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phil mudd

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After 20 years with the CIA, Phil Mudd joined the FBI in 2005 as deputy head of the Bureau's National Security Branch, tasked with transforming the FBI into a domestic intelligence agency, more like Britain's MI-5. In this interview, Mudd discusses his work at the FBI, progress to date, the FBI's new paradigm for preventing terrorism and the nature of the domestic terror threat. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 2, 2006.

... Are we safer today than on 9/11?

We're safer in some respects. ... If you look at all [the] aspects of an organization -- and Al Qaeda was and is an organization -- their ability to do those things has been radically disrupted: fund-raising, recruitment, training, operational planning. But in other respects, we still have a long way to go. We have a movement of people around the world who are now inspired by Al Qaeda ideology, so we have to worry about that in addition to the original group that conducted the attacks of Sept. 11.

The original group has been decimated?

I would say that advisedly -- and this is a key point, and it's hard to get across, ... but this is a committed group of people, and rarely a month or a week goes by without serious threat reporting that emanates from Al Qaeda and talks to their interest and, in some instances, their capability to reach into this country and the countries of our allies to hit us again. A very committed group of people. So hurt? Yes. Done? No.

Is there an Al Qaeda network here?

I think we would be foolish to assume that there are not people here who either act like Al Qaeda or who want to act like Al Qaeda, who see the world with the same vision Al Qaeda has. ... And again, it would be foolish for us to think they're not here. If you're thinking about Al Qaeda as an ideology, it would be foolish, looking at our investigations, to think they're not here.

Is there any evidence since 9/11 that a similar group is here and plotting?

Sure. We had people picked up, people like Iyman Faris or Majid Khan, people who are affiliated with Al Qaeda and who had connections to Al Qaeda. We still have occasionally seen Al Qaeda trying to insert people in this country. So even while we're looking increasingly at a movement of people that is disconnected from Al Qaeda, we still have core players who have some linkage to the core Al Qaeda leadership.

Here?

Including here in the United States. ...

... Who is the enemy?

Let me step through it. If you're looking for people who have some direct connection to a central Al Qaeda leadership, ... very few people like that [are] around. If you move further out from that center of Al Qaeda, ... you're talking about many people, I would say, some just kids who are going in the wrong direction, who have never met a real Al Qaeda member and who have never been at a camp, but they believe. ...

When I think about these problems, the things I think about are not always concerns about guns or bombs; they're concerns about ideas, and how ideas are being spread to people who have never touched an Al Qaeda member, but who believe. That's what I'm worried about, and that's why I'm not giving you as precise a definition. ...

... What you're worried about and what you're trying to do is prevent that ideology from motivating people to do anything.

I'd prefer not to do terrorism prosecutions. I'd prefer to bust [the] conspiracy so early that someone doesn't have access to a weapon.

I don't think the mission of the FBI is an ideological mission. Somebody else has to worry about ideas and how to prevent those ideas from spreading around the world -- the idea of violence to further a political end. I worry about people who are going to commit a crime and what to do about them. Ideology is key, because that's what inspires them, but it's not my job to stop people reading stuff on the Internet. ...

... Should I be worried?

When I talk to my family and I talk to my friends, I tell them not to worry. We have a wonderful country here. I've traveled everywhere on this planet, and this is a wonderful place as a result of freedom and liberty, the natural resources we have, the beauty we have in this country. But I also tell them I spend every day looking at information that says that people are still trying to come after this country and that there are people inside this country who want to commit acts of violence as a result of an ideology that inspired [the] 19 hijackers. I wouldn't worry about it. That's our mission, to deal with that kind of problem. But to suggest to people seriously that that doesn't exist here I would say would be incorrect.

The director of the FBI [Robert Mueller] includes many groups as terrorists. Is the real threat Islamic radicals?

Having been at the bureau now for getting on a year, I think you could see gradations of threat, places where we spend more resources or fewer. But to say black and white that Al Qaeda is a threat and someone like a white supremacist is not ... -- I can tell you ... that they don't reach the level in terms of threat to this country as we see from other organizations, but I can't tell you they don't pose a threat. Oklahoma City showed they did.

[9/11 Commissioner] Tom Kean said what they [the 9/11 Commission] were concerned with was organized groups of Islamic extremists.

I agree with part of this: The lion's share of our resources is and should be focused on the biggest threat. The biggest threat are cells of people who have a similar ideology, might have access to special weapons, certainly are inspired in the way those hijackers were inspired. ... But at the same time, if you look at people who are destroying property and threatening federal buildings, as McVeigh did in the past, who [are] you going to call? Somebody's got to do that work, because a lot of those crimes, a lot of those organizations, are a federal problem. ...

We have a focus on the Muslim community, not on McVeigh's ethnic group.

I'm not sure I would make a distinction the same way you do. ... When you talk about focus on ecoterrorists and white supremacists, it's a different kettle of fish. But white supremacists, I'm looking at a pool of people who believe in racial holy war, a pool of people who often come from skinhead backgrounds, who group together. So I do believe there are ways to look at them, ways to categorize them, that are significant. ...

... Am I correct in understanding that over the last two to three years, we have not discovered an operational Al Qaeda cell or related Al Qaeda group here in the United States plotting a mass attack in any form? ...

What we've found is Al Qaeda leadership who were trying to develop a mass-attack capability they could insert in this country. In some cases they made disturbing progress. Some of these people, especially overseas, are still around, and they're still intent on reaching here. ...

If you couple the kinds of problems we have in this country with extremists who think about violence with what's happened in other countries -- Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Indonesia, the Philippines -- you've seen in the past four years a pace of attacks by people who are affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaeda that is steady and a number of casualties that is high. I can't sit there in that world and say that we're a long way toward succeeding against the movement of people inspired by Al Qaeda.

I know you don't want to comment on specific cases, but ... are the public cases that we've seen in the last year ... a good indication of what you're talking about?

I think not. ... They're not in the context of looking at people who weren't taken down and might be the subjects of continuing investigations, who are part of that network of individuals. ...

... Can you talk about the difficulties of turning the FBI from a law enforcement agency to the domestic intelligence agency?

I don't really think about the mission in those terms. Let me give you a quick sense of the mission. I see this [as] about complementing some classic and traditional FBI capabilities -- and that is how to investigate a problem -- complementing those with a different look at how we hunt unknowns. ... So to me, the two elements -- hunting the unknown and then investigating the known -- are interlinked.

But you're dealing with an established organization.

Yes, but we've collected [intelligence] as well. Let me give you an example: People don't talk about Cosa Nostra as much as we used to. It still exists, but it was crippled. It was crippled not only because we had successful investigations and prosecutions, but because people painted a picture of an organization, in this case the Cosa Nostra, and went after the leadership.

I think people make intelligence look like it comes out of a black box. Intelligence is about understanding things you don't know about now, chasing the unknown and painting it into a clear picture so that when you go ahead and apply an investigative tool, you know about the enemy you're applying against. We've done that with things like the Cosa Nostra.

But they also made cases, and cases were the major product. And there are a lot of agents that don't really understand collection.

Correct. They do understand informants, and what I want to [do] is develop people who are hunting informants, maybe sometimes for a different purpose. ... I don't want to collect for collection's sake, for the sake of the art of intelligence. I want to collect to understand the terrorist adversary and take them out. People applaud disruption. When we collect in the FBI and then prosecute someone, people call us a law enforcement agency that can't do intelligence. I don't see this as fundamentally different. An investigation and a prosecution, in my old world, was called a disruption.

And you don't see any problems?

No, I see a lot of problems. The big problems I see are not ones that the media talks about -- for example, culture and the changing of the way people want to turn. I see problems in training. It's a large organization; we're not replacing our investigative responsibilities; we're adding to them. I see problems of resources, how we pay for technology. Those are the big problems I see. When you're talking about 56 field offices, 400-plus regional agencies, a dispersed organization in 50 states and 40-plus elements overseas, that's a daunting prospect. That's what I get paid to do. ...

... The priority has changed from prosecution to prevention.

Both. Part of prevention is prosecution. I'd prefer not to do counterterrorism or terrorism prosecutions. I'd prefer to bust [the] conspiracy so early that someone doesn't have access to a weapon. I sometimes see people criticize us for having counterterrorism cases that result in relatively modest criminal prosecutions. I look at that and applaud it. That means we prevent it before it reached a level where it's a headline-type counterterrorism prosecution. ...

... There is a criticism that the FBI is still operating in a risk-averse way. You're taking people off the street but not watching them to see what happens for fear of blame.

I sit in on case briefs a couple times a day; that's not what I see. ... What I find us doing is watching not to always see how the conspiracy develops -- that's one of the things we do -- but to see what that web of people looks like. ... When we see a network that's no longer evolving, when we see players pop up in that network, [and] we've seen them 57 times before, at that point you step back and you say, "All right, it's time to go to prosecution, ... because there's not that much more to learn." ...

... The FBI is still ... investigating every lead, right, every tip, every complaint, every suggestion?

Thousands and tens of thousands of threats. Call-ins, write-ins, all the way up to leads we get from the central Al Qaeda organization.

Does that make sense? It appears that there really isn't triage going on in terms of those leads. Every lead has to be covered, as I understand you?

There is triage, and I suspect that triage will increase over time, but the coverage one gives to what I would call a high-end threat ... compared to someone who calls in and says, "I have a nuclear device under my bed" -- now we may resolve both of those threats, but the resources and coverage it both takes to resolve is apples and oranges. ...

... Here's a quote from [author of Flawed by Design] Amy Zegart: "The four key ingredients for counterterrorism success -- agents, analysts, managers, computers -- the FBI is struggling to get the basics right on all of them." True?

I don't think that's true.

How is your computer system? ...

... When people criticize the bureau and its information technology, they typically focus on a case management system and making that more digital. It used to be called Virtual Case File; now it's called Sentinel. ... I'm interested in data access. How do we access bits of data across the community? I'd say we're pretty good. We have a ways to go, but that's different than how we've evolved or not evolved on case management. ...

So the computers are adequate?

No. I think that, especially compared to the intelligence community -- which, by the way, has a lot more money than I do -- I think we have a ways to go on computers. But I do think that people don't fully understand how far we've gone in some areas, and how much the criticism has focused on only one slice of the puzzle.

Analysts -- the critiques that have come out about the use of analysts, the abuse of analysts in the FBI, those are not press reports; those are internal reports.

Yeah, and I'll give you the ups and downs of that as well. I managed analysts; I was an analyst for 20 years at CIA. The talent we're recruiting now is as good as any. The training we give them I think needs to improve.

The status [of analysts] in the organization?

Status is pretty good. I don't think it's where it should be, but I don't think it's where it was four years ago either. We have 2,000 analysts in this organization; we had 1,000-plus around Sept. 11. ... With that kind of volume, we're changing very quickly. It ain't going to be perfect. By the way, I'm an analyst. I get access to the director any time I want. ...

... Since 9/11, there have been half a dozen heads of the Counterterrorism Division at the FBI. ... How can you maintain and expand a new program and have the leadership changing at least every 10 or 11 months?

... First of all, I'm not going anywhere; and second, I think the direction is fairly well set. The last thing I'll say on this is a lot of the people who left had 25, 30, 35 years of service. They're going to opportunities to pay for kids' educations, to have a life they couldn't have before. How much time do they need to serve before someone says it's OK? I bristle a bit because these people -- including one of my recent bosses, who left after 29 years -- how much time do they have to serve?

Then why are they put in those positions? Why don't they have people who are going to stay longer? ...

It does, and I think there is a bit of that, although less than people think. ... I'm not saying that the kind of turnover that you're talking about is a good thing. I'm saying it's more complicated than it looks. These are folks who have a lot of opportunities. ...

... One of the things everyone seems to agree on is that information sharing has improved because of something called the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC]. What is it, and what makes it so valuable?

The National Counterterrorism Center is a place where people from many agencies -- ... DIA, CIA, the National Security Agency [NSA], FBI -- come together physically. ... Reports from FBI investigations and reports from CIA clandestine sources [are] all coming into one place, putting that information together so that when we, for example, get a threat against an airline, there's a consolidated picture developed by people from different agencies and data from different agencies, and we have one voice that says, "That's what this threat looks like." ...

So this is unprecedented.

In some respects unprecedented, yes. ... The scale, the breadth, the amount of information and numbers of people that NCTC is pulling together is unprecedented. ...

How does the NSB [National Security Branch] fit in the intelligence community, in the federal structure? ... Isn't there some confusion among local authorities about whether the FBI and NSB is in charge or the [Department of Homeland Security] is in charge?

... On the edges, you're going to find questions continue in very large organizations, in a very large federal government, about how to prosecute this mission. But at its core, when I look at defense, I look at Homeland Security; when I look at offense, I look at the FBI. ...

... What's the role of local police in this counterterrorism war in the United States?

The role couldn't be more critical. In the past few years, we've gone from 30-plus JTTF, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, to 100-plus. All those include things like immigrations and customs and force at the federal level down to local and county sheriffs and police. If we're looking for things [that are] unknown, ... the more eyes and ears the better. ...

... If they just stop somebody on the street, if you stop me on the street, and I have this warrant out for me, it will be in their computer?

Correct.

If you stop me on the street and I happen to be on a watch list, for instance, it's not in the computer.

It's not quite that clean. This is an educational issue; it's not a data issue. There is a database of known and suspected [terrorists], including many overseas. ... There is a place [local police] can call and say, "Is this person, despite the fact that there's not a warrant out for them, is this person someone I should know about?" ...

... OK. And the other side of the coin is once you get people on these watch lists, many of them, as you know, get stopped repeatedly, and it turns out they just have the same name, and it's very hard to get your name off that list.

That's correct. My answer to that is we have tens, hundreds of thousands, millions of bits of data that contain names, from technical information, human information, media information. There's an army of people who sort through that data and make very quick considerations. ...

The question I'd have is, ... do you want to say you need a relatively modest level of certainty that this person is bad, or do you want to say you want a very high level of certainty to pull them out of a line when they're getting on an aircraft and look in their luggage? ...

... You are the professional; you tell me what's the most effective way of doing things: Pulling people out of line and spending a lot of resources doing that, or targeting the list and making it much more reliable?

... I think the systems and the way we do this is more efficient and smarter than it used to be, and I suspect over time we'll get better at avoiding having multiple people stopped who never did anything wrong. But I would argue at the outset, going back two or three years ago, that it was the right thing to do to say, "As we perfect this, we'd better put a pretty serious lens on who's coming in here." ...

Everybody we talked to says information sharing through JTTFs and elsewhere has gotten a lot better.

Yeah, there's too much information.

Exactly. ... It results in hoaxes, tunnels being shut down, cities going into emergency situations. What can we do about that?

... Since we started doing this years ago, after Sept. 11, ... my sense is that people on the federal side and on the state and local side, their ability to look at stuff -- hoaxes, write-ins, call-ins -- and sort out the wheat from the chaff has changed somewhere between significantly and dramatically in the past few years. ... So there's still a lot going out there, but I think our reactions have changed over time.

Well, it was the hot-potato problem: Nobody wants to be found guilty, if you will, of holding on to information that turns out to be real, so just pass it on.

I don't quite see it that way. I see stuff all the time I don't react to. One of these days I'm going to be in front of a congressional committee or in front of the media and have my head handed to me; that's the way of the world. ...

How do you react to [John Brennan, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center] ... who says that the effort that's been made by the U.S. government, particularly internally, has been ad hoc. That there is no architecture, no overall plan, no overall strategy?

Well, I can't entirely buy that. We started out five years ago against an adversary that was specific in [that they] conducted attacks. ... We had a mission, and through good orchestration, that mission -- if we looked at what happened to Al Qaeda and what happened to the safe haven in Afghanistan, we would say on Sept. 12, four and a half years ago, "I'll take that." ...

But many people would agree with you on Afghanistan. Some people would say to you, however, you have Iraq, which has inspired more people, ... and that may be creating another wave of people who will try to come here.

Mm-hmm. If you look at what happened to Afghanistan 15 years ago -- and the people who went home to places like Algeria and to Egypt -- you can't help but look at extremists in Iraq and wonder what happens when they go home to places like Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Western Europe, maybe to this country.

At the same time, ... it's not like Iraq exists in isolation. There's a group of people who have been moving together now for decades who were inspired by Chechnya, by Kashmir, by Afghanistan, who may now be inspired by Iraq. But it doesn't stand in isolation. ...

... Is this war on terror that the FBI is involved in, is there an end to it?

In my mind, there's not an end in sight.

So there's no long-term plan to reduce it to a certain level, because, as many people say, we may have won every battle so far after 9/11, but eventually we're going to lose one.

I think that's a fair statement. When you're dealing with this many people on this many continents who are this committed, one day they're going to get us.

So does our long-term plan include possibly educating the public to understand that?

Well, I'm not certain that's an FBI plan. That's really more in the purview of overseas the Department of State, and domestically the White House and others. That's not really my bailiwick. ...

I do see a broad shift toward saying, "How do we educate people for the long-term?" ... We've been successful against the group of people who committed the attacks of Sept. 11 and against plotters in this country. ...

You know, I've got eight nieces and nephews. When I first took the job at FBI, the first thing a friend of mine told me is, "How are you going to protect my children?" I can't tell that person we've been successful. That's not my world.

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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