A lengthy but worthwhile intelligence discussion of the FBI’s constantly changing challenges.
Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group desperately want to obtain nuclear devices and explode them in American cities, especially New York and Washington, D.C., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III tells NewsMax.
In an exclusive interview, Mueller also acknowledged that bin Laden is still active, though isolated. The director revealed that the Bureau believes the terrorist leader continues to communicate with al-Qaida cells, some of which remain in the U.S.
Mueller declined to say how often bin Laden communicates or to elaborate on the substance of his communications.
Other intelligence sources tell NewsMax that U.S. security efforts have forced bin Laden to return to “horse-and-buggy days” — avoiding electronic communications in favor of using trusted couriers.
But Mueller says though hemmed in, al-Qaida’s paramount goal is clear: to detonate a nuclear device that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
In contrast to homegrown terrorists, al-Qaida is far more likely to be able to pull off such an attack.
Mueller admits the nuclear threat is so real he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about that possibility.
“I think it would be very difficult to wipe out the United States, but you’d have hundreds of thousands of casualties from a nuclear device, depending on the size of that nuclear device,” Mueller tells NewsMax.
A Lust for Destruction
Al-Qaida could obtain such a device in one of two ways.
“One is to obtain a nuclear device that’s already been constructed from one of the former Iron Curtain countries, and the other way is to put together the fissile material and the expertise and do an improvised nuclear device,” Mueller says.
“And there’s no doubt that al-Qaida, if it had the capability, would go down either route to get a nuclear device.”
Mueller also has little doubt as to al-Qaida’s likely targets.
“It would be someplace in the United States, in most likely Washington and or New York, depending on how many devices they have. Or both cities,” Mueller says.
Because the U.S. has not been attacked in almost six years, Mueller worries that “we are in danger of becoming complacent.”
“Al-Qaida is tremendously patient and thinks nothing about taking years to infiltrate persons in and finding the right personnel and opportunity to undertake an attack.
“And we cannot become complacent, because you look around the world, and whether it’s London or Madrid or Bali or recently Casablanca or Algiers, attacks are taking place.”
Mueller adds the U.S. must remain vigilant. He says our security efforts must “adapt to the new threat landscape.”
He then adds: “We are going to be hit at some point. It’s just a question of when and to what extent.”
The Real Robert Mueller
In the conference room adjoining his seventh floor office at FBI headquarters, Mueller sits down for this interview in his shirt sleeves, a G-man-white oxford cloth with a subdued Brooks Brothers tie. When he appears on television, the camera gives his face an angular look. In person, his features are softer.
Handsome with silvery hair that he smooths down thoughtfully as he speaks, Mueller captivates his guests with his commanding presence. He has the demeanor of a square-jawed FBI agent combined with a tough talking prosecutor, which he once was.
Clearly, the enormous responsibility he carries shows in dark circles under his heavy-lidded brown eyes.
When he utters the words “nuclear device,” he knits his brow and clenches his teeth.
However, Mueller is far more relaxed now than when I interviewed him a few months after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, he was preoccupied trying to prevent a feared “second wave” of attacks on the West Coast.
Back then, Mueller declined to describe why, when he was in the Marines during the Vietnam War, he was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. A man who hates to talk about himself or use the word “I,” he said only that he “got into some firefights.”
Recently, I obtained from the Marine Corps the citation that went with the Bronze Star. It says that on Dec. 11, 1968, the platoon that Mueller commanded came under a heavy volume of small arms, automatic weapons, and grenade launcher fire from a North Vietnamese army company.
“Quietly establishing a defensive perimeter, Second Lieutenant Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counterfire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them,” the citation says.
Disregarding his own safety, Mueller then “skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous area and, on one occasion, personally led a fire team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines,” the citation adds.
Sitting in his conference room, Mueller commands the head of a long conference table. Against one of the room’s walls stands a wooden sign. The gold lettering reads: “Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation.” The sign used to stand outside the director’s office when the Bureau was located in the Department of Justice across the street on Pennsylvania Avenue.
That was a more innocent time, when anyone could walk into the building without a security check. Now the director’s office is in a secure wing, sealed off behind electronic doors with security cam and a keypad with a code. Even most Bureau execs — who must have a top secret clearance to enter the building in the first place — don’t have access.
A New View of Terrorism
The FBI is changing the way it looks at terrorism, Mueller explains.
Instead of categorizing the problem by individual cases, the Bureau is focusing on threats. Using Jamaat al-Islamiya or Hezbollah as examples, Mueller says, “In the past, when you asked what’s the presence of these groups in the United States, analysts would come in and say, “˜OK, we’ve got cases open down here and up in Detroit and in Chicago and the like, and that is the picture of Hezbollah.'”
While the Bureau targets individuals who may be dangerous, it is more focused on the networks these individuals operate within and their often hidden activities.
“What’s most important is not what we know but what we don’t know,” Mueller says.
“What is the presence of Jamaat al-Islamiya? What is the presence of Hamas or Hezbollah?
“And if you don’t know the presence, What are the gaps? And then fill those gaps with collectors, which are basically agents. It’s an analytical approach, and it’s a threat-driven approach, an intelligence-driven approach.”
Those who advocate creating a new domestic counter-terrorism agency similar to Britain’s MI5 don’t recognize the value of having a law enforcement agency combined with one that uses intelligence to uncover threats, Mueller argues.
As outlined in an Aug. 21, 2006 NewsMax article, “An American MI5 Is the Wrong Approach,” MI5 is envious of the FBI because, when an arrest must be made, it has to convince a police force that there is enough evidence to make the arrest.
“A critical difference I think people don’t focus on between ourselves and the U.K. is the fact that the criminal justice system here disseminates intelligence by reason of its plea bargaining capability,” Mueller says.
“If you look at what’s happened in the U.K. over the last three or four years, it has arrested probably a hundred individuals in various terrorist operations, and of those hundred, maybe one or two have cooperated.
“And in almost every case that we’ve had in the United States, one or more have cooperated and given us the full picture of the cell. And that’s intelligence.”
A Presidential Briefing
Mueller briefs President Bush in person every Tuesday at the White House.
“He’s interested in the same issue that he was interested in on Sept. 12, 2001,” Mueller offers.
“What’s the FBI and the rest of the law enforcement community doing in the United States to make certain that there will not be another September 11?
“He asks penetrating questions, the types of questions that one would hope that I and others would ask of our own people: not only how a particular case is developing, but what have we learned from a particular case?”
Mueller kept Bush informed, for example, on the FBI’s 16-month investigation of a group allegedly plotting to attack Fort Dix and kill U.S. soldiers.
After the arrests, Bush wanted to know what had been done to assure that such military targets are protected and whether the FBI has focused on the possibility of similar groups attacking other targets.
In the Fort Dix case, five of the men who were arrested were born in Jordan, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. They were radical Islamists training at a shooting range to kill “as many soldiers as possible” at the Army base 25 miles east of Philadelphia, according to the charges against them.
A sixth man was charged with helping them obtain illegal weapons.
The investigation began with a tip from a store clerk who told police that one of the men brought in a video tape that he wanted copied to a DVD. The video showed the men firing assault weapons, calling for jihad, and yelling “God is great” in Arabic. The FBI then infiltrated the group using two paid informants.
“Before September 11, we would have been probably inclined to disrupt them earlier than we did,” Mueller says. Instead, the Bureau waited to pounce on the Fort Dix group “to determine what ties they may have had to other individuals in the U.S. or overseas.”
Mueller says the FBI made the arrests when the group began looking to buy weapons from sources other than the FBI informants.
“The fear being that if they purchased weapons from others and we did not know about it from our sources inside, they could undertake the terrorist attack without us knowing about it,” Mueller says.
Critics routinely knock the FBI for either making terrorist arrests too soon or too late.
Last June, for example, the FBI arrested seven men in Miami for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Some wondered if the FBI rolled up the plot too early. Others claimed the men never could have pulled off the plot, dismissing the arrests as simply a Bureau publicity stunt.
“We exhausted every possibility for intelligence there,” Mueller says defending the FBI’s actions, adding, “And it’s a substantial commitment involving thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars and man hours to conduct surveillance and make sure that there is not a terrorist attack.”
“And if we let ’em walk, who is to say that two or three months down the road they don’t go to somebody who actually will provide the weapons or the explosives or what have you and you’ve got a terrorist attack that we’ve walked away from? Can’t do that,” Mueller says. “I have no apologies whatsoever on the Miami case.”
Mueller believes a vigorous counter-terrorist effort has been effective. The U.S. has not been attacked in almost six years and Administration insiders say that this due to the periodic arrests by the FBI and roll-ups of terrorists overseas by the CIA and foreign intelligence services.
National Security Letters
Mueller says the reason the FBI did not keep proper track of requests for national security letters is that no separate system had been set up to keep track of them.
National security letters are issued in international terrorism and espionage investigations. They are similar to grand jury subpoenas, which are normally issued at the direction of a prosecutor and allow the FBI, in criminal investigations, to obtain financial records and records of calls, e-mails, and Internet searches.
“What we did not have is a compliance program or a mechanism to test the procedures we put in place,” Mueller says. “The biggest fix in my mind cuts across not just NSLs but across the organization,” he said.
“We need a compliance entity that looks at the weak points in terms of our procedures, does red-cell testing of those procedures to see where the weaknesses are, and makes certain that the procedures are being followed.”
Strangely, even when telephone companies or Internet providers gave the FBI information about the wrong person in response to an NSL, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine still classified their error as an FBI deficiency.
Mueller brought that up with Fine, who insisted he was right to do so. In the end, Fine concluded, the FBI was entitled to the information it obtained in almost all cases he cited.
The FBI is constantly being accused of abuses, but does Mueller consider any actions by the FBI to have been abuses?
“In the wake of September 11, every individual who was detained was detained on valid charges,” he says. “But those who were detained on immigration charges waited longer because we had to clear them of other charges. And in the future, I’d want to focus on more swiftly making that determination for those who are detained on immigration charges.”
Mueller’s biggest frustration is that, despite the calls for the FBI to act more like an intelligence organization, when it comes to its budget, the Bureau is still considered a law enforcement organization. For fiscal 2007, the budget is $6.1 billion, equal to the cost of a few Stealth bombers.
“The country wants us to build a domestic intelligence capacity, but it costs money,” Mueller says. “And we are still perceived as being in the law enforcement community and not necessarily in the intelligence community.”
Mueller says he has told National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, “Just give me the rounding errors off of the intelligence budget, and I would be very happy.”
Mueller doesn’t smile often, mostly a pleasant half smile for emphasis. He does laugh, however, when he mentions his fantasy budget.
Pamela Kessler contributed to this article.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of NewsMax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go Here Now.
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