Understand the organization. Understand it by getting in inside it, which are the techniques of intelligence ... to get inside it secretly, so they don't know you are there, so you can gauge how serious the danger to our core interests are. ...
What are those things a policymaker absolutely needs to know that the policymaker can't get any other way? You are not going to necessarily get that, unless you are very lucky, through a law enforcement chain. I would submit the only way you are likely to get it is to penetrate those organizations. Get into their secret councils. Find out what they intend to do to us.
Look, for the last 10 years -- the previous decade, before 9/11 -- the secret organization, operated in our country abroad, in Afghanistan, for that entire period, planning carefully and implementing the attacks of 9/11. Things were done there that were knowable had you had a spy, someone inside their councils, who would sit and know what they were doing.
They were not knowable if you go down the law enforcement road, because the law enforcement road is looking for people who have broken or are about to break the law. None of these guys, as they were in the shadow of a mosque in Hamburg, in the mountains of Afghanistan or in Des Moines, Iowa, or wherever they took flying lessons, where they cased buildings, took [a look at] airlines -- they weren't breaking the law. There is no way that law enforcement, unless it's very lucky, is going to get the tumble to these people.
The FBI says their case in Lackawanna, New York was a great success. They were able to pick up and prosecute and incarcerate a sleeper cell in the United States. What's the matter with that? Is that law enforcement approach, if you will, inadequate? I mean, they want to prevent these people from doing something.
All right, and bravo. I spent six years at the FBI. Because of that, I learned an awful lot about law enforcement. I admire the FBI, and it's very like the CIA in some ways -- the Type A, podium end of the stick. People want to get the job done no matter what. We care desperately about their country and getting it right.
It's the road you are going down. Lackawanna makes my case. I mean, I couldn't agree more. I think those people in Lackawanna, whatever they were going to do, aren't going to do it anymore. They stopped it. ...
Wait a second. You said, "Stopped them from doing." [The FBI concedes] the point that this group was not about to do anything. They had no indication that this group of six people were going to do anything. But they had gone to the camps. They had come back, and they were living in the United States.
That's a victory, an important victory. How? They weren't going to do anything.
They took them off the street, in case they were ever going to get someone to ask them to do something or they might do something.
All right. That's pretty hard for me to see how that qualifies as a significant victory against terrorism. I am glad they did that. I mean, among the options, that's one of the possible outcomes of learning that these people were potentially involved in some sort of conspiracy with Al Qaeda. ...
You don't believe the FBI is equipped today to do this job?
That's a really good question. As I said, the six years in the FBI, I had great admiration. Very similar to my colleagues in CIA, in terms of pointing in, not being given the resources.
They don't have the resources?
They have not been given resources sufficient to the part of the organization, the FBI, charged to do counterterrorism and counterintelligence. They are really related, and it's a very complicated issue, but worth another discussion. But the people, given that, were not given the resources, the respect, the assistance to get their job done.
Eighty percent of the FBI is populated by people who do very important, very effective criminal work. Maybe they do white-collar crime, and they do civil rights. They do organized crime. They do a marvelous, marvelous job of that. Only 20 percent of them are involved in national security work and in the business of trying to stop terrorism in the United States. So first of all, not enough resources in terms of the total throwaway. Not enough resources, and not enough respect, in terms of career progression, and all those things.
The irony is that there was a period, when the bureau did this, law enforcement did this very well. But the most obvious examples, of the Communist Party of the United States of America, when -- for those who are old enough to remember Herb Philbrick, there was the movie about Herb Philbrick, "A Spy for the FBI." There are more Herb Philbricks at [a] Communist Party of the United States meeting than there were real Communists.
"I Led Three Lives."
"I Led Three Lives." That's right. Exactly. You are obviously old enough to remember. They did that. They did that very well, and what was that about? That was about determining where the danger lies. That wasn't about putting someone in jail because they were breaking the law. It could have come to that, and putting people in jail is good.
Let the record show, bad guys should go to jail. Bad terrorists should go to jail. Even good terrorists ought to go to jail. That's what that was all about; they did that. They have not done it since then. There are reasons that have to do with the 1970s, with the abuses of the intelligence community, with the regulations that were put in place. But essentially the FBI can do it, could do it, ought to do it. I am in favor, not of the solutions to form a new--
--a new service like the British, and the MI5 argument is, or--
Or the Gilmore Commission has recommended a national domestic counterterrorist agency, sort of like the status of the EPA, that stands separate from the FBI and the CIA.
That's what we really need -- yet another element of government bureaucracy. I think that misses the point, and this gets really complicated. This is not just terrorism. It's terrorism and counterintelligence, and it's that universal things that would do us significant harm that need to be addressed. The bureau has done it in the past. It does not do it now as well, because it approaches it in a law enforcement, criminal conviction mentality. That's unfortunate, because we're taking a chance. We're taking a chance that we're not going down the road that's likely to get us inside the innermost councils of those who wish us harm. If we're prepared to take that chance, that's fine. I think the bureau could do it if we make some really major changes. ...
... Is that the way to have gone about Lackawanna? For example, to, in a sense, infiltrate the community around these guys, and try to recruit them in some way to help out, possibly to go back to the camps and become a source of information for the U.S. government? Is that what you're saying?
Certainly the latter part, the objective, as I've said all along, of proceeding down the intelligence road would be to have willing, helpful America. Some of the great heroes of all time, the Oleg Penkovskys, who penetrated the Russian hierarchy and kept us from disaster in the Cuban missile crisis, were people who went in harm's way and found out secrets for us. The same thing is here. We want people to go -- well, a good example. Go back to Afghanistan, go to Hamburg, be part of the group and the plotting in the mosque. Yes, and provide a channel for us of the secret information the policy maker needs to know.
The part I don't agree is the sort of "infiltrate the community." Yes, that's obviously a loaded way of talking about it. If we knew that these [six] people had gone to Afghanistan ... then to infiltrate the community, you have to find out a way to talk to those six people. Law enforcement way is a good way to start. I mean, if they did go to Afghanistan, if we knew that, we'd go talk to them, because they might have been in violation of the material support to terrorism statute. But then, the reasons to talk to them -- that's where the roads diverge. Not how you get to them; the way the road diverges is, what do you want them to do? ...
So what you're saying is that what appears on the surface to be a law enforcement success was really a lost opportunity?
A lost opportunity. I'm not saying that any of those six would certainly, I can['t] certify that even I could convince them to go back and do this dangerous thing. But it was an opportunity that was not pursued, as I understand it. I think that's the crux of the war on terrorism at large is, are we going to put our defenses based on we can catch them before they do it, or do we say it's not a matter of law enforcement? It's a matter of catching and understanding what they're doing so we can beat them back before they get here.
So I can hear someone out there saying, sounds great. But why should we have confidence in a CIA official telling us that they can get one of these guys to infiltrate Al Qaeda, when the CIA itself, over the last decade, hasn't been able to really infiltrate Al Qaeda or the camps?
Not going to have any argument from me on the basic premise that CIA hasn't done enough, either. I would suggest that the work that has to be done has to be done both overseas in the mountains of Afghanistan, and in the shadows of the mosque in Hamburg, and in the United States in flight schools and in Lackawanna. If those are the places that work have to be done, we pretty much divide it up. We say CIA is to do the jobs in the Hamburg mosque and there in Germany and then NSA, our signals collector, is to work in those areas. The FBI has traditionally been responsible for this.
With regard to CIA, I think there was a period when it was essentially risk-averse. Didn't take some of the steps it could've taken to penetrate these things. Partially, I think, because, for the last 10 years, during the previous administration, law enforcement was the agreed approach, the preferred approach to the terrorism problem -- making the very mistake that I'm describing here. You can understand why. You can't get in a lot of trouble if you say, "We're doing law enforcement. If someone's broken the law, [or] is about to, we're going to get them."
That's not as dangerous, fraught with political embarrassment as pursuing an intelligence course. The previous administration chose not to pursue it as aggressively, and so you end up with a 120 FBI law enforcement specialists in Sana'a, Yemen, investigating, trying to figure out who blew up the Cole, and getting forensic evidence, trying to figure out who can do this, who did it and what we might do about it. [That's] a law enforcement thing, rather than, "How many penetrations of the Al Qaeda infrastructure do we have in the United States?" The answer was somewhere between none and not a lot. There's something wrong here. Again, it's like the two ways of proceeding. Which outcome do you want?
Why would an intelligence agent, if you will, someone trained in the way that you would think a good counterintelligence operative could do it, be able to flip somebody like Alwan, one of the Lackawanna people? One of the agents, Ed Needham, went to see Alwan three or four times, and Needham wasn't able to do it. What would they do that he couldn't do?
I don't know the particulars, but it's not arguable that, over history, intelligence services like the CIA and the British and the others and the bureau -- in the example I used of the Communist Party -- had a lot of successes in history of getting people, for whatever reason, to agree to go into harm's way because they believed in a cause. Most of the spies in the KGB believed in the cause, believed that theirs was corrupted, people that agreed to spy for us. Or because they want money, they want to send their kid to Harvard, or whatever it is. But people did it for those reasons.
So can we recruit people who will go into harm's way in Al Qaeda? Of course. There's no doubt about that. Never has been. It's not arguable, because there's a lot of successes. But [the FBI] didn't. The point is they didn't do it because they were looking at it through the perspective of law enforcement. What are the elements of the crime here, and how do we proceed?
The FBI officials we've spoken with from Buffalo to Washington say the problem with what you're saying and the reason the FBI should be involved, is our agents are trained to protect the Constitution in the United States. People like you are oriented overseas, where they don't have to abide by the Constitution, where you can do more or less whatever you want.
I couldn't agree more. I'm not advocating that the FBI not do this. I think the only solution is for the FBI to do this. This is America. We don't need a British system. We don't need MI5. We need an American system that will protect the Constitution and will know the rights of American citizens -- and not just American citizens, but American persons. I'm not, and wouldn't for a moment think that the CIA should do those things. It would be a terrible idea within the United States.
But my point is that the FBI is going down the law enforcement road. We have to have an FBI that is capable, as it was once in the past, has the resources and the respect needed internally to go down the intelligence road, to be able to recruit the guy in Buffalo, to have that kind of background, and, in the process, make absolutely sure that the rights of Americans are in no way infringed. But until you start going down that road, you're going to go down the law enforcement road and end up at the law enforcement destination. Right people, wrong approach.
The people that are now running counterterrorism at the FBI are wonderful officers. You undoubtedly talked to them for this program. They're wonderful people, but most of them, I think all of them, come out of a law enforcement background. They're expert in organized crime, civil rights, all the things that we want our wonderful FBI to do. They've got to find a way to take people who do counterterrorism, counterintelligence, the whole thing, and understand how you do that effectively while protecting the rights of U.S. citizens.
I'm not suggesting the bureau shouldn't do it. I'm saying they've got to change to do it, and they're not on that road. ...
You don't believe that we're safer because these six guys in Lackawanna are going to serve seven to 10 years?
I give you a maybe. But I will not give you a maybe on, if you could have one of these two outcomes, these guys in jail or somebody in Afghanistan reporting back to us, I won't give you a maybe on maybe they're equal. There is no doubt in my mind that that's what the American people would say, you chose what? They went to the wrong summer camp, you wannna keep them in jail? I'm sure they're there in violation of the statute. But that's not the issue. The greater good. ...
Things changed after 9/11. The president, in a sense, some people say, took the handcuffs off the CIA. He gave them, your former colleagues, great authority overseas, to use what some would call extreme measures, if necessary, to deal with Al Qaeda, because it was a war. Are you saying the same thing should happen here at home?
First of all, I disagree that the president took the handcuffs off. What he said, in distinction to the previous administration was that law enforcement is not the central approach to dealing [with] terrorism. He said, better than I, the thing I've been trying to express about the roads. He said you're not going to get there. Read this Woodward book, Bob Woodward's book that talks about the discussions in the Oval Office, where the FBI says we're going to find out who did this and how they did it. And the president said, "I just don't want it ever to happen again. I don't care if they, essentially, if they ever come to trial. I mean, this is not about bringing people to trial." The FBI, the law enforcement role is to bring them to trial. The job the American people want us to do is to make sure this doesn't happen again, and to get them that did it, we've got to feel some pain.
But isn't that they key problem here? When you say the issue is not bringing them to trial, but if they're American citizens in the United States, and they haven't broken a law, apparently, or they're minor drug dealers, they're credit card scammers or whatever they could find on the Lackawanna people, what do you do with them?
American people ought to be treated as American people -- all the protections the Constitution gives them. That's not the issue. The vast majority of people, vast majority involved in Al Qaeda -- more importantly, in international terrorism, more broadly, which would be with us forever or for a long time -- are not American people. That's a small part of a bigger problem.
Treat American people with the full constitutional authorities they ought to have done. But don't miss the opportunities that can be done domestically, the bureau could do domestically, that don't have to do with American citizens. Half the guys who [were] around this country, casing airports and stuff were not American citizens. ...
The FBI says they tried to turn these guys in Lackawanna. They wouldn't play. They kept watching them. They were worried they might do something. They kept on being asked by Washington, "Can you guarantee they won't do anything?" And they said, "We can't guarantee it, but it doesn't look like it." It was really through one interview in Bahrain that they were able to get someone to confess. So what would you have done differently?
I think we're confusing a couple issues here. I never said that recruiting, getting people to agree to go into harm's way, to [go] back in the mountains of Afghanistan and give us what we need to know -- I never said that was easy. It's very, very hard. Remember, I said it was the thing of last resort. Policymakers need to know, can't get any other way. You better only use that when it's essential and it's last resort, because it's hard. Out of six guys, could you recruit one of the six? What are the odds? I don't know. But that's the path you want to go down.
What would I have done differently, if that's your question? I would have put the best minds I had, who understood Yemenis, who understood Islam, who understood Al Qaeda, who understood all those things, and had them attempt to establish a relationship with these six, and see if there was someone who had the spine and guts to agree to [go] back. Maybe they weren't. Maybe there was none of the six who would. I suspect that, looking at the bureau as a whole and law enforcement as a whole, there are very few people in the bureau as a whole who have that experience relative to Arabic language, knowledge of the culture, that are available to do this. I suspect there were none of them in Buffalo, but maybe there were five of them. I don't know. As I say, it's a hard thing to do. That's what I would do.
So you're saying that you wanted a Muslim FBI agent, or an Islamic FBI agent who, an Islamicist within the FBI--
Someone who understands. I'm not Muslim. I understand Islam. I respect Islam. I can talk to people who are Muslim on a more common ground than someone who doesn't.
Because you speak Arabic?
Yes. I speak Arabic. I know where Yemen is. I've been to Yemen, OK? I mean, that's part of it. I repeat, I spent six years at the bureau. This is a wonderfully focused organization. To do the job it has to do for the future, it should be done by the FBI if the FBI can do it. It needs a new mix of people who do this full-time as a career, who understand the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and make sure that it's used in interest of foreign intelligence, rather than as a lower threshold so the prosecutors can use it to move forward to prosecute people. That's what we need to do.
We need to have a cadre of people who do this in the FBI. Do it and understand it and do it well, rather than bringing in people who were great at doing bank robberies or all these other important things that we want the FBI to do. There is no doubt that that's the preferred solution. Some skepticism increasingly that the bureau will bring itself to make those changes, because they're really big changes.
There's skepticism that the bureau will be able to do this?
Will choose to do it, because organizational change is hard, hard, hard. ...
When you were in the FBI as their advisor on these matters, and you'd talk to them about this intelligence approach, what was their reaction?
It depends. There's a group of people who see this very clearly, who I would be very surprised if any of them disagreed with what I've said here today. If you understand that you're going to be serious about this kind of approach, you got to do exactly what I said. I mean, the idea that there be a dedicated cadre who do this sort of work is not a MacGaffin idea. It was the guys who said, not only do I not have enough resources, enough respect, I got to be able to do this all the time. I don't need someone who's a Mafia expert coming in and telling me how to do it, one.
There's another group who said, "There goes MacGaffin, he's trying to make a directorate of intelligence." That's a part of the CIA that analyzes things. They would say, "There he goes, he's trying to make a DI, a director of intelligence out of the FBI." That was sort of scornful.
They didn't like that?
Yes. Now they have 25 members of the CIA's directorate of intelligence embedded in the FBI trying to make a DI out of part of the FBI. ...
You say that we should follow this, if you will, path of patience, intelligence operations. It takes a while to develop somebody. It's not easy. But do our politicians have that kind of patience? In Lackawanna, we understand, the White House briefing regularly asked Mueller every morning, "Have you picked them up yet? Are they still out on the street? What's going on?" Didn't the politicians appear to be afraid that something might happen? That one of these guys would go to a mall and blow himself up?
As well they should. If this was easy, we wouldn't be having this discussion. There has to be a balance. You've got to work through it. Really hard decisions are made, and 20/20 hindsight is easy, as journalism can constantly remind us. Things go, but will politicians have the sense to hold through? Tough decision. A gutsy president, or a gutsy national security adviser, or gutsy director has to say, "I want the guy to go back to the mountains of Afghanistan. I don't want anything to happen in Lackawanna." How do I do the balance? The easy way is arrest him. If it's not clear, if your sort of command and control isn't correct, don't take a chance to do that.
But there doesn't appear to have been that patience here in this Lackawanna case.
I don't know enough about that, but this is true in any intelligence development operation. They take a long time. If it was easy, you'd do it, and you wouldn't have to spend that [time]. Remember, it's last resort. ...
You're saying there's really a fundamental cultural difference, really, between, let's say, the FBI, which is into stringing up suspects, and the CIA, which is into stringing them along?
No, no, no. Neither stringing up nor stringing along. I would say it's a fundamental difference. It's a difference that the FBI -- I'm not saying that CIA can and should do it, and the FBI can't and shouldn't -- I'm saying the FBI should do it. They're not doing it now. That is not string up, string along. It is the business of catching, finding those people who are breaking the law or who have broken or are about to break the law, as opposed to a process to get people into the secret councils of those who would wish us harm so we can take the steps to protect us.
But culturally, don't you understand why the FBI is so reluctant? They had an informant in the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, and people were killed. They had informants operating, if you will, with case officers in the United States, in various capacities, and things happened. ... And the same thing happened to the CIA.
The issue here is Al Qaeda, not the Montana militia. Al Qaeda is a foreign-based, ideologically motivated organization who wants to kill Americans. Other organizations who would disrupt our society but are homegrown are doing it because they believe that they have the right to manipulate that of which they're a part, should be treated totally separately, have nothing to with this debate. Certainly nothing to do with the CIA. Probably the law enforcement approach is right for the Montana militia. If they're breaking the law, deal with that. Because they are citizens, they vote.
This is totally different. Now, you've got this funny area where you get the lads from Lackawanna, and, as you recall, I said the optimum solution would be to get them, one or more of those, to agree to go help us figure this out. I didn't say force them to. I didn't say coerce them. Why didn't I say that? Because they are American citizens. ...
What specifically would be an effective counterterrorism program here in the United States?
It would be one that was linked at the hip, at the shoulder, at the head, with the CIA, with the DCI, with the entire national security spectrum, that started from trying to understand where the danger lies and then worked, understanding that, figured out what were the parts in the United States and the parts abroad that had to be mutually supportive.
Hezbollah. Not something we've seen in the United States, but it's part of a world in which Hezbollah is a problem. The FBI and the CIA together have to understand where Hezbollah is going, what it's doing, what it would look like when it appeared in the United States, what sort of people would be Hezbollah operatives in the United States. Take joint efforts to insert people into that stream to be spies, to help us understand them. We insert them in Paris and let them come to the United States.
It's got to be a joint intelligence activity which, at the very end, when people come to the point of breaking the law, then it becomes a law enforcement matter. But you've got to start from the premise that it is the business of determining where the danger lies, of bringing intelligence assets of both sides to bear in full cooperation.
So let's say that means, for example, if one of the people you're looking at may be a small-time drug dealer, it means stopping the law enforcement process of possibly arresting him and putting him away, because you need him, you need to approach him, you need to develop him. You need to be able to have the authority to, in a sense, countermand more immediate agencies from taking action. Is that a specific change?
No, it's not a change. Law enforcement already does this. I mean, there is a category known as "otherwise unlawful acts," where the attorney general can say, "You can let this guy go ahead and do this low-level drug thing, as long as nothing really bad's going to happen," to further an interest in the drug investigation.
There's nothing new here. But that would be an example of things you'd want to do. You'd want to say, "This is not about arresting someone." It's about understanding the nature of the threat that's posed to us at large, not just in Houston or Des Moines. We tend to have a Houston and Des Moines focus. You know, "This guy's breaking the law in Des Moines. My job as the FBI, the law enforcement, the police chief is there, is to stop that."
It's a problem of perspective. In most law enforcement things, you can see from Des Moines everything that's germane there. If the bank robber drives to whatever the next city is, you can call the guy there. That's law enforcement. You can see it there. Intelligence, you can't see from Des Moines what's important, because it's overarching.
The only argument I have with what you're saying, John, is that what I'm hearing from, not just FBI headquarters, but field people, is that when they identify somebody as being an associate of Al Qaeda worth watching -- I'm thinking of a situation in the Midwest. The word they get from Washington is that the president wants these people off the street. If there is some way you can get them off the street, or out of the country, because they're here, if they're an immigrant, and there's some way you can link them, if they get linked to Al Qaeda, get them out of the country, violate them on their visas. Call in the INS. Do what you have to do. That seems to be what's going on.
I just don't believe that in the face of a well-thought-out proposal that says, "We're going to take so-and-so suspect, Al Qaeda member, and we're going to try to move him," or "We're going to let him go to Afghanistan and come back, even though we haven't talked to him, because we figure we've got someone in Afghanistan who's going to be able to monitor him, tell us a little bit more about him there."
I'm certain that in receipt of a organized, carefully thought-out proposal, this president, this administration would say yes. It's when it's, "We just want to let him go, and we'll worry about it later," there's got to be a reason to do this. If you can't articulate the reason, throw him out of the country, because bad things will happen. I think the two are absolutely consistent. ...
You don't think that the TTIC is de facto the beginnings of an MI5, a separate national counterterrorism operation?
No. In fact, technically it's not an entity. It's a bunch of people come from their home organizations, bring their authorities, and--
And working under the Homeland Security gaze.
Yes, under [their] umbrella, but it's not an independent organization. It's a group of people who bring their own authorities with them.
So from your perspective, if I've got it correctly, the current status is, the FBI is making some changes, but they're not really fundamental cultural changes in the way they look at counterterrorism. The TTIC is just a building, and is not really melding intelligence people.
Oh, no, no. Let's take the first part. I think that the FBI is going a lot better. They're doing what I'd call running faster and jumping higher. And the answer is, of course, why didn't we start doing it five years ago, one year ago, 20 years ago? But God bless, more is better. But more integration with, and transparency across those, is fine. But there are some fundamental -- it's still the road problem.
Right now, they're still going down one road, and I think there's this other road, other destination. With regard to TTIC, I think TTIC in this situation, with the Department of Homeland Security just being stood up now, how do you make sure that we don't, right now, start making the mistake of somebody not knowing something?
So the measure, which is TTIC, which could end up being a stopgap measure, or it could exist forever, I don't know. But it's the right thing right now to say, "We've got one place run by intelligence under the DCI, where sensitive information can go and can be." We can have one person, John Brennan, say "If you know it and it's not been disseminated, that's a problem."
We've never been able to say that before. People think that's the root cause of 9/11. What we've been talking about today is another root cause, which is, you've got to deal more effectively with the collection domestically of things like 10 years of people plotting and carrying out plots in the United States, in the shadow of a mosque -- we haven't done that.
So those are the two elements. Do we have to do the integration of information and analysis better, connect the dots better? You bet -- across the board. But do we have to fill this one major gap of collecting information that is available and that can only be collected domestically? Do we have to do that better? You bet, and that's what's not being done. Running faster, jumping higher, doesn't solve that problem. ...