Home News Speeches Protecting Our Nation From Agroterrorism
This is archived material from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) website. It may contain outdated information and links may no longer function.
  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • International Symposium on Agroterrorism
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • May 05, 2005

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here today.

This symposium is the first of its kind. It presents a unique opportunity for people from diverse backgrounds to share information and to find new ways to maximize our resources in the pursuit of a common goal--protecting innocent people from harm.

Many people from different federal, state, and local agencies took part in planning this conference, and I want to recognize their efforts. This symposium is a crucial first step toward creating solid, long-lasting partnerships between the federal government, law enforcement, science, academia, and the people on the front lines--our partners in the agriculture industry.

Agroterrorism is an issue that is just starting to enter our collective consciousness. Most people do not equate terrorist attacks on people, planes, and buildings with attacks on plants and animals. But the threat is real, and the impact could be devastating.

Today I want to talk about what the FBI is doing to prevent, detect, and investigate threats of agroterrorism. And I want to talk about what each of us must do to prevent the next terrorist attack.

Before I begin that discussion, though, I want to talk about the changes we have made in the FBI in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Overnight, our mission became the prevention of another terrorist attack. Passage of the Patriot Act removed the barriers preventing the sharing of information between intelligence and criminal investigations. And enhancing our intelligence capabilities became key to improving our ability to prevent attacks.

The fact is, we are facing a new threat, on a new level. Today, jet travel, cell phones, and the Internet have given criminal and terrorist threats an international dimension. Like business, crime has gone global.

In his new book, "The World is Flat," New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman argues that globalization has leveled the playing field to the point where it is flat. He asserts that advances in technology, travel, and communication have erased traditional boundaries and have broken down walls between countries, continents, and individuals. Now, anyone can hop online, on board, or on the phone and connect with the world.

The advantage of this flat world is that we are collaborating and connecting in ways never before imagined. The disadvantage is that Al Qaeda and other criminal organizations are using this same technology and globalization to wreak havoc around the world.

We are creating a flat world within the FBI. We are collaborating and connecting in ways we could not have imagined four years ago. We have broken down walls within the Bureau and within the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

We have shifted our focus to terrorism, but we continue to uphold our other responsibilities to the American people. We have changed the way we communicate within the FBI and with other agencies. And, most importantly, we are working together in new ways and with new partners, like all of you here today. These changes will be the linchpins of our success in preventing, detecting, and investigating all terrorist attacks.


I've highlighted some of the changes in the Bureau in recent years. Now I would like to tell you what we are doing to prevent an agroterrorist attack.

We have been fortunate so far--we have not faced any direct attacks to our food supply. Agroterrorist attacks in the United States have been limited to those brought by environmental extremists against laboratories and universities conducting research on genetically engineered food and plants or by animal rights activists protesting the use of animals for vaccine development.

But the absence of any direct attack on our food supply does not minimize the threat. We know that members of Al Qaeda have studied our agricultural industry. And some animal rights activists and environmental extremists have touted agroterrorism as a potential means to an end of animal testing, animal consumption, and genetic engineering.

One thing is certain: given the nature of the threat, our partnerships will go a long way toward preventing the next terrorist attack. Before 2001, law enforcement and intelligence agencies had a tendency to work alone, sharing information and collaborating with other officials and agencies on a case-by-case basis.

The September 11th attacks taught us all a painful lesson--that we cannot defeat our enemies standing alone. Today, we are sharing information, technology, and resources with our federal, state, and local counterparts.

It is a matter of whistling in the jungle, if you will.

There is an old story about a man walking through the jungle, whistling to himself. One of his colleagues asks why he is whistling, and he replies, "To scare away the elephants." His colleague laughs, and says, "Surely you don't believe that works." And the man replies, "You don't see any elephants, do you?"

So far, we have not seen any elephants. But it is a safe bet that they are out there. With so many animals, so many fields, and so many people with open access, agriculture is a soft target. But we stand a much greater chance of preventing an attack on our food supply working together.

One of the ways we are working together is through the Agricultural Intelligence Group. Members of this group--including the FBI, the CIA, the USDA, the FDA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the military--meet regularly to exchange information and ideas about food security, and to discuss ways in which we can best utilize our combined skills, technology, and resources.

Another way we are working together is through various Scientific Working Groups, or "Swigs." Our FBI scientists are working with their counterparts around the country. One group, which includes scientists from the CDC, key laboratories around the country, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security, analyzes animal and plant pathogens--down to the DNA level--to distinguish between pathogens that occur in nature and those that are intentionally spread.

This distinction is important. If a car bomb explodes outside of a building, we know the attack was intentional. But if a cow contracts Foot and Mouth Disease or a soybean plant exhibits rust, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the attack was intentional or occurred naturally.

But we are not limiting our partnerships to the federal level. We are reaching out to the people on the front lines--our farmers, cattle ranchers, food producers, and distributors.

In 2003, with the help of our Albuquerque Field Office, we started a program called AgriGard. Through a secure web portal, members of the agricultural community are sharing information with each other, and with scientists, state and local law enforcement, and the FBI. Members can pose questions and alert the FBI to any suspicious or unusual activity. This program is a win-win for everyone involved.

Our information-sharing efforts are paying off. Several months ago, the State Department received an anonymous tip that an unknown individual had threatened to introduce a virus to a large pig farm in Kansas. The State Department passed this information to the Secret Service, which notified one of its agents in Kansas. This agent was part of the FBI's local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Together, we got the investigative ball rolling.

We coordinated with a local veterinarian, the USDA, and the FDA to assess the threat. Working with INS and local law enforcement, we found this man and questioned him. As it turns out, he had recently returned from South Africa, and it was possible that he could have transported a virus with him.

In the end, this investigation turned out to be a poison pen letter. The man we questioned had no intention of spreading a damaging virus. But because of our established networks, we were able to quickly assess the threat and move to prevent any attack.

Detection and Investigation

Now, I want to move to the FBI's detection and investigative methods. I will discuss the two together, because they walk hand-in-hand.

In a potential agroterrorist attack, the USDA and the FDA will focus on the containment of any public health risk and on the safety of our food supply. The FBI will focus on the criminal investigation into the attack.

First, our local Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator will assess the threat, along with members of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, counterterrorism experts at FBI Headquarters, and representatives of the USDA and the FDA.

Next, the FBI will dispatch one of its Hazardous Materials Response Teams to collect a sample of any hazardous material. The sample will be sent to one of the laboratories in the Lab Response Network--a group of labs across the country with standardized procedures for identifying biological or chemical pathogens. Just 10 years ago, this process would have taken days. Now, we can detect and identify dangerous biological and chemical pathogens in a number of hours.

If the sample tests are positive for biological or chemical pathogens, the FBI will establish a Joint Operations Center, with representatives from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the EPA, the USDA, the FDA, FEMA, local law enforcement, public health officials, and scientists. Working together, sharing leads and information, we have the best chance of identifying and containing any potential threat and finding the guilty party.

These are just a few examples of what the FBI is doing to prevent, detect, and investigate agroterrorism. But information sharing is a two-way street. We cannot investigate if we are not aware of the problem.

Farmers, ranchers, food distributors, and producers are the first line of defense. If a rancher sees unusual symptoms of illness in the herd, he must notify his veterinarian or a representative from the USDA. If a food distributor notes suspicious activity in one of her distribution centers, she must notify the FDA, local law enforcement, or her FBI Field Office. Likewise, we in the federal government and in the public health sector must keep each other in the loop.

If we encounter an exotic pathogen in the United States, we must be instantly alert to the possibility of agroterrorism. We cannot wait for a calling card from a terrorist to announce a pending or future attack. A "wait and see" approach will only maximize the impact.

Our suspicion may turn out to be nothing, but if it is something significant, we cannot afford to lose that critical response time.

This next case illustrates the point. One year ago, police arrested a man for possession of homemade ricin, a deadly poison. He had placed a large order for castor seeds--the material used to make ricin--from a seed company in New York.

Employees of the seed company became suspicious and called the FBI Field Office in New York.

When FBI agents searched the man's home, they found clear jars labeled "Caution--ricin poison." They also found large amounts of castor seeds, chemicals used during different stages of ricin production, and equipment commonly used in the "underground" manufacturing of the poison.

We found the ricin before it could harm anyone based on the tip from the seed company employees. The employees' suspicions might have amounted to nothing. Instead, they resulted in the man's conviction for possession of a biological toxin.

Our goal this week is to impress upon those in the food supply industry, and those of us who work with them, of the need for education, vigilance, and cooperation.

We must continue to work together. Not just because the time for turf wars is past, but because there is too much for one agency or group to handle alone. There are too many biological and chemical weapons, too many open fields and unlocked doors and unknown people.

Preventing another terrorist attack--be it in one of our major metropolitan areas or here in the heartland--is our number one priority. But we do not shoulder this burden alone.

We are working with our partners in the federal government, in state and local law enforcement, in scientific labs and on college campuses across the country, and with members of the agricultural industry. We are sharing our information, our resources, and our knowledge to ensure the safety of our nation's food supply.

In this era of globalization, in this flat world, working side-by-side is not just the best option, it is the only option. Together, we can defeat this new threat, and we will.

Recent Speeches
Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Tied Together in a Single Ga James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI/BCRI Annual Conference on Civil Rights, 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
A Different Way to Be James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent Memorial Service, FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Privacy, Public Safety, and Security: How We Can Confront the Cyber Threat James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Conference on Cyber Engagement, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Expectations of Privacy: Balancing Liberty, Security, and Public Safety James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Center for the Study of American Democracy Biennial Conference, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH
The Darkest Night Brings the Brightest Stars: Lights of Love, Joy, Hope, a James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Commemoration of the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
Standing Together Against Terrorism and Fear: Tossed by the Waves but Neve James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, NYPD SHIELD, New York, NY
Confronting the Cyber Threat James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sixth Annual Financial Crimes and Cyber Security Symposium, Federal Reserve Bank, New York, NY
Keeping Our Communities Safe Through Shared Perspectives, Information, and James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference, Chicago, IL
Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Bending the Lines Toward Saf James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, University of Chicago Law School, Chicago, IL
Strength and Honor: The Legacy of Those Left Behind James B. Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Concerns of Police Survivors Police Week Luncheon, Alexandria, VA