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Mueller on Changes Since 2001

FBI Transformation
Director Reflects on Tenure Since 2001



FBI Director Robert S. Mueller looked back on changes the Bureau has made under his five years of leadership and how our response to the 9/11 attacks—seven days into Mueller’s tenure—helped transform the FBI into an intelligence agency better equipped to help prevent the next terrorist attack.

“The question is, ‘What changes have we made?’” Director Mueller said during a recent briefing with reporters at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Mueller pointed to three areas where the FBI has made significant progress “in response to what happened on September 11.”

  • Resources: the FBI has more specially trained agents, analysts, language specialists and surveillance specialists today than it did before 9/11. The number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) has more than doubled in five years, improving the lines of communication at every level of law enforcement. Field Intelligence Groups (FIGs) made up of agents and analysts expert in counterterrorism staff every field office.
  • Intelligence capabilities: the National Security Branch put all of the FBI’s counterterrorism and intelligence functions under one umbrella, streamlining communications with the broader intelligence community. Sharing information—a departure from a tradition of holding investigations close to the vest—became an imperative. “We changed the presumption…to disclosing information,” Mueller said.
  • Partnerships: exchanging information at the federal level has greatly improved. Mueller cited tight relationships with the NSA, CIA and collaborations at the National Counterterrorism Center, which is run by the Director of National Intelligence, and the Terrorist Screening Center, which puts information on wanted terrorists in the hands of every beat cop or agency on the front lines. Through the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, Mueller said, “We have received leads that have led to disruptions with individuals providing material support to terrorists or contemplating terrorist acts.”

Homegrown terrorism remains a concern. Recent cases in Miami, California, and Atlanta revealed plots with tangential ties to al Qaeda. The FBI’s approach is to learn what motivates the plotters by relying on investigators in the field. That means using techniques the FBI refined over decades of intelligence gathering, like its effective infiltrations and surveillance of Mafia figures. “For us to be successful we have to leverage our relationships with them to know what is happening on the ground,” Mueller said.

Mueller fended off criticism that recent busts of suspected terrorists in the U.S. were over-hyped or premature. “Our challenge is that somebody may have an idea,” Mueller said. “If you look at September 11, they had box cutters and an idea. When are you going to let that idea with box cutters continue?...At some point you have to take action against the persons plotting terrorist attacks.”

Mueller addressed several other issues during the hour-long briefing:

  • MS-13 and cross-border gangs: Mueller cited the reorganization of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, which is more sharply focused on white collar crimes, public corruption, and gangs. Last year, the FBI’s MS-13 task force coordinated a series of crackdowns in the U.S and Central America that led to more than 600 arrests. Last spring, criminal division chief James “Chip” Burrus was among 100 FBI and law enforcement officials attending a gang conference in El Salvador. Tracking gang activity, Mueller said, “has required us to be far more adept.”
  • Anthrax: Mueller said the attacks in 2001 remain an open and vital investigation. “My expectation is that the case will be solved,” he said. “Some cases take longer than others.”
  • Institutional change: Mueller said that while he made some needed changes in information technology, accountability, and hiring outside expertise, wholesale change at the FBI would be shortsighted since intelligence gathering is an extension of what agents and analysts have been doing for years. “We have changed as an organization to meet the threat of the time,” Mueller said. “You cannot lose sight of the capability that the Bureau brings to the table.”

The briefing fell between two five-year anniversaries—the Director’s first day on September 4, 2001, and the 9/11 attacks. Mueller said the terrorist threat remains. And he allowed that we are safer, but still not safe. “I hope the American people understand this problem is going to be with us for a substantial period of time,” Mueller told reporters. “And the FBI does a heck of a job day-in and day-out.”