FBI Director Wray Podcast Interview

September 9, 2021

Director Wray Reflects on 9/11

How the Bureau Has Changed 20 Years Later


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Steve Lewis: The morning of September 11, 2001, remains one of the most pivotal points in American history and for the FBI. The attacks and the large-scale investigation that followed led to far-reaching changes to the Bureau. Terrorism was elevated to the greatest threat against the U.S. and preventing it continues to be the top priority for the FBI.

With us in the studio is the FBI's assistant director of public affairs, Cathy Milhoan. She is here with FBI Director Christopher Wray to take a look back on 9/11 and discuss not only what he experienced on that day, but also how the Bureau has evolved since then.

I'm Steve Lewis and thanks for joining. This is Inside the FBI.

Cathy Milhoan: FBI Director Christopher Wray became the eighth Director of the FBI when he was sworn in on August 2, 2017. Today, he leads an FBI that has seen a dramatic shift in the threat space in our country. And we are pleased to have him with us today as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Director Wray, thanks for joining us.

Director Christopher Wray: Happy to be here.

Milhoan: Director, anyone old enough to remember 9/11 has very vivid memories of that day: what they witnessed, the emotions that they felt. Would you mind taking us back to that morning and sharing with us what you experienced that day?

Director Wray: Well, certainly for me, 9/11 was by far and away the most significant moment in my career. And I have memories of it both on a personal level and a professional level.

On a personal level, I grew up in Manhattan in New York City; my parents still live there. My mom worked just a couple blocks away from the World Trade Center. I remember interviewing for a job once in the World Trade Center. So, from a personal perspective, it literally hit close to home. And I remember the shock, the horror, at seeing the footage of the planes hitting the towers and the destruction and the loss of life. 

But then on a professional level, I was working as, at that point, a relatively new senior justice official, having been a line prosecutor before that. And I was actually in FBI SIOC—which is for those listening who don't know what that is, it's essentially the FBI's operation center at Headquarters. It's sort of a gleaming complex of screens and workspaces and exactly what you would imagine the FBI would have. 

But I was in that center on the day of, with the, at that point, new FBI Director at the time Director Mueller, the Attorney General John Ashcroft, and others, and the place was packed to the gills. I mean, and literally, you had people sitting on floors, people at every seat they could find, and there was this kind of buzz of activity. You could feel almost the adrenaline kind of coursing through the place as people were focused on: What do we need to be doing? How do we get on top of this? What's next? 

And it's that what's next part that I think was really permeating people the most. And I think it really, for me, the other thing that I remember from that day—which went into the night, which went into the next morning and the next day, and so on—was this kind of sense of resolve and solidarity that people not just all across the FBI and the Justice Department, but all of our partners were in there, too. Everybody focused on one goal, which is never again. 

I think the other memory that I have of that day was not on the day itself, but was very much about that day, which was a couple of years later when I was the assistant attorney general. I participated in a presentation that we'd put together for hundreds of family members of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. And we were all packed into this gigantic sort of ballroom at a hotel. And, you know, I talked for a little bit, and then I went to the back of the room as the line prosecutors did this kind of minute-by-minute presentation on what we knew about each of the four flights. 

And then there was opportunity for the family members to ask questions. And you could feel in the room even two years later, the grief was almost palpable in the room. It had this kind of weight to it that packed throughout the room, and I remember, for example, this one gentlemen, very distinguished-looking, who stood up to ask a question, and his daughter had been on one of the flights.  

And he got up, and he only really got through the first couple words of his question before he just suddenly collapsed. I mean, literally knee-buckling grief. 

I remember another guy who had worked some night shift job, and his wife had been on one of the flights, and she, like so many of the victims on flights, tried to call him, as she knew she was going to be dying, to speak to him and say goodbye. And because he was sound asleep, having just come back from his night shift job, he didn't wake up in time to take the call. 

But she called back again just a few minutes later. And this time he did wake up, and so they got to have their conversation, and she was able to say the just unbelievably heart-wrenching goodbye. 

But then what really struck me was that the guy, you know, he then went off for the next few days to attend to her affairs, the funeral, et cetera, and was staying with other family. And he came back to his house, whatever it was three, four, five days later, and went to listen to his new messages. And of course, one of the messages he heard was the voice of his wife with that first phone call saying goodbye. And it's always stuck with me, I just—the emotions you must be feeling at a moment like that. 

But there were 3,000 victims. So, every single one of those people has some story like that. And that's kind of what I think about the most when I think about 9/11. 

Milhoan: It's been 20 years, and for some that may seem like a lifetime ago, and as you just shared, I'm sure for many of the victims and their families, that emotion and that day feels like it just happened. What are your thoughts today as the FBI Director? Right, things have changed for you as well. So what are your thoughts today as we mark this somber anniversary? 

Director Wray: Well, certainly the 20-year anniversary is a milestone anniversary in its own right. I will say that it's never, for me, even as a guy who was a prosecutor at the time and not a victim or a family member of a victim, it's never been far from my thoughts ever since. And every day in this job, I'm quite confident that every day I think about 9/11 in some way.

My first thought is of course, about all the really good innocent people that we lost that day, and in the years since, and their loved ones. It's about the suddenness with which the whole world changed, not just the whole world, big picture, but the whole world for each of those people and everybody working on the mission.

I think about the bravery and the sacrifice of all the first responders. I think we lost over 400 first responders that day, including two members of the FBI family, Special Agent Lenny Hatton, and very recently at the time retired former Special Agent John O'Neill, both of whom, in finest FBI tradition, ran towards the danger to try to help others. So, thinking about those people for me was, of course, part of the motivation in coming back into service as FBI Director. And so, I kind of knew that I'd be thinking about victims in taking on this job.

What I don't think I had fully bargained for was the fact that we would still be accruing victims from those attacks a couple of decades later. And that's because of the long-term effects of the illnesses incurred by all those, including quite a number of FBI agents, who responded to the scene and helped go through all the evidence at the scene.

So, the long-term effects of that work meant that we're still having victims real-time today from those attacks. In my first year as Director, I attended not one, not two, but three memorial services of FBI employees who we lost to the 9/11 attacks from 9/11-related illnesses. Special Agents Melissa Morrow, Dave LeValley, Brian Crews. And these are people that I spoke to in their final moments before they died, spoke at their funerals. And of course, unfortunately we have others who are sick even now, and others who haven't stepped up yet, but we know are sick.

And it just raises the importance of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, the World Trade Center Health Program, and the importance of getting those people registered for their sake and for their family's sake. And so, when I think about the 20th anniversary, it always comes back to the victims, both past and, unfortunately, present and future.

Milhoan: When you became Director, you incorporated a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for all new agents and analysts coming out of Quantico. Can you walk us through your thinking behind that? And what do you hope those new employees gained from that experience?

Director Wray: One of the things that really struck me in coming back into service with 9/11 so much on my mind was that we were rapidly going from a workforce where everyone at the FBI remembered exactly what they were doing at the FBI on 9/11, to a workforce of people who joined the FBI inspired to come into service because of 9/11, to people who now we’re hiring who were in elementary school on 9/11. 

And soon, for example, already with our interns, we're hiring people who weren't even born on 9/11. And for those of us for whom it's top-of-mind all the time, that's significant, because I think it's one thing to understand what happened in 9/11 and all of the changes it brought about at the FBI and the intelligence community, et cetera, intellectually. But it's another thing to understand it kind of in your gut, in your heart. That the sort of emotional visceral impact and visiting the 9/11 Memorial struck me about how well they had kind of managed to capture the humanity of what had happened that day, the weight of it.

And so, my thought was if we can make every new agent, every new analyst go to the memorial, that will be one way of getting them to kind of understand the significance of 9/11—not just in their heads, but in their hearts. And that in turn, I think, avoids the thing that we're always worried about, which is that people get numb or complacent.

9/11 can't be a historical footnote; it has to be something that drives us to be kind of on the balls of our feet at all times.

And so that's one of the things that I thought, you know, these new agents and analysts are at their most impressionable, right, when they're going through their initial training. And so capturing them at that moment and shaping them at that moment, hopefully will have kind of a lasting impact, and it will avoid any possibility that the attacks and the significance of the attacks and the significance of the changes the FBI made because of the attacks, having any of that sort of fade into history.

Milhoan: Since 9/11, we've heard words like al Qaeda, ISIS, ISIS- K. Sometimes it feels like every month there's a new terrorist organization with a new name. Can you talk about the evolution of terrorism since 9/11?

Director Wray: So, the first thing I would say about the terrorist threat today versus 9/11 is that it's just as much of a threat today as it was on 9/11. It's just maybe different in certain ways.

After 9/11, the focus was very much, for the first few years afterwards, I can remember being intensely focused on what you might think of as sort of the classic sleeper cells, you know, al Qaeda sleeper cells, maybe some other similar type of terrorist group. And that's still a concern, still a risk, but in some ways the threat has evolved since then.

That kind of threat, the sleeper cell, you know, those are plots that if you're planning some large-scale attack you got to involve a number of people, they have to be communicating with each other, they have to generate the money to pay for it, they have to plan, they have to prepare, and they have to execute. And so, you often hear the saying about dots to connect; well, if you know where to look, there's a lot of dots out there for a plot like that to find and to connect.

What we see today is not just that threat, but a more diverse threat. So, we see people who are inspired, lone actors or small cells maybe, who are inspired online and who may be choosing to attack soft targets—which is just everyday people living their everyday lives—not some major landmark perhaps. And they're using easily accessible weapons, a gun, a knife, a car, some crude IED that you can figure out how to build off of the internet. And they're going from the idea, the radicalization, to the attack in days or weeks instead of months or years. So, you've got fewer dots to connect and less time to do it. 

And so, sometimes I say terrorism today moves at the speed of social media. It's a much shorter window in time for us to be able to do what we have to do. And that extends not just to the al Qaeda-inspired attacks, the ISIS-inspired attacks, the domestic terrorism threat—which is a huge, huge issue that we're very worried about. So, it's a more diverse threat. It's more inch-deep, mile-wide instead of inch-wide, mile-deep, I guess is what I would say. But still very much has to be and remains the FBI's number one priority.

Milhoan: So terrorism has evolved since 9/11, but so has the FBI. And for those who don't walk down the hallways of an FBI building where you see the daily reminders and remembrance of 9/11, talk to us about how 9/11 caused the FBI to evolve and change as an organization and how we investigate these types of cases.

Director Wray: So it's hard to overstate how much the FBI has evolved because of and since 9/11. And I guess I see it more dramatically as somebody who spent almost every day in FBI Headquarters for a number of years right after 9/11 and then left for a while in the private sector and then came back. So the before and after maybe jumps out at me more.

But I think the biggest thing is an evolution to focus very much on prevention and disruption. The goal is of course to stop the terrorists before they attack, not to catch people after they've attacked. And that mindset alone now people may take for granted, but it wasn't always that way. So, that's the first thing.

I think the second thing, which is a close cousin of that, is the recognition that intelligence has to drive operations. And that has now permeated, not just the way we approach the terrorist threat, but really every program in the FBI, the integration of intelligence and law enforcement. And we're one of the only agencies in the world that is both a law enforcement agency and an intelligence agency. And that is very much a part of the muscle memory, the battle rhythm, whatever expression you want to use here at the FBI.

And then I think the third thing, which again, I can't overstate, is the focus on partnerships. Today's FBI is so much more lashed up shoulder-to-shoulder with all of our partners in the intelligence community, our partners in state and local law enforcement, other federal law enforcement, our foreign partners, private sector partners, community partners.

There's a recognition that it's a team sport more than anything else. And there's probably no place more graphically illustrating that than, for example, our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which were maybe 30 or so Joint Terrorism Task Forces just prior to 9/11. There's over 200 of those task forces now, with something like 4,000 or so different participants. These are not just FBI personnel, but personnel from all these other agencies, all on task forces all over the country, and now some overseas as well, focused on a single mission of sharing information, working side-by-side.

And then I think the focus on the victims. Again, maybe because it's the 20th anniversary, but for me, it always comes back to the victims. And we now have created really largely as a result of 9/11, although not exclusively, a Victim Services Division, which is about much more of the service, like the name suggests, the services to the victims. And we have victims specialists in all 56 field offices. We have a rapid deployment team of victims services specialists. Anytime there's a significant criminal or terrorist event, they deploy. So there's a focus on the victims. So it's prevention and disruption. It's intelligence-driven, it's partnership, partnership, partnership, teamwork. And it's a focus on the victims.

Milhoan: Director, every morning, you get a briefing book. And you get that book before, I would guess, that the majority of Americans are even awake. And I understand that a lot of what's in that book is classified, but it also speaks to the current state of the terrorist threats facing the United States. What can you share that you see in that briefing book every day? What concerns you in it, and, more importantly, what is the FBI doing about it?

Director Wray: Well, you're right. I do get a briefing book first thing in the morning, bright and early. And I haven't even finished my second cup of coffee when I'm reading about some of the really bone-chilling ways in which different types of adversaries are trying to harm the American people. And it's, you know, a fairly grim way to start your day, but it also is a great way to ensure that you start the day with a little extra adrenaline rush, because there's some real threats out there.

And so we're concerned not just about the lone actors that I've talked about already, that the domestic violent extremists, the homegrown violent extremists who are inspired online by various forms of a global jihad, as well. We're concerned about, especially with developments in Afghanistan, what does the future hold for al Qaeda, for al Qaeda's affiliates, the Haqqani network, ISIS-K. We're concerned about on the Shia side, not just on the Sunni side. We're concerned about state associated groups like Iran’s, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, their Qods Force, as they say.

So we're concerned about those types of threats on the terrorist side. We're also concerned about the way in which technology has significantly increased the level of difficulty of our mission. If you think about what the FBI or really any investigative agency does, we're investigating... we're either pursuing the stuff, the data, the electronic evidence, the messages, the money, the money flow, and the people, the witnesses, the human source, as well.

All three of those are harder to pursue these days than they were. So on the stuff side, on the electronic evidence side, the way in which default encryption has started to affect messaging services and devices makes it harder and harder for us and our partners with fully lawful court-approved process to get access to that. So, we're starting to go blinder and blinder to that information. On the money side, of course, cryptocurrency makes it harder and harder to follow the money.

And then on the human side, there's all sorts of developments with social media, digital connectivity, artificial intelligence, et cetera. Those things make it harder and harder for us to recruit, retain, and use human sources. So across all of our programs, there's a level of digital transformation that has significantly complicated our mission and our ability under the law to keep Americans safe. So, we worry about that as well.

And then finally, I guess, I'm always concerned that while we have to remain cool, calm, and collected in crisis, we can never afford for that to become complacent or blasé or numb in crisis. And so, I worry about the relentless, day-in, day-out nature of the threat and worry about people kind of starting to take for granted what we're up against.

Milhoan: Director, earlier you talked about partnerships. And one of those critical partnerships for the FBI is the public. We have a really robust tip line. And for decades, we've relied on the public's assistance in our investigations. What do you think we need from the public to stay ahead of all those threats that you just outlined?

Director Wray: The most important thing we need from the public is vigilance, continued vigilance. If there's one thing we've learned from not just the terrorist attacks that we've either prevented or experienced, is that there's almost always someone, a passerby, a bystander, a friend, a family member, a classmate, a coworker, someone who saw something, who if they'd known to speak up and had felt comfortable speaking up, we might've been able to prevent it. And when we've been successful, it's because people have spoken up.

So you sometimes hear people say, "If you see something, say something." And most people, when they hear that, they picture the unattended backpack at the Greyhound Bus Terminal or something. And of course we want people to speak up then, too, but more and more in today's world, we need people, if they see something about somebody, to say something. To reach out to law enforcement, to reach out to the FBI, because that's how we're going to stay ahead of the threat.

And then I think the second thing, which is a close relative to that, is we need the public support, not just for the FBI, but for our law enforcement partners. I remember as we now come up on the 20th anniversary, one of my lasting memories is the outpouring of support, the unity of support for first responders and law enforcement in the period after 9/11. And we need to rekindle some of that. This is a very, very, very tough time for law enforcement throughout this country, as they're spread more and more thinly throughout this country, as they're spread more and more thinly all the time and are somewhat beleaguered, and then on top of that, it has become a much more dangerous profession.

We've had, I think, 50 law enforcement officers murdered, as in killed, by adversarial action, feloniously killed in this country this year already. That's in the first eight months, more than all of last year combined. And it takes an incredibly special person to be willing to get up every morning and be willing to put their life on the line, sacrifice their life if necessary for a total stranger. Not very many people are wired that way. And I think it would behoove everyone to take a deep breath for a second and remember what it takes for somebody to do that and show some support and gratitude towards those people. And so, I think vigilance and public support is how we're going to get through all of this.

Milhoan: Director, you get an exclusive view of the FBI's work and our approach to terrorism every day, both how we do it, what we know, what we don't know. What is it that you wish people, the public, knew more about the FBI and what we do?

Director Wray: Oh, there's so many things, so many things, because so much of what we do is behind the scenes, and we can't talk about. But I would say, how far we've come since 9/11, I think is truly been a gigantic leap forward in all the ways we've talked about here during this conversation. I think the second thing is that we're still keenly focused at terrorism as the number one priority. It's a different threat than it was back then in many ways, but it's still just as much the top priority, and it hasn't gone away. That's not yesterday's threat, that's today's threat and tomorrow's threat, and that's the way we view it.

Another thing I would say is just how many other kinds of threats we're having to juggle that with. The cyber threat has overtaken almost everything, in some ways. The China economic espionage threat is hard to really come up with words to convey how significant that is. The violent crime threat all over this country right now is significant. Hate crimes, crimes against children. All those threats are real and the way in which we're tackling was very much the 9/11-inspired, intelligence-driven, partnership-grounded approach.

But I guess if I had to pick one thing above everything else that I wish the public could see, in the way that I get to see, it's the FBI's people and our partners. The unbelievable diligence, dedication, selflessness, heroism, frankly. And then skill. We have, just on the terrorism side alone, we have thousands of investigations, in the terrorism space alone in a year. Every year since I've been FBI director we've had 100 or so arrests, both on the international terrorism side, the foreign terrorism side, and the domestic terrorism side each. We've thwarted attacks all over this country, and most people don't even know about a lot of these.

We've prevented attacks that could have been truly catastrophic in places like the Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It has something like 29,000 people a year visit that place. Or a shopping mall in Miami that has about 60,000 people at day. A Fourth of July celebration in downtown Cleveland. A tourist hub, the National Mall, here in D.C. Attempts to blow up churches or synagogues in places like Long Beach or Las Vegas or outside of Denver. An ISIS supporter who wanted to, tried to, commit an attack on Memorial Day weekend down near Tampa.

Here in the middle of the COVID, right in the worst part of COVID, we prevented a guy who wanted to commit a vehicle-borne IED attack on a hospital he picked largely because of COVID. And that's just off the top of my head, just during my time as FBI Director. And so, the work that our people are doing to keep people safe, it's humbling to be around them, but inspiring at the same time. I sleep better at night knowing they're on the job and knowing they're keeping people safe, and I think Americans should too.

Milhoan: Director Wray, I think that's a good place to end. And I thank you for your time and for coming on our show today.

Director Wray: Thank you.

Lewis: This has been another episode of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to get email alerts for new episodes of our show on fbi.gov/podcasts.

And as we've discussed today, the FBI continues to investigate and prevent terrorism threats, and we still need the help them the public. There are a lot of opportunities out there for you to help us, like visiting fbi.gov/wanted to view our current Most Wanted Terrorists list, downloading and using our FBI Wanted app, or following us on social media.

You can also call our toll-free tip line at 1-800-CALL-FBI, contact your local field office, or submit a tip on our website.

I'm Steve Lewis from the FBI's Office of Public Affairs, and thanks again for tuning in.

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9/11 20th Anniversary Graphic

Read our three-part series on how 9/11 shaped today’s FBI.