© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Inside Robert Mueller's FBI' — And His Russia Investigation — With Biographer Garrett Graff

FBI Director Robert Mueller is sworn in on on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 13, 2013, prior to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee as it holds an oversight hearing on the FBI. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
FBI Director Robert Mueller is sworn in on on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 13, 2013, prior to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee as it holds an oversight hearing on the FBI. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

With David Folkenflik

Inside the mind of Robert Mueller. We’ll unpack the latest news from the Mueller investigation and explore what makes the special prosecutor tick with his biographer, Garrett Graff.


Garrett Graff, journalist, historian and director of the Aspen Institute’s cybersecurity and technology program. Author of “ The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror.” ( @vermontgmg)

Important Documents From The Russia Investigation

The Letter Giving Robert Mueller Charge To Investigate Russian Interference

The Carter Page FISA Documents

Mueller’s Sentencing Memo For Michael Flynn

From The Reading List

Wired: “ 14 Trump and Russia Questions Robert Mueller Knows the Answers To” — “Michael Flynn’s sentencing memo, filed yesterday with the most intriguing and interesting parts redacted by special counsel Robert Mueller, provided yet another frustrating glimpse into an investigation that seems at times almost maddeningly opaque. It made clear that Flynn was cooperating in three criminal investigations—and that he had cooperated extensively—but shed little light on the ‘what’ or the ‘how.’

“Amid the flurry of revelations from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign, it’s worth revisiting the loose ends of his probe. Specifically, focusing on questions that remain mysteries to us but that clearly Mueller himself knows by this point—the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns”—provides particular clarity as to where the investigation will head next.

“Decoding Mueller’s 17-month investigation has been a publicly frustrating exercise, as individual puzzle pieces, like Flynn’s sentencing memo, often don’t hint at the final assembled picture—nor even tell us if we’re looking at a single interlocking puzzle, in which all the pieces are related, or multiple, separate, unrelated ones.

“The sheer breadth of alleged, unrelated criminality by so many different Trumpworld players—from Paul Manafort’s money laundering and European bribes to Michael Flynn’s Turkish conspiracies to Michael Cohen’s tax fraud to even the indictments of the first two members of Congress to endorse Trump, representatives Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter—make it particularly difficult to disentangle what might have transpired at Trump Tower and the White House.

“Mueller’s investigation, though, has been remarkably focused and consistent straight through—zeroing in on five distinct investigative avenues: money laundering and Russian-linked business deals; the Russian government’s cyberattack on the DNC, other entities, and state-level voting systems; its related online information influence operations, by the Internet Research Agency; the sketchy contacts by Trump campaign and transition officials with Russia; and the separate question of whether Trump himself, or others, actively tried to obstruct justice by impeding the investigation of the above.”

Book Excerpt from “The Threat Matrix” by Garrett Graff


Public Enemy #1

The final minutes of George W. Bush’s eight years as president ticked away as Bob Mueller stepped down onto the inaugural platform. Despite weeks of wall-to-wall news coverage warning of overcrowding for the inauguration—millions of people who might clog the Washington Beltway and the Metro system for hours—the chilly January day had deterred few inaugural-goers. More than perhaps anyone else on the inaugural platform, Mueller, the director of the FBI, was responsible for keeping everyone safe for the day.

The previous twenty-four hours had been nerve-racking, like so many of the days and nights of the past seven years. A threat out of the Middle East, sketchy at best. Reports of a man barreling down the Jersey Turnpike with a bomb. Agents from the FBI, the CIA, and a dozen other agencies fanned across country and several continents, hoping to run down the information before noon Tuesday, H-Hour for the handover of government, democracy’s greatest rite—the peaceful and amicable transfer of power from one party to another with nearly diametrically opposed views.

The last time the nation had gathered to do this, in January 2001, the world had been a different place. That was, as everyone now said, before. This was the first transfer of power after. Before, the Clinton administration had balked at targeting a shadowy terrorist named Osama bin Laden in a faraway place called Afghanistan. Before, the argument had been, What had bin Laden ever done to deserve assassination? The United States didn’t do that type of thing. Now, after, everything was different.

Just days prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama, Hellfire missiles launched from a Predator drone half a world away from Washington had killed two Kenyans suspected in the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Usama al-Kini, also known as Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan likely never saw the missiles closing on them at speeds topping Mach 1.3 and likely never felt the twenty-pound warheads explode. Although the FBI’s global footprint had expanded considerably, the United States had no other practical means to eliminate this pair of terrorists. The two men, living in South Waziristan—a remote tribal part of Pakistan most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on a map—were unreachable. The CIA drones and their Hellfire missiles were a different type of justice, an outside-the-courtroom, permanent justice—one that, after, the U.S. government had decided was more than appropriate to mete out but had been off the table before. (The precise term for such measures— extralegal—had become all too familiar to the American people after.)

Al-Kini and Swedan were both on the Bureau’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list, making the attacks a big victory for the United States, yet, since the United States didn’t acknowledge these covert missile strikes, it didn’t officially consider them dead. Months later, both men’s names would still be on the FBI’s public list; inside the government, though, no one was looking too hard for them.

The minutes ticked away on inaugural day. Of the government men onstage, only a few had been in the fateful national security meeting the morning of September 12, 2001, the day after everything had changed. Now, in just two hours, most of them would depart government. A green-and-white Marine helicopter from HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron, sat on the East Front Plaza of the Capitol, waiting to ferry George W. Bush back to private life. Vice President Dick Cheney, confined to a wheelchair after straining his back moving boxes the weekend before, would also depart—only to appear in the coming months as a vocal opponent of the new administration’s approach to terrorism. Of the entire national security team, those departures would leave only Mueller still in the position he had held on September 11, 2001, that brilliant and crisp fall day when the planes had come.

Only one other member of the national security team would be carrying over from Bush to Obama—and his absence today was intentional. Hidden in a secure location outside Washington, Robert Gates—the wizened secretary of defense who on 9/11 had been a dean at Texas A&M—was, in the bland parlance of bureaucracy, the “designated successor,” part of the elaborate continuity-of-government plans created during the Cold War to ensure the United States would survive even the most catastrophic assault. Originally designed to protect against surprise Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles coming in over the North Pole, the continuity-of-government operation now mostly guarded against terrorists with a smuggled nuclear weapon stuffed in a suitcase. In the coming hours, a new national security team would begin to flow into the federal apparatus across the city and move into the White House, where air pressure is always kept elevated to ensure biological or chemical agents can’t penetrate inside. Only Mueller would be left among the security team to recall the fear, tension, and shock of September 12, 2001, the uncertainty of the day after. The soldiers in the streets; the smoke, visible from his office, rising from the Pentagon across the Potomac River; the concrete barriers that sprang up everywhere overnight like some sort of ugly, aggressive species of weed; that smell—part burning jet fuel, part burning paper, part burning flesh.

Mueller, wrapped in long overcoat and scarf, his gloved hands protected from the cold, walked to the front of the stage, his longtime wife and companion, Ann, by his side. On 9/11, just days after moving to Washington, she had sat through that historic day alone, watching the television in their temporary apartment six blocks from where they now stood. Her husband hadn’t returned until long after she’d gone to sleep.

From the banister, they could survey the largest crowd ever assembled for a presidential inauguration. It spread out for over a mile, the length of the National Mall, the nation’s so-called backyard. Somewhere out in the crowd were 155 teams of Mueller’s agents in plainclothes, watching for anything unusual. A few blocks away, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, created thirty years earlier as the nation’s elite antiterror strike force, sat poised to react. To back them up, SWAT teams, hazardous-material units, bomb squads, and even weapons of mass destruction response teams were located at strategic points around the crowded city. Armored military-like vehicles topped with flashing lights were hidden just out of sight, ready for action. Police helicopters circled the city, their expensive sensors and surveillance gear hard at work. Gas masks hung from the waists of thousands of law enforcement personnel, as well as the National Guard troops who stood on every street corner for miles. Fighter jets bristling with missiles slung under their wings waited to respond to trouble from above, while deep beneath the city Secret Service agents searched tunnels and sewers for trouble below. Most military coups in the world were carried out with less firepower, materiel, and personnel than were deployed to the streets of Washington for what everyone hoped would be a peaceful and uneventful transition of power.

The early-morning crowd before Mueller was ecstatic despite the hour, the security hassles, and the bone-chilling cold. While the crowd on the Mall and in the Capitol complex was swept up in the euphoric moment of hope and the promise of change brought about by the election of the nation’s first black president and a team representing a youthful new generation of leadership, Mueller knew the fear that prevailed behind the scenes.

Until hours earlier, it had seemed possible that the day would go very differently. Three different threads of intelligence had indicated that al-Shabaab, one of the many Islamic jihadist groups that formed the international web of al-Qaeda affiliates, had dispatched attackers from its base in Somalia to slip across the Canadian border and explode bombs on the Mall during the inauguration. The government had been tracking the intelligence for weeks, but only recently had new information moved the threat onto a different tier of seriousness.

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen—the “Movement of Warrior Youth”—was still relatively new to the terrorism game; it wouldn’t even formally be declared a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the State Department for another month, yet its capabilities were already well-known enough to seriously worry the government officials in the days leading up to the inauguration. (Kenya, the president’s ancestral country and the site of the 1998 embassy attack that had helped usher in the age of al-Qaeda, was also under threat, according to the available intelligence.)

The national security teams of President Bush and President-elect Obama had been gathering repeatedly in the White House and at the guest residence, Blair House, for the week leading up to the inauguration to track the latest intelligence. The rooms pulsed with a sense of nervous energy on the part of the new Obama staff and a world-weariness on the part of the Bush officials who had only days left to go in their public service.

While the two national security teams didn’t have much history working together, sitting on one side was a face familiar to everyone: John Brennan, one of the nation’s most skilled counterterrorism leaders who had led the newly formed National Counterterrorism Center after 9/11, only to part ways with the Bush administration over its handling of the Iraq war. Brennan had become a close adviser to the Democratic nominee and had been the top candidate to take over the CIA until concerns about his role in the Agency’s enhanced-interrogation program earlier in the decade had forced him into a position that didn’t require Senate confirmation. Now Brennan served as the calming force on the Obama team in the room. He’d been through this sort of thing before.

A week before, the two national security teams had teased out a mock scenario imagining multiple bombs detonating simultaneously around the country—a domestic version of what had happened in East Africa in 1998, in Madrid in 2004, and twice in London in 2005. Hanging over every meeting and every discussion was a question spoken only in whispers: How real did the threat have to be before the government should consider canceling the ceremony or moving it indoors to a secure location? There was some precedent: President Reagan’s second inaugural had been moved to the Capitol Rotunda because of nasty cold weather. This weather was heavier.

In one meeting, incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton had asked a pointed question: “So what should Barack Obama do if he’s in the middle of his Inaugural Address and a bomb goes off way in the back of the crowd on the Mall? What does he do? Is the Secret Service going to whisk him off the podium, so the American people see their incoming president disappear in the middle of the Inaugural Address? I don’t think so.” But was that truly credible?

The decision was made: Obama would continue the speech, if at all possible.

Excerpted from THE THREAT MATRIX by Garrett Graff. Published in February 2012 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2012 by Garrett Graff. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.