Counterterrorism – I

August 21, 2009

The FBI's Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director discusses the roles and responsibilities of the division and its mission to the American people.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello, I’m Neal Schiff, and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. Counterterrorism is something you, me, and everyone around the world is concerned with, and the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division is here for you.

Mr. Heimbach: “Our mission is to ensure that the American people can live without fear of terrorism.”

Mr. Schiff: That’s Michael Heimbach. He’s the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. He says it’s the FBI’s job to find potential terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks on the United States.

Mr. Heimbach: “Whether known or those that are unknown to us. To eliminate their ability to conduct a homeland attack and to allow our citizens to live in freedom.”

Mr. Schiff: How has the Counterterrorism Division changed from 9/11 through today?

Mr. Heimbach: “Significant changes have occurred in the Counterterrorism Division. We have exponentially increased our resources dedicated to terrorism since September 11th. My work force that’s currently under my leadership is probably triple what it was back on September 11th. Again, dedicated, not only special agents throughout the country, dedicated professional analysts have joined our work force, numerous other dedicated support positions who contribute to ensuring that we keep this nation safe. And also we have almost quadrupled our number of what we refer to as Joint Terrorism Task Forces. That’s where we have state, local, other federal partners that are embedded in our 56 field offices throughout the nation. Right now we’re up to approximately 106 Joint Terrorism Task Forces in the nation. And what does that mean? That means state and local officers are working with the FBI side-by-side in an FBI office; have top secret clearances; have access to all of the information that we have. It’s a seamless exchange so that we’re sharing common intelligence all for the common good of defeating and identifying potential terrorists. They are deputized as federal marshals, so they are one of us. And that is a force-multiplier for us in the terms of roughly just over 4,000 additional resources we bring to the fight in terms of collaborating with our state and local partners. I’m a firm believer that if we don’t connect from the state and local law enforcement all the way up to us, to include our foreign liaison partners, we’re potentially at risk. So that interface, that collaborative environment that we create, to allow their officers to embed with us, is good business. It allows us to connect the strategic dots.”

Mr. Schiff: A lot of people hear about FBI special agents, law enforcement officers, but intelligence analysts do play an important role here.

Mr. Heimbach: “An extremely important role the analysts play. They have been a huge addition to our workforce. As the Bureau, pre-9/11, very reactive law enforcement agency. Now we are intelligence driven; we are threat driven; we’re very proactive in trying to have a better understanding of our backyards; we refer to the term ‘”domain awareness.” The analytical perspective that has become an integral part of our workforce has absolutely been essential. Not only to help us connect the strategic dots to give us good, educated, well informed analysis assessments of what are we potentially facing. Not only what are we facing today: being predictive of what we could face in the next month; the next year; the next three to five years. And not only on the national security side—they’re becoming more and more effective even on the criminal side. Can they forecast to the future of potentially what the economic conditions of this great nation will look like? And what will that then cause us to be looking at so we then can align our resources to potentially, the predictiveness of the threats that we see in the future.”

Mr. Schiff: As we move through this post-9/11 period, what do you see as some of the major accomplishments of the FBI, the Counterterrorism Division, and overall the government’s response to actions in preventing terrorist attacks in the United States?

Mr. Heimbach: “There have been significant disruptions that have occurred since September 11th; we can highlight several. You have the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, who was convicted, that was coming in to ignite his shoe on an aircraft coming across the Atlantic. You also have, again, where one of my concerns is after 9/11, we’re coming and approaching eight years after that horrific incident; there has not been an attack on the homeland since then. But it has been not lost sight of us that, indeed, al Qaeda (A.Q.) and its affiliates are still focused on us. And that was more evident in the aviation plot that was based in the U.K. ( United Kingdom) where they were attempting to bring down multiple aircrafts over the Atlantic Ocean emanating from the U.K., traveling to the U.S.

But then you also have this whole other group of individuals that we have done significant disruptions; we refer to them as “home-growns” or “globally inspired” extremists. Many of them never had any foreign connection; had no connection to A.Q. senior leadership, any other identified terrorist organization, but were inspired, had radical beliefs, and then were in the process or in the pre-operational planning; some were actually were at the final stages of their planning potentially to do some type of attack. That was evidenced in the Ft. Dix plot that was disrupted, the JFK plot that was disrupted, and some most recent ones that were in the news that are still pending. But again, quite a priority for us, quite concerning to us, and the good news is we were successfully able to identify them, disrupt the plot before it actually became an attack, and basically convict them in federal court.

Mr. Schiff: And that’s our job, every day, 24/7?

Mr. Heimbach: “Every day, 24/7; that’s probably one of the challenges of the counterterrorism or the national security workforce. The terrorists don’t sleep; so the 24/7 operation that we have to focus on, the blackberry, the e-mails never, never stop. And many times, unfortunately, most of our threats emanate, the most serious threats emanate from across the world, or around the world, I should say, and thus, when we’re sleeping, they’re up, and when they’re sleeping, we’re up. And so, we, the U.S. government and the FBI, have just a phenomenal dedicated team that does work 24/7 to ensure that we all are safe.”

Mr. Schiff: Touching on technology, how have various computers and computer programs and initiatives helped intelligence gathering and the sharing of information?

Mr. Heimbach: “The computers, again, we have increased our technical capabilities within the FBI. When you bring in a professional analytical core looking for the latest and the greatest, and that’s the workforce we bring in here, the amount of data that we collect from the entire United States government is voluminous. So it is very crucial that you have technical tools within your tool chest, as I refer to them, to enable you to connect the strategic dots; show the correlations between, whether it’s phone numbers, whether it’s individuals, whether it’s surveillance, whatever it may be to connect a dot, or an integral part. That integral part of collecting the intelligence, putting it into a reasonable assessment of what you’re looking at, then becomes a meaningful product, or we it call it reports, that we would disseminate to our local, state, local, federal or even foreign liaison partners.

You have seen the intelligence sharing of the FBI dramatically improve; probably a hundred times fold, of where we were. The FBI did a great job in terms of collecting information and building cases. What we didn’t do, because we weren’t sure there was a customer base that wanted our information or there was anyone that even cared about the information we were collecting; we didn’t do a good job of disseminating it and sharing it. That has changed 360 degrees. Now everything we collect, we basically first and foremost, we collect information for intelligence purposes, first and foremost. Sometimes the intelligence we collect can be used as potential evidence in a crime.

One of the mandates that the FBI has; we’re uniquely placed where we are the lead domestic intelligence service in the U.S. But we are the lead on counterterrorism for federal law enforcement. It’s our job to then enforce the material support for terrorism and national security related, you know, I hear quite often the same criticisms that the FBI takes and does not give. But I would beg to differ. I think we share tremendously with all of our state and local partners. Having been a former police officer myself, I know how valuable it is to get the best intelligence down to that beat cop, to that line officer, to that state trooper, so they are all sensitized and informed of exactly what we could be looking for. What are some of the indicators? And as we’ve seen in some of the 9/11 hijackers, some of their encounters with law enforcement, how that could have been affective to at least alerting us that ‘X subject was stopped in X state’ or ‘someone was encountered somewhere,’ connecting that together. And the more we share with our state and local partners, the better we all are; the safer we all are.

A new process that we have, that we are, has been rolling out here continuously is, we have a system internally in the FBI; it’s called Guardian. That’s where all of our threat tips go into the FBI; comes into a classified system; no threat goes untouched. We will unravel, as I refer to it, the onion, until there is no onion left, in terms of making sure there is a merit to the threat or there is no merit and it’s unsubstantiated but basically we either move it to a higher level of focus or we wash out the threat.

We’ve also then incorporated what we call eGuardian; eGuardian is a state and local, or other federal agencies, will have access in an unclassed atmosphere, that if they choose, they can upload their individual suspicious activities; their threats that come in; and it could be very, as I refer to, low-hanging fruit, it could be a low level misdemeanor, or just a police officer’s gut feeling of some type of suspicious activity. It will allow it to be vetted through its own police department with the proper approvals, put into the eGuardian system, and then it sits there, and then we have a mechanism to potentially connect the dot. Because if somebody is filming a power plant facility on the East Coast; they talk to the individual, no big deal, find no derogatory information, no threat concern, and close it out. But it goes in the system. But then the same individuals, or a car used by the individuals, shows up at the Hoover Dam. Now we’re saying, ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’ That’s the important thing. Today it may not link, but five years or ten years from now, it could link. So the more information sharing we do, with heavy review of protecting the civil liberties, the privacy of all Americans, heavily factors in what we put in our data bases and what we don’t.”

Mr. Schiff: We have more. Please return to our Inside the FBI podcast next week. Assistant Director Heimbach takes you inside morning meetings with FBI executives and the Director of the FBI. Much more on counterterrorism on the Internet at That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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