National Geographic Goes Inside the FBI

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 23, 2003
Click here to view a photo gallery of images taken from Inside the FBI.

Since the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the spotlight has burned brightly on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—even as it redefines itself to cope with the biggest challenge in its history. Now, a crime-fighting organization under a cloak of secrecy has afforded National Geographic filmmakers an unprecedented look at the workings of Director Robert S. Mueller III and his 11,500 special agents.

Granted access unlike any in the FBI's near century of existence, cameras ventured where none had gone before, from the bureau's Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) to a meeting of "profilers" trying to piece together the identity of a killer. National Geographic tagged along with Director Mueller, elite hostage rescue units, counter-terrorism experts working to ensure security at the annual Army-Navy football game, a legal attaché with the U.S. embassy in Turkey, HAZMAT response teams, bombsite investigators, and other FBI professionals. The result is a comprehensive look inside the multifaceted world of today's FBI.

Narrated by actor Dennis Haysbert (24, Far from Heaven), the new National Geographic Special Inside the FBI premieres Wednesday, July 23, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS (check local listings).

9/11 Attacks Cause New Focus on Terror

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover's "G-Men," the FBI cut its investigative teeth by hunting gangsters like John Dillinger and "Machine Gun" Kelly. Today's agents still battle organized crime, tackle white collar and corporate criminals, track kidnappers, gather foreign intelligence, and much more. Fighting terror has long been part of the FBI's difficult mandate—but that mission has taken on an entirely different scope following the 9/11 attacks.

"On the one hand, the FBI has always engaged in terror-prevention and in going after terrorists," author Ronald Kessler told National Geographic News. Kessler's books, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, and The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI offer rare insight into the workings of the bureau. "On the other hand there has been a sea change in the degree of attention to terrorism and in the degree of prevention that they pursue. In the six years prior to 9/11 they stopped about 40 terrorist plots, including an effort to blow up the tunnels around Manhattan. But they tended to go case by case. They didn't really try to penetrate al Qaeda, and go into a full scale antiterrorism effort—so there has been a big change."

Immediately following 9/11, the FBI dedicated some 7,000 of its special agents and thousands of support personnel to the PENTTBOM (Pentagon, Twin Towers Bombing) investigation. A daily White House security briefing was also established, during which America's main intelligence agencies—the FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security—update the President. "He turns to me to brief him on what we've done within the last 24 hours to protect the American public from attack," Director Mueller explained to National Geographic Television.

Mueller has been able to report some success. Since the attacks, the FBI has brought charges against hundreds of suspected terrorists. With the help of the CIA and others they have foiled many dozens of new plots around the world. Yet from the top down those in the bureau realize that they must do a much better job than they did prior to the 9/11 attacks. The work of the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies leading up to the attacks remains under intense scrutiny.

"In order to be more predictive in the future, we have to do a much better job than we have in the past," said Mueller, who took his post only seven days before the terrorist attacks. "In the future, every piece of information has to be understood to be maybe a piece of a larger puzzle."

To better accomplish that goal, Mueller has instituted changes in training and in the bureau's previously inept computer system—a technology failure that some speculate prevented the FBI from recognizing a pattern of events prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Kessler believes Mueller is the right man for the job. "Mueller is exactly, I think, what they need," he said. "He's very tech savvy, proactive, and focused on terror. But at the same time he has a strong regard for the protection of civil liberties. The FBI is not interested in wiretapping people who know nothing about terror. They are interested in going after the bad guys and they've done a good job of that without compromising civil liberties. In the old days of J. Edgar Hoover it was a far different story."

Hoover Legacy Sounds Cautionary Note

By the late 1930s, the war on gangsters had earned Hoover and his FBI national acclaim and a reputation for invincibility. But away from the public eye the bureau's leader embarked on a darker mission.

In a fight against what he saw as an insidious fifth-column of communists, Hoover created secret files on many Americans, which were meant to intimidate his enemies and silence his critics. Information was gathered by means legal and illegal, and used by Hoover to blackmail "subversives" he found everywhere from Congress to Hollywood. One such instance involved Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Hoover monitored with over 14 secret microphones. King was blackmailed with the FBI's knowledge of his extramarital affairs. Those dark days left a legacy that has many concerned as the fight against terror intensifies.

"The ability of the FBI to learn more about you than you probably even know about yourself can be very, very frightening," Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told National Geographic Television. "And I think the American public wants to know they're going after criminals, [that] they're not prying into people for the sake of prying into people. Give tools to the FBI, I'm all for that, but don't give unlimited and unchecked power to the FBI, because they'll make mistakes. And that's what we have to do here to make sure they don't go back to the kind of outrageous procedures we saw during J. Edgar Hoover's time."

Protecting both Americans' safety and their civil rights is just one of the many juggling acts in which FBI agents must engage. Perhaps the most challenging, day to day, is the balance between resources and responsibilities. The bureau must carry on the fight against terror, and enforce some 200 federal laws, with only 11,500 special agents. New York City, by comparison, employs some 40,000 police officers.

Kessler suggests that increasing the size of the bureau should be a top priority, but is enthusiastic about the job the existing agents are able to do. He considers them the bureau's greatest resources. "The agents are really first rate," he said. "They're dedicated, they're smart, and they are very determined. They do a great job."

That job is a tough one that requires sacrifice, but Mueller explains that it holds a unique satisfaction. "With that sacrifice agents understand that they are blessed by knowing that when they go to work everyday, they go to work to protect the people of the United States," he said.

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