Now that fighting terrorism is a hot campaign issue, it’s worth knowing just why we have not had a successful foreign terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001.
Two days after the attack, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III briefed President George W. Bush on the bureau’s efforts to investigate the crime.
“They talked about how the terrorists got plane tickets, got on planes, moved from one airport to another, and then attacked our citizens,” Andy Card, Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, told me for my book “The Secrets of the FBI.” “And the president, while he was very interested in that report, said, ‘Mr. Director, that’s building a case for prosecution. I want to know what you have to say about the terrorist threats that haven’t materialized yet and how we can prevent them.’ “
Mr. Mueller carried the message back to headquarters: Instead of simply responding to an attack, the FBI must uncover plots and roll them up before it’s too late.
Of course, the FBI had always sought to prevent terrorist attacks before they occurred. But under former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s leadership, the FBI tended to treat each incident as a separate case, instead of recognizing the larger threat and mounting an effort against the entire terrorist organization, as the bureau had done with the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia.
On top of that, before Sept. 11, because of relentless media criticism and a lack of clear authority under Justice Department guidelines, the FBI had become so gun-shy and politically correct that even though terrorists were known to hatch their plots in mosques, the FBI was averse to following suspects there.
Under guidelines in place before Sept. 11, FBI agents could not even look at online chat rooms to develop leads on potential suspects who might be recruiting terrorists or distributing information on making explosives. The FBI had to determine first that there was a sound investigative basis before it could sign on to chat rooms that any 12-year-old could enter.
“We were told before 9/11 that we were not allowed to conduct investigative activity on the Internet, even though it’s public,” Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, who headed counterterrorism investigations as the FBI’s executive assistant director, says. “Same thing with a mosque. It’s a gathering open to the public, but we were absolutely precluded from going into a mosque as an FBI agent. And precluded from having a source in a mosque report on anything in the mosque, or look at anything in the mosque, unless we had a specific target within the mosque.”
That changed after Mr. Mueller came back from his meeting with Mr. Bush. Mr. Cummings told agents, “We’ve got this new mission. It’s a prevention mission.”
Moreover, while the FBI’s primary goal had always been locking up the bad guys, Mr. Cummings told agents that could actually put the country at risk. Instead of bringing a prosecution, the primary goal should be gathering intelligence to penetrate terrorist organizations and prevent future plots.
When an agent would say he wanted to take down a suspect, Mr. Cummings would tell the agent: “So you’re telling me you’ve done your job, you know everything there is to know about him, his organization, everything around him, all his travel, all his friends, and all family members? He’s not a viable source, and he’s not producing any productive intelligence whatsoever?”
Often there would be silence.
Mr. Cummings would say to the agent, “This is a deliberate judgment you have to make. Your objective is not to make the arrest. Your objective is to make that suspect our collection platform. That guy now is going to tell us just how big and broad the threat might be. He now becomes a means to collection, instead of the target of collection. I want you to understand his entire universe.”
Then Mr. Cummings would tell the agent, “If he’s not a viable source, and his intelligence isn’t productive, then knock yourself out and use your law enforcement powers to make that arrest.”
This new approach, along with other proactive measures and a stream of tips from the CIA and National Security Agency, has paid off. While attacks that are inspired by ISIS or al Qaeda have taken place, no foreign terrorist network has successfully orchestrated an attack in the United States since Sept. 11.
Patrolling Muslim neighborhoods, as Sen. Ted Cruz has proposed, is a way to go after ordinary street crime, not terrorism. Merely containing ISIS, as President Obama has been doing, guarantees more attacks, which are now occurring throughout the world at least once a month.
Almost as if he is oblivious to danger, Mr. Obama has claimed ISIS is not an existential threat. The truth is quite the opposite: ISIS could unleash biological weapons that could kill millions of Americans. If aimed at key centers, such attacks could bring the United States to its knees.
The right way to fight terrorism is to retake its territory overseas and to give the FBI all the powers it needs to continue its successful mission. Despite hypothetical concerns to the contrary, since the days of Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI has not as an agency engaged in an abuse.
Instead of demonizing those who are trying to make us safe and endlessly criticizing programs that work, critics should be hailing the efforts of the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community as a remarkable American success story.
• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Secrets of the FBI” (Crown Forum, 2012).