Cover Story: Is the FBI Up to the Job 10 Years After 9/11?

Inside Bob Mueller's 10-year campaign to fix the FBI

  • Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

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    The search team had to get back in. Mueller had no patience for explanations that agents were doing "pattern-of-life analysis" to find an opening. "You're not getting it done," Mueller said. "What are you going to do about it?" Later that day, the sneak-and-peek squad got it done. Then the investigators solved the mystery of the three e-mail addresses: Aldawsari was using all of them, they concluded, to send notes to himself.

    One week later, on Feb. 24, agents placed Aldawsari under arrest. On March 9 the FBI's elite tactical force, the Hostage Rescue Team, moved in on Harpham. Both men were charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which the law defines broadly enough to cover any kind of bomb. Both have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers note they are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

    Harpham's plot, if the allegations prove true, turned out to be the more advanced. He had built a powerful bomb and placed it, for maximum carnage, atop a metal bench with a brick wall behind it to focus the blast. The half-complete work of Aldawsari, an Arab whose jihadi aims fit the popular image of a terrorist, received far more public attention. More than a year ago, Mueller raised some eyebrows when he testified that "homegrown and lone-wolf extremists pose an equally serious threat." But that message did not take root in the body politic or even in the national-security establishment. As the FBI chased the twin terrorist plots all through February, President Obama's team heard daily reports about Aldawsari's case but not Harpham's. Some of Mueller's lieutenants marveled at the contrast.

    Domestic plots are not routinely included in the President's daily briefing or the interagency threat matrix, an FBI official says, even though "the degree of harm is often greater" than in jihadi terrorist plots.

    "Any questions? We've got a couple of minutes," Mueller says to me between meetings, eyes drifting to his wrist. "Actually, about one minute."

    Well, sure. Any tough decisions lately? But Mueller is already trotting down the hall and two flights of stairs to the FBI headquarters' innermost sanctum. Minutes later, at 8:30, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. arrives for his own daily briefing. The two of them disappear into an area labeled "Restricted Access" and "Authorized Personnel Only."

    Unlike the White House Situation Room and other pale shadows of a Hollywood command post, the FBI's Strategic Intelligence Operations Center has the flash to live up to its name. It covers just under an acre in a profusion of sealed rooms and internal corridors. An elevated communications pod, walled in glass, overlooks doors with signs like "Ops H" and "Intel Watch 24/7." Large maps compete for wall space with expanses of flat-screen monitors and a bank of clocks labeled with the four U.S. time zones, Greenwich Mean Time and local times in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The SIOC filled to capacity on 9/11 and remained that way through PENTTBOM, the FBI cryptonym for "Pentagon," "Twin Towers" and "Bombing." From a standing start, Mueller ran the largest criminal investigation in FBI history and an equally massive intelligence effort to ward off the next catastrophe. FBI agents swarmed dive shops on a scuba-bomb tip and rural airfields on a crop-duster tip. They traced every long-haul truck that crossed one Canadian border post, some of which had since traveled thousands of miles, when the Energy Department reported a nuclear-weapon signature on a sensor it had started testing that day.

    Only in retrospect, says a former Mueller lieutenant, did anyone treat as humorous another hunt that began with a source who overheard talk in a restroom in Ukraine of a stolen warhead. The resulting operation — which came to be known as Ukrainian Urinal — took on added urgency when then governor Tom Ridge called the White House and said, "I've just heard a report about a nuclear device in Pennsylvania." It turned out to be nothing. Ten years later, says Vahid Majidi, who runs the FBI's WMD directorate, the terrorist nuclear scenario is "very exciting, always good to see in a movie setting ... but we haven't seen a credible approach."

    On average, since 9/11, the FBI reckons that just over 100,000 terrorism leads each year have come over the transom. Analysts and agents designate them as immediate, priority or routine, but the bureau says every one is covered. Leads from the Stellar Wind program were so vague and voluminous that field agents called them "Pizza Hut cases" — ostensibly suspicious calls that turned out to be takeout food orders. "In a year, we'll do, I don't know, 500 white powders, but you don't know which of those white powders in envelopes may contain something that kills somebody," Mueller said. "And so, yes, is it time-consuming? Absolutely. Do 99% of them wash out? Yes, but it's that other 1% that we've got to be concerned about."

    By 2:30 p.m., Mueller was back in the big blue chair at the helm of his conference room. Four big-city special agents in charge, linked in from their offices, faced the director on his wall-size plasma screens.

    For the next two hours, Mueller interrogated the SACs in Baltimore, Newark, N.J., Boston and Philadelphia about their records. TIME sat in on the first half hour, before the talk turned classified.

    Mueller has made strikingly public events of these reviews: not only could each man see and hear the others, but each was surrounded by subordinates. Few SACs emerge unscathed from the ritual, which is intended to spread Mueller's message quickly through the ranks. Nobody missed the point last year when the SAC in Albany, N.Y. — whose convictions produced half the FBI's average prison term — retired early. Mueller concluded he had been choosing easy targets.

    In 2008, when Mueller unveiled the new reviews, he rated only 1 in 7 SACs as "good." Another 20% earned a "fair," and the rest were deemed deficient.

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