Host, Cynthia Kouril:
Threat Matrix is a “biography” of the FBI’s development of counter terrorism capabilities from the days of state sponsored terrorism through the rise of domestic terrorism and to the new world of NGO (non-governmental organizations) terrorism.
For me, parts of this book were like looking through a school yearbook or family photo album. So many of the cases, prosecutors, and agents are stories I have followed throughout my professional life. So many of the people are folks I have not thought about in a long time, so I often found myself smiling and thinking, “yeah, I remember that guy.” For book store patrons who worked in law enforcement, especially federal law enforcement of any kind of law enforcement in New York City, this book reads like a trip down memory lane.
For those of you who have never lived that life, Garrett Graff does an amazing job—for one who has never been “on the job”—of “getting” the culture. I have read more than my fair share of books about why and how 9/11 happened and most authors either think the FBI and Department of Justice have superpowers or think they are dolts; when the reality is a complex web of institutional pressures, individual personalities, and competition from other investigative priorities.
What the lay reader will get from this book, especially once you get into the second of three sections, is that fly-on-the-wall view of how and why small things can effect big outcomes. The other thing this book does exceptionally well, and which few others I have read even attempted, is to show the arc of the careers of various major players in our national security establishment. So you will learn about the earlier career experiences that would shape the decision making of figures like Robert Mueller, Louis Freeh, Fran Townsend, and George Tenet.
At the back end of this book, you’re going to feel like you been hanging out in cop bars and feebee (FBI) bars for the last 20 something years absorbing these stories as they happened and as told to you by your drinking buddies on the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).
I was a bit surprised to see some stories in this book that I haven’t seen in public before. This level of granularity reflects the research effort behind this book which took from April 2008 until January of 2011. The author spent over 1,000 hours conducting 180 interviews, all but 3 of them in person.
Unlike other books I’ve seen where the authors obviously put in a ton of time amassing a document file but didn’t seem to understand what they were reading or how information flows (or doesn’t flow) in the federal bureaucracy, Graff either “gets” it, or got his many interview subjects to explain it to him with great specificity.
He also does a good job of laying out the tension that existed between different individuals within the government who at different times held wildly different views on the correct balance between civil liberties and exhaustive investigation. How those individuals and their agencies played tug of war influenced the outcomes.
The other thing that rings very true, is in the third section of the book which describes the “ghost chasing” that went on in the near aftermath of 9/11. The FBI, at the direction of the White House stopped prioritizing information and treated every “threat” as if it were serious and credible. This put a tremendous burden on agents who wasted their days chasing down the silliest leads that anyone with experience would normally discount. This took them away from doing the real grunt work of building true cases and meaningful long range investigations. I cannot tell you how many complaints along this line I heard from agents and Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) at the time. Added to that, the antiquated computer system that did not allow for efficient cross-referencing or data searching, and you the reader can feel the frustration along with the agents.
All in all, it makes for a good beach read. At least that’s where I read it.