DHS: 'Not a Silver Bullet': An Interview with William Webster

I came to the FBI in 1978. By 1980 I had made it one of the bureau’s four top priorities, because we were experiencing about 100 terrorist incidents a year. They were of a different nature, but they were nevertheless life-threatening events.

Proceedings: Were we calling it terrorism back then?

Webster: Yes. It was a special classification. Acts of terrorism were acts of violence involving innocent victims, away from the scene of a dispute and usually to achieve a political objective. We had cut the number back to about five when I left in 1987 to go to the CIA, by using intelligence and recognizing the value of getting there before the bomb went off.

We could talk interminably about some of the cases in which we prevented attacks. One involved an assassination plot in the United States against Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister of India. We used a special agent who had lost an eye when he was shot down as a paratrooper in Vietnam. He went under-cover to find the hit men for the Sikh terrorist groups that were planning this assassination.

The Bureau did not want to admit him to training as a special agent; they were afraid, with one eye, he might accidentally shoot somebody. But I said, “Look, he’s prequalified as a paratrooper. But more than that, he holds a Medal of Honor. So I think he’s earned the right to try it. If he flunks out at the academy, he flunks out.” Not only did he turn out to be the perfect undercover agent – nobody would think a guy with a missing eye would be an FBI agent – but he was made a member of the hostage rescue team. This was the highly mobile, highly trained group the Bureau employed to deal with situations we could manage without military intervention.

What we encountered on 11 September was a highly skillful, planned attack from the outside. At the same time, we knew it was coming. I spent a good deal of time working to get the Interpol organization to accept terrorism as something that required cooperation by all of the member police organizations around the world. Originally, they said terrorism is really political, and Interpol was not allowed to assist in political activities.

I argued that even though it may have a political connotation, it is basically and functionally criminal in nature. Incidents of terrorism would be criminal in every civilized country in the world. So I saw an obligation for worldwide cooperation in this area.

The most difficult part was that Congress had been slow to allow the FBI to expand internationally. We’d actually been cut back on the number of legal attaches we could have abroad, working with other law enforcement agencies. There had been enough incidents – the Khobar explosions for example – that [former FBI Director] Louis Freech was able to get substantial expansion of our work.

But still, basic international intelligence work was being carried out by the CIA. And while some of that information could be shared, much of it had not been shared for various reasons. The missions were different. The CIA was collecting intelligence on national security issues, and the FBI was interested in intelligence that would help identify people breaking criminal laws in the United States.

Proceedings: Do you think the information is shared more now?

Webster: Absolutely. Recall also that in the 1970s all the agencies fell under a great deal of criticism about whether they were properly taking into account civil rights and whether they were invading people’s privacy in efforts to get information. The Church Committee report and the Pike Committee report came out of Congress. Those were the first things Vice President [Walter] Mondale gave me when I became the new FBI director. “Read these reports,” he said. The message was that Congress did not want the CIA and the FBI on the same dance card; they wanted the CIA to operate outside the United States, and they wanted the FBI to operate inside. Trying to carry out those restrictions meant no system was constructed where everything that was needed by one agency could be shared or called to the attention of the other.

Proceedings: Because you directed both agencies, you had to look at it from different perspectives, right?

Webster: I didn’t direct them at the same time, but I had to realize there was a difference between the two. We were working in other ways to improve the level of cooperation. The CIA was helping train the FBI on better analysis. The FBI was helping train the CIA on better surveillance techniques.

But the files were not meshing. I’m sure you know the difficulty of communications in the military, especially during the Gulf War, when the service systems didn’t really talk to each other. The FBI system hasn’t been corrected entirely, but [current FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller has been working very hard on it. You had an automatic case system at the FBI that was designed essentially for law enforcement purposes around particular subjects or cases. And it’s 13 years old now. In modern business, if you’ve gone two or three years without having replaced your technology, you’re pretty far behind times. So it was hard to ask the system the kinds of questions that would be useful to agencies other than the FBI. All kinds of data had been collected, but mining for it was nearly impossible. I’m an old navigator; any navigator wants to have as many lines of position as possible to make a reliable fix. The FBI was not able to do that.

At the beginning, we also noted what all of us knew; that many of the federal law enforcement agencies had been stepchildren in the departments where they resided. They were not the main mission of their departments; they’d been put there for one convenience or another. Some, like the Coast Guard, had been moved from department to department, depending on who thought it would be a good idea to put it here or there. And the Coast Guard often did not get the resources that would be available to a core function of a department. That service has had to struggle to be equipped and informed adequately.

Proceedings: Is the Department of Homeland Security a good thing for the Coast Guard?

Webster: I was at a dinner last night with [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary [Tom] Ridge. A young Coast Guard woman officer stood up and asked that very question. And he assured her it was a good thing, that the Coast Guard would retain its watertight integrity and not be dissolved into something else. But he also told her the Coast Guard would be functioning with 22 other agencies, all of which have law enforcement as their basic function. So the ability and the opportunity to open communications and share information could be improved.

That’s the hope of homeland security as it evolved into a department. I’ve been vice chairman of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council since it was established. And now we’ll be moving into the department and working directly with Secretary Ridge in the future. The main intention was to get law enforcement capability in one basic place. The people most likely to be confronted with a situation in the United States are the first responders, which are going to be state and local law enforcement people, fire departments, and others. We need to be sure they have received the right amount of support and training. We need to get resources in their hands. You can imagine how an untrained police force would feel about walking into a place that had been contaminated by chemical or biological weapons. A major responsibility for the Department of Homeland Security is that these people are prepared in the right way.

Another question to be answered is what the proper roles are of the CIA and the FBI in relation to homeland security. I believe some people are itching to take the counterterrorism function away from the FBI and bring in a whole new organization. I also believe that is profoundly wrong. I was pretty sure the President would be unlikely to put the CIA or the FBI in Homeland Security. The FBI reports through the attorney general to the President, and I think that’s the way it should be. I know the President wants his CIA director to report directly to him. The big concern about having 170,000 people and thousands of law enforcement agencies in Homeland Security was how to deal with the fundamental intelligence principle of need-to-know. How do you protect your sources and your methods from being spread so far that it gets leaked or known in some way? I think the way that is taking shape is the logical one – for the CIA and the FBI to make finished intelligence available to Homeland Security.

Finished intelligence has been written, analyzed, and made available. But it does not necessarily identify a particular source or a particular method. It gives you the kind of information you need to go about your job, to know where the thereat risks are, and where you should be paying particular attention. But it doesn’t imperil the sources that would dry up or disappear if they became known.

Proceedings: What role does the military play in all this?

Webster: I think it has a role, but I don’t think it has yet been spelled out. Before we had a Homeland Security Department, we had memoranda of understanding between the FBI and various military components over what would happen if a situation got outside the capability of the FBI. That was one of the reasons I formed the hostage rescue team. The White House was always unwilling to define at what moment the military could come in. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Posse Comitatus issue [an 1878 act largely prohibiting the military from acting as a domestic police force]. You can debate whether it has been managed properly, but it was enacted for a reason.

Most military personnel are not trained to do law enforcement. Most, except for the military police, don’t make arrests or know how to give Miranda warnings or other elements that fall outside their training. There also was always the issue of whether troops really want to be engaged in that kind of activity; they’ve joined the military for a somewhat different reason.

Proceedings: They are engaged in intelligence gathering, though.

Webster: That is, of course, a new issue now, with [Director] John Poindexter and his Information Awareness Office in the Pentagon. The military, just like the FBI and CIA, has a checkered history on how it has handled intelligence gathering on U.S. citizens. So I can’t really answer your question. There will be a coordinating responsibility, because some things necessarily must involve use of military capability. I did the review of the riots after the Rodney King decision in Los Angeles, to see how the different organizations responded, all the way up to the Governor of California. The National Guard was called up, but the troops were given only one round apiece.

Even so, I think there is a real role for the National Guard in dealing with some of these areas that have been staked out for Homeland Security. That will have to be defined and redefined. But there are differences between operating on your own soil with your own citizens and being asked to go and fight a war somewhere else. Most of our military operations, except during the Civil War, have been outside the United States.

I know Secretary Ridge has a real concern that this new structure protect rather than erode the rights of Americans. And he wants to find ways to do the work effectively and efficiently without turning us into some kind of military or repressive state. We have to learn how to conduct ourselves. And we can. The FBI has been doing it for years. You can do your work, protect the citizens, and at the same time not destroy the very things we’re pledged to protect.

Proceedings: What impact will the war in Iraq have on homeland security? What are we going to learn?

Webster: Before we talk about Iraq let’s talk about al Qaeda and Afghanistan. We learned a great deal about activities that have been taking place in other parts of the world. Much of that had been identified by the CIA, but nothing had been done about responding to it. Only a limited amount of intelligence was available.

Since 9/11, we’ve had a mini-war in Afghanistan, and we’ve pretty much crushed the main organization designed with us in mind. Osama bin Laden has not been heard from verifiably for some time. That, I think, is the result of people working very hard, first on intelligence and then in framing responses to it.

With respect to Iraq, the big challenge is to meet our responsibilities and the commitments that have been made to have a regime change that will rid the region of a dangerous despot who could help some of the people who want to come here and do us damage. The situation is changing daily. I do think we showed capabilities in this war that did not exist or were not well-coordinated 12 years ago in the Gulf War, which increases our power to make things happen.

It isn’t the total answer, because we have seen again and again, on a somewhat lower but increasingly large level, a retaliatory activity directed against the United States. When I was director of the FBI, this type of activity largely took place overseas, because it was easier. A terrorist could attack an American citizen or an American business or an American embassy, which weren’t as well protected in other countries as they are here. Now the terrorists have expanded that activity. The World Trade Center was attacked twice by people directed from foreign places. We know many different ways attacks can take place in the future.

We’ve learned that these more serious efforts often take months and years to plan. Pan Am 103, the Lockerbie bombing, took three years, from what we know about it today.

I hate to make the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, other than the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. There was no love lost between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but we were the common enemy. I expect that in the future there will be alliances of people who are not necessarily in love with each other but have a common hatred for the United States. One of the main reasons we are where we are in Iraq today is to minimize that risk.

Proceedings: Why would you say it’s been so difficult to find Osama bin Laden, not to mention Saddam Hussein?

Webster: I think the authorities are doing the right thing by not trying to guess and anticipate what has happened to either of those two. At the same time, I think there is considerable confidence that one or both of them have been injured or adversely affected by what they’ve experienced, either in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

When we took on Manuel Noriega in Panama, a few days passed before he was captured. The important thing was that he had really become irrelevant 30 minutes after we invaded. We were putting too much emphasis on finding him. It’s an important objective to find what happened to Saddam Hussein, as it is with Osama bin Laden. But the more important issue is whether we have neutralized or reduced their effectiveness, wherever they may be, alive or dead.

Proceedings: What do you remember most about your service in the U.S. Navy?

Webster: Tom Brokaw wrote an interesting paragraph about me in his book, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998). He said some nice things about my postwar career, but he said my naval career was not remarkable because I had not seen combat.

I served about three and a half years in World War II and two years in the Korean War. I spent most of my time in World War II on small patrol craft, and I did a short stretch on a Dutch troop ship. I also commanded two little tankers out of Seattle and the Straits of Juan de Fuca. It was a good experience for me as a young naval officer with ships that had no radar, a single-screw, a direct reversible engine, and no gyro. I also had my head in the fog, if you know that part of the world.

I ended up on a fleet tug, which was my last duty of that war. Then I went back to finish college and enrolled in law school, when I got back to serve in the Korean War. I was executive officer of a much larger gasoline tanker, the Natchaug [AOG-54], in the Far East. We were in Korean waters for about five and a half months and operated another four months or so out of Guam as SOPA [senior officer present afloat], of all things. They didn’t have very much high brass on Guam at that time.

Proceedings: What did you learn in the Navy that helped you in your later career in public service?

Webster: I credit the Navy for providing me the skill sets, the tools, and the judgment to take on the other jobs that came along later. I learned a lot of basics about chain-of-command responsibilities, giving orders, and making sure they’re followed. These were just as valuable in paramilitary organizations like the FBI or CIA as they were in the Navy.

In the Navy, the standards were high. Character was emphasized. I think there’s a built-in discipline that you might not otherwise have if you haven’t been exposed to it: the discipline of making things happen on time, conducting yourself honorably and appropriately. Responsibility and duty to country were very clearly evident as parts of life in the Navy.

Proceedings: What do you think of the relationship between the FBI and the Marine Corps, which has been so strong in the past?

Webster: It still is. It’s outstanding. The Marines made space available not only for training but for the National Academy for Law Enforcement. In my professional associations over the past 25 years, I’ve made and kept many good friends in the Marines. I was with [former Commandant of the marine Corps General] P. X. Kelley for lunch earlier this week. The Marines and the FBI have done a lot of good things together, struck some good blows. Across the road from my country place in Rappahannock County, Virginia is Colonel John Bourgeois, the former long-time director of the Marine Band.

I’ve gone to what’s called the Camp Smith exercise, which is an annual celebration of ex-FBI agents who were in the Marines. The agents wear what’s left of their uniforms. My two college roommates were Marine officers. One was wounded at Iwo Jima and one was wounded at Okinawa. My relationships with them had something to do with my fondness for the Corps.

One of my very best friends is Richard Burress, who has retired as associate director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. When I was called back in the Korean War, he was a special agent chasing spies at Pearl Harbor. We shared an apartment entranceway in Waikiki, and he looked after my wife, now my late wife, while I was out for nine months at a time. We crossed paths often when he worked in the [Gerald] Ford administration.

We’ve always stayed in touch. We’ve been roommates for years out at the annual Bohemian Grove Encampment. I recall when [the late historian] Steve Ambrose was speaking at a lakeside address, he turned to Dick and said, “What did you do in World War II?”

And Dick said, “I was a platoon leader at Iwo Jima.”

Then Ambrose said, “May I shake your hand?” It was the most genuine thing I’ve ever seen.

In the FBI we had many who had been in the Marines. Both organizations had a can-do attitude, pride in what we did, and respect for professionalism.

Proceedings: How do you think history is going to treat William Webster?

Webster: I’ve not really thought about that. I don’t know that history will be too interested in William Webster. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to serve my country, and to serve my profession, which is the law and which I have loved. What I’d like history to conclude is that I loved my country and that I served it as best I could. I have tried to respect the principles of our Constitution and the values that have made our country what it is. I have a strong belief that we can preserve our values, and at the same time protect ourselves from those who would try to destroy us.



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