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Transcript: Carl Ghattas talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

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In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Carl Ghattas, former executive assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, about the bureau's efforts to combat international and domestic terrorism. 

Ghattas explains how the FBI balances efforts to investigate crimes already committed with those intended to prevent new terror attacks. Morell and Ghattas also discuss the challenges related to the spread of violent ideologies through social and other online media.


  • On the spread of violent ideologies: "National boundaries are essentially insignificant now, given the ubiquitous nature of social media. So, if a particular individual who favors a violent, extremist ideology wants to spread propaganda, wants to recruit individuals to that ideology, wants to suggest targets, wants to garner greater support for their cause, they can do that through the use of social media."



Carl, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is great to have you on the show.
Thank you for having me.
Carl, as you know, I asked you to come onto the show to chat specifically about domestic terrorism. A number of our listeners have asked us to spend some time on that important issue. So it's great to have you on to talk about that. But before we do that, I'd love to spend a little time chatting with you about your career. And a bit of time asking at least a couple of questions about international terrorism, which I actually think will help us transition nicely into domestic terrorism. Does that make sense?
That makes sense, Michael.
Great. So you were a career F.B.I. agent, I think 21 years, correct?
That's correct.
So how did you end up, Carl, at the bureau? And was it something that you always wanted to do from a young age? Or was it an interest that only came later to you?
Well, it actually wasn't planned at all. I had no designs to come into the F.B.I. growing up. In fact, I wanted to be a doctor. My father was a physician, he's a retired physician now. And growing up, I was very familiar with that environment. And when I was in high school and then college, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a surgeon. And then when I was in college, I tried to prepare myself for eventually going to medical school.

But unfortunately, at some point, ran into organic chemistry, which helped me realign my career aspirations. And I realized that I was probably better suited to a different profession and thought seriously about the legal profession at the time. And I was an English major, so that was just as well suited to preparing me for law school as anything else would be.

So I finished my undergraduate work with a degree in English. And then proceeded to go to law school. And once there, I decided that I wanted to become a prosecutor. I didn't want to work for a large firm or a small firm, I wanted to try cases.
Did you go to law school with that interest in being a prosecutor? Or did that develop while you were in law school?
That's where I was leaning. I was very interested in trial work. And I wanted to put my legal skills to use in a trial setting. And throughout the course of my career in law school, I decided that the best way to do that, the best way to find a profession that interested me, that I was passionate in, would be to become a prosecutor in an area that would give me the opportunity to try a lot of cases.

And that's exactly what I did. I became a state prosecutor in south Florida, in Fort Lauderdale. And I tried a significant number of cases during the course of my four-year career there. Everything from drugs to financial crimes to juvenile crimes, what have you. And got a lot of experience in the courtroom honing my trial skills. I had always had the F.B.I. in the back of my mind but not to a very serious extent.

And at some point I decided that I would try to apply for the F.B.I. for a position as a special agent in the F.B.I. and see how that would work. I enjoyed my work as a prosecutor, but I thought that I owed it to myself to give that a shot and see how it would go. So I applied to the F.B.I. and about a year or so after I applied, I was fortunate enough to be accepted. And started at the F.B.I. Academy.
So Carl, how would you characterize what it was like to work at the bureau, for our listeners that don't have any experience with that? What is it like to work there?
Sure. It's a very mission-oriented organization. Everything that the F.B.I. does is very focused. And there is a strong culture of teamwork and collaboration. In fact, the mission of the F.B.I. is very simple. It's to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. And that's a concept that is constantly discussed and is sort of at the center of everything that F.B.I. agents do, and everything that the professional staff in the F.B.I. does.

It's a very simple mission. It's what brings the entire workforce together. It's a workforce of about 37,000 people. Thirteen thousand, approximately, are special agents. And all of them are focused on that very critical mission. And there's a very strong sense of camaraderie that I experienced throughout my career.

Everyone was always galvanized around the particular case or investigation that they were working on. And that brought everyone together. And it wasn't just F.B.I. agents and F.B.I. professional staff that worked on these investigations. It was also state and local officers that were brought in on task forces. So there was a strong sense that the entire law enforcement community was focused on whatever investigation you might be working on.

And the F.B.I. does a wide variety of work. Most people think of the F.B.I. as a law enforcement organization that investigates bank robberies and kidnappings and so forth. One thing I didn't know coming into the F.B.I. is that the F.B.I. had a very substantial overseas mission, and did a significant amount of work overseas.

And we have 56 field offices in the United States and about 90 offices overseas. So the bureau has grown into a global law enforcement and intelligence organization. And particularly during the two decades that I was there. So it was a fascinating time to see the organization grow. It was a fascinating time to see the skill sets that the F.B.I. was attracting.

Everything from engineers to lawyers to former law enforcement to former military to folks that were proficient in the cyber world. So a variety of different skill sets. People with very diverse backgrounds who came in and, as I said, focused on one central mission. So it was great to see a diverse group of people come together with a single purpose. And I saw that consistently throughout my career, working cases here in the United States and also working cases overseas.
So Carl, I would assume that you would recommend the bureau as a place for young me and women who want to serve their country.
Without reservation, I think it is a place where a person can put their skills to use with a sense of purpose. And we constantly talk about how fortunate we were to be able to do the work that we did to serve the organization, to serve the country, to serve the American people. And to use our varied skills and experiences to that end. And it is an organization that very much takes its core values seriously.

We believe very much in integrity and compassion, fairness, respect, obviously adheres to the Constitution. And it is a situation where people become intertwined in the fabric of that organization. And so there is a strong esprit de corps, there is a strong allegiance, not just to the organization but to the country.

So the bureau provides young professionals who are trying to decide what to do with the degrees they have, or how to serve, if they want to serve a tremendous opportunity to do that. And often, just as importantly, it is very enjoyable work. It is a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun to do the different types of things that an organization like the F.B.I. puts you in a position to do.
So Carl, just two more questions about the bureau before we jump into substance here. Your recommendation for young men and women to think about the bureau as a place to work without hesitation, that's even true in this political environment in which we live? Still no hesitation?
No hesitation whatsoever. I think when you look at the core mission of the F.B.I., to protect the American people, to uphold the Constitution, whether you're doing that in New York City or Kansas City or Sacramento or Seattle, that mission and that objective is the same.

As F.B.I. agents, as professional staff in the F.B.I., we deal, for most of our careers, with the American public. We talk to the American public, we interact with the American public. And we do so, and we have those conversations based upon years of trust that we have built up here in the United States and even abroad.

And that reputation is what gives American people the motivation to talk with us, to cooperate in our investigations, and to help us protect them. It is a very strong relationship that we have always had with the public. And when you go out to some of these cities all across the country, you see the respect that they have for the F.B.I.

And you see their willingness to help the F.B.I. in its mission. I saw that throughout my career. I saw that during the last few years of my career. And at its core, what the F.B.I. is has not changed. And its values have not changed. The importance of its interaction with the public has not changed. And its reputation among the American people is strong.
So just one more question about the career piece of this. What makes an applicant to the bureau to be a special agent stand out? Is it a particular degree? Is it a particular quality of character? What makes an applicant stand out?
Michael, it's all of those things. The bureau is looking for individuals who have experience in the work force, oftentimes who have advanced degrees, whether they be degrees in accounting or engineering or law. But most importantly, the bureau is looking for individuals who are committed to a sense of mission, committed to service.

Who have demonstrated integrity throughout their career, throughout their education. Who demonstrate an ability to respect others and who have an interpersonal ability. And they are able to relate to and talk to different types of people, not just in the United States but all across the world.

And so it is a situation where the bureau is looking for folks with a wide variety of talents. But above all, individuals with integrity, with compassion, and with respect to the rule of law. So it's more than just the degrees, it is those intangibles. And that's why we interview our prospective candidates.

They undergo a panel interview in addition to a review of their background. And typically, you have to have a certain amount of experience in the work force or an advanced degree. So it is a number of things that the bureau is looking for in terms of identifying suitable candidates to be special agents.
Okay, so Carl you spent most of your career focused on international terrorism. I want to ask you a couple questions about that. What's the definition of international terrorism? And what are some of the things that fall under the rubric of international terrorist-related crimes that the bureau investigates?
Well, Michael, if I can pull the camera back a little bit and talk a little bit about what gave rise to the international terrorism statute, first and foremost, if you recall back in the late '70s and early '80s, Americans overseas were victims of terrorist incidents.

They were targeted overseas in plane hijackings and murders and kidnappings, et cetera. I'm sure folks will recall in 1979 the takeover of the American Embassy in Iran. In 1983, the marine barracks bombing in Beirut. We lost 241 servicemen there. In 1984 William Buckley, a C.I.A. chief of station, was kidnapped and killed.

Nineteen eight-five, TWA 847 was hijacked and a Navy diver was killed, Robert Stethem. So those incidents gave rise to legislation. Congress decided they needed to figure out a way to protect Americans overseas. So Congress passed legislation that criminalized that type of conduct, even though it occurred overseas.

And the F.B.I.'s overseas authority to investigate those acts derived from that legislation. And that legislation became part of our criminal code. And so to your question of what the definition is, when I walk through the definition you'll see that it applies to those terrorist incidents that I just talked about.

And the definition talks about violent acts that are a violation of either federal or state criminal statutes here in the United States. And those acts have to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.

And all of those incidents would have to happen outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. So when you look at those examples of acts of terrorism that I just ran through, they all fit squarely within that particular definition.
So I want to ask you, Carl, about the balance in the bureau between investigating terrorist-related crimes that have already been committed and collecting intelligence to prevent those crimes in the first place. And I guess I would ask you, am I thinking about that balance in the right way? And if I am, how do you think about the bureau getting that balance right?
I think that's a critical question, Michael. And it is a question that the F.B.I. had to answer in the months and years after 9/11 in particular. And the answer to that question essentially changed the fabric, not just of the F.B.I., but of how the entire U.S. intelligence community operated.

And that balance between reacting to crimes that occurred and preventing crimes is something that we did not give due attention to prior to 9/11. The F.B.I. was very much a reactive organization. So anytime a crime occurred, whether it was here in the United States or overseas, the F.B.I. reacted along with the rest of intelligence community.

We identified who the perpetrators were and we brought them to justice. After 9/11, the entire intelligence community, the entire U.S. government learned that, collectively, we all needed to be more proactive to prevent those types of acts from occurring in the first place.

And in doing so, we had to be better at collecting intelligence, and in particular, sharing that intelligence. Not just within the members of the intelligence community but with our services across the globe. So we realized that this was a global problem, not just a U.S. problem.

And so a variety of steps were taken, as you know, after 9/11 to ensure that we had that balance. The ability to react and investigate to acts that had already occurred, but more importantly, to identify, collect, share, analyze, and use intelligence more effectively to prevent those acts from occurring.

And so that caused a fundamental cultural restructuring of the F.B.I., as well as a change in how we thought as an intelligence community about how we worked together and how we shared intelligence. And so we emphasized even more the need to not just collect that intelligence, but create task forces so that we could share the intelligence that we collected with our federal, state, and local partners. So the F.B.I. now has in excess of 100 joint terrorism task forces across the country.

We also took part in the entire intelligence community's efforts to collect, to share, and analyze the intelligence. One noteworthy step was the creation of NCTC, the National Counterterrorism Center. Essentially, you can view that as the analytical component of the U.S. government, where that intelligence comes in that is collected by the various agencies.

It is synthesized, it is analyzed, and then it is disseminated in a variety of finished products to the intelligence community so that the intelligence community agencies can make more informed decisions about what they are, and should be, doing. And it also helps to inform their strategies surrounding terrorism.
So Carl, we could talk about international terrorism all day long. And there were additional questions I wanted to ask you, but if I asked you those we would never get to domestic terrorism. So let's kind of switch gears here a little bit. So on domestic terrorism, what's the definition of domestic terrorism and how does it differ from international terrorism?
Well, interestingly, Michael, we actually have a definition of domestic terrorism on the books. And it is very similar in terms of the language to international terrorism. It calls for violent acts that are dangerous to human life that violate federal or state laws, that are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influenced a policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

Almost identical to the definition of international terrorism. One key difference being that the definition of domestic terrorism calls for those violent acts to occur within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States as opposed to the international terrorism definition, which calls for those acts to occur outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
So I'm going to make sure I understand this. So a terrorist act committed in the United States, if inspired by or directed by a foreign terrorist organization is still considered domestic terrorism?
So this is an interesting part of the discussion. The way various agencies define domestic terrorism is not consistent across the board. The way the F.B.I. looks at this, if an individual commits an act of terrorism in the United States and that individual is inspired by, motivated by, or directed by a foreign terrorist organization, then that act is considered an act of international terrorism.

Not an act of domestic terrorism. If that particular individual is acting under one of four different characterized ideologies, that is if that person is motivated by racially or ethnically motivated ideologies, if that person is motivated by anti-government ideologies, if that person is acting motivated by an animal rights or environmental violent extremist ideology or an abortion-related violent extremist ideology, then that person is considered to be a domestic terrorist. So the definition is different.
Got it. So is that piece of domestic terrorism growing? You know, there's been some statements by senior government officials, including the F.B.I. director Chris Wray and the former acting homeland security secretary that would suggest that that kind of domestic terrorism that you just talked about is a growing problem. Is that your sense? And if so, why?
So you're right, Michael, in saying that both DHS and the F.B.I. have indicated they've seen a rise in recent years in those types of acts. The problem in coming to a conclusion to answer that question appropriately is the fact that we don't have a great deal of fidelity with respect to the statistics.

Because various agencies and components in the United States who collect this type of data characterize the conduct differently. And so the numbers, essentially, are different. And what I mean by that is this. Is that the F.B.I., when they are talking about domestic terrorism, do not include in their numbers acts of terrorism committed by individuals who were inspired by foreign terrorist organization.

Even though those acts are committed here in the U.S. Other components, agencies, not-for-profits who also look at these statistics might include individuals who commit acts of terrorism here in the United States even though they're directed by a foreign terrorist organization in their overall numbers.

So that's what makes it difficult to answer that question with a great deal of reliability. And this is one of the reasons that some have called for a domestic terrorism statute, so that these acts could be more accurately characterized and so these statistics could be more accurately kept and analyzed.
So Carl, where are you on this question of a domestic terrorism statute?
Well, I think it's worth understanding why certain people are proponents of this statute. And why others feel that we have enough on the books, enough in terms of criminal statutes on the books already, so that we don't need another domestic terrorism statute.

Those who think we do not need it look at the federal and state criminal statutes that we already have and they say, "Those statutes can already be applied to the conduct of those individuals who are committing acts of terrorism within the United States." For instance, all 50 states have murder statutes on the books. Those statutes, the penalties call for either life imprisonment, or in some instances, the death penalty.

We also have hate crime statutes that are on the books. Again, those statutes call for penalties up to life imprisonment and potentially the death penalty. And we see examples in the past where acts of terrorism were committed by individuals here in the United States. Those individuals were charged and either pled or convicted at trial.

And they are either serving life sentences, they are serving other terms in prison, or they were eligible for the death penalty. So those who don't see the need for a domestic terrorism statute take the position that we have laws on the books, they are effective, and there are historical examples that we can point to that tell us that we are effectively managing the problem.

Now, on the other hand, there are those who think that we do need a domestic terrorism statute for a number of reasons. Those proponents of the statute say that we need to characterize the conduct of individuals who commit acts of terrorism in a consistent fashion, whether it be here in the United States, or abroad. In essence, there has to be a statutory equivalency.

If we have an international terrorism statute that criminalizes the conduct overseas and that provides for certain penalties, we should certainly have that here in the United States to protect our citizens, to criminalize that conduct, and to impose the appropriate penalties.

They also argue for the need to have a moral equivalency. In essence, we need to be able to characterize a conduct of those who commit violent crimes in furtherance of terrorist ideologies the way it's supposed to be characterized. They are terrorists, they commit acts of terror, we should call them that.

The proponents of the statute also believe that if we had a statute, as I alluded to briefly before, that we would essentially be able to characterize that conduct more accurately and track it. And we would have statistics that we would be able to point to understand the trends. And to be able to allocate resources, the appropriate resources, to these investigations based on our understanding of the threat.
So Carl, I guess the debate is important and we'll see how that evolves. But at the end of the day, the bureau is obviously focused on international terrorism as folks understand it, is it as equally focused on the domestic terrorism piece as the public understands it?
[I]t's helpful to understand how the F.B.I. positions itself to address problems like domestic terrorism, to address threats like domestic terrorism. And in my experience at a variety of levels, as a street agents and then in a variety of leadership roles, what I saw was an organization that had terrorism squads.

These are groups of individuals, agents, professional staff, analysts, who are sitting together and focused on a particular threat. So these are squads of F.B.I. personnel who are focused on terrorism. Every field office in the country, all 56, have a counterterrorism squad. There are over 100 joint terrorism task forces throughout the country. And their focus is not just on international terrorism, but it's on domestic terrorism as well. At F.B.I. Headquarters in Washington, D.C., there is an entire section of agents and analysts who are focused on the domestic terrorism threat.

And part of that section was an analytical component that looked at the intelligence that was being collected, analyzed it, and wrote finished intelligence products to better inform the commanders in the field. To better inform the decision makers at F.B.I. Headquarters.
So you feel okay about that? Because I think there's folks in the public, and I think this is an important point, who are somehow concerned that the bureau's not focused on it. So you feel comfortable with the degree of focus?
I do. I feel comfortable with the degree of focus within the F.B.I., and I feel comfortable with the degree of focus with respect to how the F.B.I. brings together other federal, state, local, and tribal jurisdictions together to share the intelligence and to focus on the domestic terrorism problem.

It's also an agile organization in the sense that when there are upticks in the threat, when there are changes in the threat, when there are evolutions in the threat, the organization is able to shift resources and adapt to those. Now, that's not to say that the organization is perfect.

That is not to say that it is always perfectly aligned. That's not to say that the resources are always 100% where they need to be. And that is why the F.B.I., along with other federal agencies, continuously reassess the threat, continuously reassess the posture of the threat, the trends, the actors, the operatives, how those individuals are working, and reallocates resources based on the renewed understanding of that threat. So it's a continuous process.
So Carl, are there links between domestic terrorists in the U.S., whether they be terrorists who are committing violence based on their ethnic or racial views, or environmental views, or anti-government views? Are there folks in the U.S. who are doing that who have ties overseas? Is that an issue?
The issue is evolving in the domestic terrorism theater just as it did in the international terrorism theater, in the sense that social media, the internet have changed the dynamic of the threats that we face. And so now it is far easier for an individual who prescribes to a violent ideology to spread that ideology across boundaries.

National boundaries are essentially insignificant now, given the ubiquitous nature of social media. So if a particular individual who favors a violent, extremist ideology wants to spread propaganda, wants to recruit individuals to that ideology, wants to suggest targets, wants to garner greater support for their cause, they can do that through the use of social media.

So the fact that the globe is so tied together online makes it that much easier for groups here in the United States, not all groups, some groups here in the United States to communicate with others in Europe and vice versa. We see instances, for example, where terrorist acts are committed overseas and those terrorist acts are live-streamed online.

And so those who are part of similar groups here in the United States can see that, and could potentially be inspired by those acts, and motivated to act here in the United States. So those are the concerns that the law enforcement and intelligence community have that will continue to be at the forefront of their mind as they collectively try to strategize to mitigate this threat in the future.
So from both an international terrorism perspective and a domestic terrorism perspective, you did this for most of your career, for a couple of decades. How do you see this evolving? Are these problems going to get worse before they get better? Are we going to go through cycles?

Are we facing generational problems here? Are our kids and grandkids going to be struggling with this issue? What does victory look like? How do you think about where we might be heading and what the factors will be that will make things better or make things worse? I know that's a tough question.
Those are a lot of difficult questions to answer. And I'm sure the heads of all of the agencies who are involved in the fight against terrorism would love to have a solid answer to those. But I think one way to think about it is this. That the terrorist threat has evolved significantly in the last several decades.

It has evolved from a situation where we were worried about complex plots hatched overseas targeting the United States. Those plots being hatched by tightly-knit organizations with a hierarchical structure. And now we're looking at threats, whether on the international terrorism side or the domestic terrorism side, that are being pushed forward by lone actors.

Lone actors who are radicalized and motivated online, lone actors who select their targets through social media, lone actors who spread their propaganda in social media. Social media and the online world are going to be an issue that, collectively, the law enforcement and intelligence community is going to have to deal with moving into the future.

It is going to be a tool that will be used by these potential actors and operatives to do exactly what I said: recruit, spread propaganda, spread extremist ideologies. So one particularly difficult problem set that the community is going to have to deal with is how to address that online issue, while at the same time protecting and safeguarding the constitutional rights of Americans in the United States.

The First Amendment plays a tremendous role in what is going on in social media. And that is a problem that is very unique to our country. And it is something that we need to be very sensitive to. And we need to make sure that the actions that those in the law enforcement community take are lawful and are reviewed by neutral, third-party judges.

And are consistent with not just our values, but with the Constitution and those constitutional requirements. And so we need to continue to evolve just as the threat has evolved. We need to be able to forecast that evolution on the part of those terrorist organizations.

We need to continue the public discourse around issues like encryption and privacy. And we need to make sure that we, as a society, are comfortable with how we are allowing the law enforcement community to use its authorities under the Constitution. We don't have absolutely privacy in the United States.

There are lawful ways for the law enforcement community to obtain information in furtherance of its investigation. And that is critical to their efforts to protect the American people. But this discourse has to continue. And we need to continue to collect intelligence and understand this threat so that the tools and the methodologies that are being used evolve ahead of that threat.
Carl, thank you so much for your time. And most importantly, thank you for your service of two decades to the F.B.I. and to the country. It was great to have you on the show.
Thank you, Michael. It was my pleasure.

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