for lack of recruiting.

Language is still a problem.

I don't know. Language is always a problem. Language is a problem across the board. … But in terms of recruiting of agents, we recently welcomed 18 new agents in the Washington field [office], a complete different picture of FBI agents than when I came. … Exactly half were female, and four or five out of 18 were born in foreign countries.

So it's getting better?

That was pretty obvious to me [when] I saw that. We were very surprised. Yeah, it's getting better. It doesn't mean the bureau's not trying.

How are your computers doing?

… My computers are fine. Everything can always be better. I can do my job. Could I do it better? Sure, I could do it better. Am I doing it? Yeah, I'm doing it. …

… What was your reaction when you heard the new computer system wasn't going to work?

Editor's Note: The FBI spent $170 million in a project called Virtual Case File, meant to allow agents to share case files electronically. The project was tested and then shelved. The FBI is currently trying again with an entirely new program called Sentinel.

My reaction was, if I ask somebody to build me a car, why did they build me a boat if they were supposed to be carmakers? That was my reaction. … I'm really having a tough time understanding how that's possible. …

… [Director of National Intelligence John] Negroponte, in his threat assessment last February [2006], said that the threat domestically that he reported on was a network of people who were in the Central Valley in California, referring to the Lodi case, and then he said "prison gangs," which I assume was referring to the Los Angeles JIS [Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh] case. Is that what you mean by the domestic enemy?

It is. It is those types. It is Lackawanna [N.Y.]. It is [the seven individuals arrested in] Portland, [Ore.]. It is the Northern Virginia [Virginia Jihad] group -- we're finishing up a prosecution today on that one. It is the Northern California and the Southern California threats. It is a number of other individual threats that didn't get the press that some of those do, but are just individuals who are sympathizers who … cross that line. …

There is a difference between jihadi bravado, which is just talking about it, … and actually taking a step that jeopardizes your personal freedom. Psychologically, that is a huge, huge step. We're dealing with someone who now is probably willing to actually kill Americans. That is a big deal. …

[9/11 Commissioner] Tom Kean says focusing on these domestic cases distracts from the real threat.

Well, I agree with him in one sense, that the top priority is to do everything we can to keep Al Qaeda from mounting another 9/11-type attack or an attack that involves WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. … But the facts of what Al Qaeda is able to mount and able to do speak for themselves. What they are doing post-9/11 are not 9/11; they're not WMD attacks. They are conventional terrorist attacks that are killing hundreds of people around the world. That's a fact. We have to do both.

But is a group of three people holding up gas stations [as in the JIS case] in the same category as Al Qaeda?

You should put it into a category of a terrorist cell, and I don't think, once you put it in [the] category of a terrorist cell, that it matters any longer which group you put it in. It's terrorism. It's people trying to kill you because of what you think and because of what you are. …

... When the critics say the cases you're making are low level, are we seeing the tip of the iceberg?

Yeah, it's the tip of a -- I don't know how big the iceberg is. We have, if you look at 9/11 until today, a continual flow of jihadist-type, homegrown organizations in the United States, driven by extremist Islam, … [that have] organized among themselves and crossed that line that I'm talking about. …

… [There was an] FBI analysis that [said] there was no Al Qaeda sleeper cell in the U.S. True?

There is no information to show there is one. … The better language would be "we know of no Al Qaeda network in the United States." That's not a semantics issue, and that's not a little issue. Could there be? There could be. They would have to really overcome a lot of countermeasures that have been employed in the United States to get here and operate the way the 9/11 group did. …

… Has anyone ever been arrested for putting a nerve agent or conspiring to put a nerve agent in a subway system? …

No, there hasn't. There are a number of reasons for that that are logical. It's easier to do conventional attacks.

Has anyone been identified trying to bring fissile material into the U.S., or trying to assemble a weapon?

Well, you'd have to have the material here in the United States to do that. No. It's so difficult.

You can see why some people say maybe we have overreacted.

I don't think so. I can't see that. Maybe I'm biased. Maybe I've been doing this too long. I do not understand that perspective at all. … Since Sept. 11, had there not been a Lackawanna, a Portland, a Northern Virginia, Southern California, Northern California, … many others, had those not happened, then you have a great argument. Those are people that are organizing and taking action to move in the direction of murdering Americans simply because of what they think and [what] government policies are. …

[The] thought-police idea, that the FBI is hunting for people who think a certain way, you know how people are concerned about that, and the Muslim community, particularly in the United States, is very concerned.

They are. They are. I work with the community here in Washington, D.C., and we have a large group that -- … we don't look at someone and go, "Well, you're part of the Middle Eastern community; therefore --" … We're paid to do something otherwise, to uphold the Constitution. People take that lightly. I know it sounds a bit trite when we say that. It shouldn't be seen as trite. The Constitution is the basis by which we do our job.

But does that lose public credibility when the public learns about eavesdropping programs, etc.?

… What the public hears is the outcry that people have been collected against without warrants, and that's against the Constitution. There's an entire Department of Justice who disagrees with that characterization, which is not as loud an outcry. They agree there's a constitutional basis that allows that to happen.

The Muslim community already feels vulnerable, and then they hear this. It would be harder for you to recruit sympathizers, as a result, in those communities.

It is harder, and I receive the phone calls and have the contacts with the community that feels that way. … I have coffee with them, and we speak all the time. Here's what I ask them: It may be an unreasonable request, but I ask them to reserve their judgment on whether or not we did the right thing or didn't do the right thing, and if we didn't do the right thing, someone's going to get punished for that. …

I know one case where we had the wrong guy, but the facts add up that took us in that direction, and it was reasonable to go in that direction. None of it is done with malice; none of it is done with bias. It's plainly and simply [that] we have a lead or information that this person somehow supports terrorism or has information that would help us get a better understanding on people who support terrorism. It's tough. …

And yes, the FBI has … gotten beaten up, and we'll take that, but we'll also say, please reserve your judgment until the facts are the facts, not the story.

Is there an end to this counterterrorism war? Is "war" the right term?

Well, it's the president's term, so I imagine it's the right term, the war on terrorism.

As long as he says it is?

Well, it's a war, but it depends on how you employ it and how you take it.

What is victory? We've had five years with no attacks.

Victory is when you basically take an international problem, and you begin to basically put pressure on it on all sides and shrink it down … so it's now a local problem, not an international problem, and then you can attack it from a local standpoint. Today it's an international problem; it will be an international problem for some time to come. Victory will be when they can only function in certain areas of the world. …

Realistic? With a globalized world?

I don't know how realistic it is. … The one thing about the United States, the one thing that we have going for us, … are the laws. We have the best counterterrorism laws on the books in the world, or pretty darn close to it. You can think what you want to think; you can speak what you want to speak. Take action one time to pursue that, and you just violated a federal law.

It's not true around the world. … To the extent that the international community … decides to actually boost up their counterterrorism legislation and have laws that are like ours, that are consistent, that are this strong, then we begin to localize the problem, and we basically limit their sphere of influence, limit their area of operation. When we do that, we're well on our way. …

… Some of your colleagues and some people actually at the NCTC have said that it would be very helpful to them if the American public understood that even if we won 1,000 battles since 9/11, we're going to lose one. …

Look at the way we reacted to Sept. 11: When we looked at it retrospectively, we were looking for … a single point of failure; we were looking for someone to blame. … I remember some of the hearings when it was, "Who did you fire about this?"

I've worked with our Israeli and our U.K. counterparts, and a number of them extensively on counterterrorism, and they take a very mature look at the problem as a collective failure. … I don't think the American government … has actually accepted that it is a collective failure that leads to operations like 9/11 -- not a single point of failure. I will say the 9/11 Commission Report seems to come to that conclusion, and they're trying to build some structures that will help with keeping this collective failure from happening again. But that's a government issue. …

How long can you keep going without a long-term plan? … Overlapping authorities, computer systems that don't interrelate, all of the problems, no long-term goal or strategy.

Well, the long-term strategy is supposed to be being worked [out] by the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and the NCTC if we're sticking to the mission of counterterrorism, and they're making progress.

You're waiting?

Yeah, we're going to have to wait. You're building a huge capability that didn't exist. I mean, we talk about it [at] the bureau all the time: You're trying to build this capability and address the problem at the same time. No one put the counterterrorism mission aside and said: "You know what? We're not going to work counterterrorism or operations while we reorganize this." …

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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