Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg.
And I am honored to be your host for a series of compelling conversations with fascinating people from the world of public service.
All of my guests share one thing: they took an Oath, mandated by Congress, to support the Constitution of the United States and defend it against enemies both foreign and domestic.
My guest today is Andy McCabe.
Andy started his career as an FBI Special Agent in New York City in 1996, and worked his way up from there to become the Deputy Director of the FBI. That is the highest-ranking position that a career special agent in the FBI can hold.
Andy briefly served as the Acting Director of the FBI before being fired in 2018, one day before he was eligible to retire.
During his time at the FBI, Andy was a member of the SWAT team, took on Russian organized crime in the streets of New York, and defended New York in the wake of 9/11 as the Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI. Andy also led the investigation into The Boston Marathon Bombing.
In his book, The Threat, Andy discusses the risks and challenges the FBI faces today.
Andy McCabe, welcome, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
Andrew McCabe: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Rosenberg: Well I’m looking forward to this. I wanted to really talk to you about your book which I loved about your life which I only know about because of your book and the bit of time that we overlapped and got to work together as colleagues.
McCabe: Sure, yeah.
Rosenberg: I was struck by the fact, Andy that you wrote in your book that being an FBI agent is not something that you wanted to do from the time you could walk and talk it came to you later.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right it’s a little bit of a different origin story than most people you come across–certainly most agents who you know will tell you they got hooked on the idea when they were five years old or watching FBI agents on TV or whatever that might have been. It was a little bit different for me. I didn’t even really think about it until I was in law school and then really the idea crystallized during my time interning as a volunteer intern at the Department of Justice.
Rosenberg: During one of your summers at Washington University Law School.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: Right. Why did you go to law school?
McCabe: Because I couldn’t do math. I think, I think I’d always–
Rosenberg: like all of us.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right. I did horribly in my economics classes at Duke and so I thought well it’s law school for me. I think I kind of always assumed I would go to law school. You know certainly through high school and college I thought of a career in the law as being something that I would be inclined towards. I was always kind of a reader and a fan of history and things like that and I thought those that background kind of dovetailed. It was not until as I said about two thirds of the way through law school that I started thinking about law enforcement. I think even in law school I was kind of always drawn towards criminal law and jurisprudence and that side of the law was more interesting to me. I think it was that, that crossroads of, of power and violence and passion and intrigue and mystery really kind of drew me in from the beginning.
Rosenberg: And as you write then, that call to be an agent was slow to emerge.
McCabe: It was, it was. You know, I certainly was interested in the work that summer spent at DOJ reading 302s of agents who were conducting an investigation of political corruption
Rosenberg: So that everyone understands, a 302 is a form in which agents record the interviews they conduct. It’s a memorandum to file to the case file. So even though you interned with the Department of Justice while in law school, you didn’t become a special agent for a number of years after you graduated law school. You were briefly in private practice.
McCabe: when I graduated from law school, The FBI was under a hiring freeze, so I couldn’t go–I couldn’t immediately apply to the bureau. So, I spent about three years in private practice.
Rosenberg: So, what does the FBI looking for when it sets out to hire new special agents?
McCabe: Well, when I came through the process in 1995, there were four ways you could qualify to be hired. You had to be either a lawyer, an accountant, have a proficiency in a specific foreign language, or you could qualify through what they called “diversity,” which was just a broader category that included former military and law enforcement folks and some others. Nowadays, it is much more nuanced than that. The bureau has very specific requirements and positions and people and skill sets that we need. So we will tell our hiring folks to look for, for example, computer scientists or people with data analytical backgrounds or people with particular tactical backgrounds, like folks who may have served with the Navy SEALs or the Green Berets or something like that. So, we actually–they actually go out and look for very specific and diverse skill sets.
Rosenberg: Andy, you said the process of becoming a special agent takes a long time. What is it that takes so long?
McCabe: Primarily Chuck, it’s the background check that the agency does on you as an applicant during that process. You fill out a very long form that includes data and information and addresses of associates and phone numbers and work contacts and–from literally every part of your life. And each one of those facts gets tracked down and confirmed by an investigator or, or a background check specialist, so depending on how complicated your background is, and whether maybe if you’ve lived overseas for some period of time, all those things can weigh in on the process and it takes a little bit longer.
Rosenberg: Before the background check even begins, you have to take an aptitude test and you have to pass it and be screened into the process.
McCabe: That’s right. So, when you’ve passed the initial screening and the aptitude test, you then enter the background check process. If you pass through the background check, you then submit to what we call “phase 2 testing,” which is a series of essay questions, and then a panel interview that’s given to you by a group of agents. At the same time, you’re undergoing physical testing—so there is a physical performance test. You also undergo medical testing if there are any significant medical issues in your past, those have to be resolved. So, it’s very detailed and takes quite a bit of time
Rosenberg: And then in 1996, you became part of the 18th class of that year, 96-18, new Special Agent class at Quantico Virginia the FBI Academy.
McCabe: That’s right. I was so excited to go to Quantico. I had my application had been pending for two years and a long time to think about it.
Rosenberg: And that’s not an unusual amount of time for an applicant to be waiting.
McCabe: It’s not, it’s not. It still takes quite a quite a long time to go through that process even today. So, I was super excited to pack up my, my few belongings, and leave my wife in Philadelphia for 16 weeks and head down to Quantico. But it really as I look back on it now, marks that point in your life where you stop living just for yourself. So, the first few weeks you just kind of walk around in wide eyed wonder and you find yourself studying things and practicing things and doing things that previously you know, you thought of only as like: wow I’d really someday love to like learn how to shoot a gun really well, or drive cars really fast. And there you are, doing it. And you know, you–it’s your job. You’re getting paid to show up in the middle of the night on a private driving course and put a car in reverse and go as fast as you can around the track in the dark. You know things like that. It was just it was it was amazing. But it’s also you know somewhat stressful. The things that you are learning and trying to become proficient at are oftentimes things that you’ve never done before.
Rosenberg: Andy when did you first take the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States?
McCabe: I did, as all new agents do, on the first night I arrived at Quantico.
Rosenberg: What was that like?
McCabe: It’s a, it’s a solemn serious moment. There’s no pageantry associated with it. You’re not you know at graduation in front of the director and all those sorts of things. You show up in the afternoon. You go to dinner and meet your roommate. You come back to your room, and put on a suit and tie because that is not enough that you take in your gym clothes. And then you convene as a class, in a classroom and you’re just there with your counselors, your class counselor and an instructor, and they explain to you the seriousness of the adventure you’re about to embark upon. And then they ask you to stand up and raise your right hand. And it’s a moment I’ll never forget. And there’s never any doubt in your mind that that’s what started you on this process and that is the thing that you come back to your time and time again to understand where to go and what to do.
Rosenberg: And you’re not taking it alone you’re taking it in a room full of people who are promising to do exactly what you’re promising to do to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
McCabe: That is right. We are all making this commitment and swearing this oath together.
Rosenberg: And the second time you took the oath, was at your graduation ceremony in front of your friends and family.
McCabe: That’s right. Much more public, little more kind of sound of trumpets blaring in the background. But no less significant.
Rosenberg: And I imagine in your career, you’ve seen hundreds of agents and analysts and professional support staff take the same oath you took.
McCabe: I have. You know, I had the unique experience of giving the oath, to graduating analysts and agents at Quantico when I was acting director. And, it touches you deeply every time you participate in that process.
Rosenberg: I had the same honor when I was running the DEA. And I would actually have to steel myself to not get choked up as I administered the oath to our new agents and analysts and chemists–
Rosenberg: –at their graduation ceremonies.
McCabe: You know it’s–I used to do it as I was the– when I was running the Washington field office. When we would do just local hires of people who were coming in to serve as, you know, as administrative assistants or auto mechanics or whatever that might be. In their first day, they would show up at the field office, and I would have them come up to the ATEX office in my conference room—I’d swear them in. And then, I talked to them a little bit about the seriousness and the– of what they– of the career they embarked upon. And yet it was always very impactful.
Rosenberg: I imagine Quantico and the FBI changes you in some way. Can you describe that change for our listeners?
McCabe: Sure. I would say the biggest change or the biggest shift in your perspective in learning to see the world as an agent, is a shift towards altruism, or basically, a shift towards looking at the world through a lens other than considering first and foremost, your own safety, your own health, and happiness. For the first time in your life, your job is to think of others first, to think of the safety and the well-being and the security of your community, of your country, of the people around you before yourself.
Rosenberg: When class 9618 graduated, you and your classmates are spread out across the country. Maybe not always to your first-choice office. You got New York. Was that high on your list?
McCabe: It was, it was my first choice. My wife had already taken a job in New York, so I very much wanted to get there. It was one of the few, and I think probably is still one of the few offices that you can be pretty sure you’re going to get if you rank it first because it has–it’s the largest field office, they get the most new agents, so there’s always a fair number of agents that go from every class.
Rosenberg: And your book: The Threat, made me smile because you go from the sheltered environment at Quantico, with counselors and guidance and a very sort of regimented approach to your day, to the New York field office of the FBI, the legendary New York field office of the FBI.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: What’s it like when you show up?
McCabe: It is the most stark contrast that you’ve ever experienced. As you said, you go from that entirely kind of curated environment of Quantico, where every minute of the day is laid out for you, and a well-known schedule, you have places to be, you have to be there on time, very predictable things happen at each step along the along the way to the New York City field office.
Rosenberg: Nobody cares about you, kid.
McCabe: No one cares. No one cares, and you find yourself rushing to get to the office, you struggle with parking, you walk ten blocks, you get in afraid you’re going to be late on what is one of your first days, and you find, you know, there’s no one in your squad even there because they don’t show up until later in the day. Because people work largely at night.
Rosenberg: or they were out on some assignment.
McCabe: Or they were out on an assignment. The level of independence is remarkable. You are truly the master of your own destiny, you’re expected to do your job and well, you’re expected to know how to do that, which on those first few days is tough.
Rosenberg: You write about your first supervisor: Ray Kerr and your first partner: Greg Sheehy, despite the chaos or perhaps, better stated, the unstructured environment. You had some wonderful mentors and colleagues in that office.
McCabe: I truly did. Just great, great people some of whom, like Ray, taught me invaluable lessons about how to be an agent and really even more than that, just how to be an adult. Like all great leaders, Ray Kerr was teaching us when we didn’t even know he was teaching us, right. It was just the way that he interacted with us. His openness, his you know—Ray’s door– it’s one thing to say “oh my door is always open”– Ray’s door truly was always open. And we would be out on the streets and finish what we were doing and we’d come back to the office and we’d all just kind of go run into his office and see—he had these two chairs right across from his desk and you’d sit there and your partner sit in the other one and you tell him you know breathlessly all the fascinating things you encountered out on the streets of Brighton Beach or something. And Ray every day no matter how busy he was, no matter how long a day it was, or how late at night it was, Ray would sit there and listen to everything we said and contribute thoughtfully and guide us in subtle ways that we thought we were drawing our own conclusions about what to do. Ray was just as interested in talking you through how to fix the sink and the guestroom of the new old house that you just bought as he was interested in telling you kind of how to get something done with the prosecutor he was just there as a voice of reason.
Rosenberg: You mentioned squad. What squad were you on and what were you working?
McCabe: So, I was on a squad in New York that was referred to as the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, originally, we were called the Russian Organized Crime Task Force. But then, Eurasian to better represent that we focused on organized crime activity in basically the Russian speaking population of New York, which can emanate from places other than just Russia.
Rosenberg: So, you were on a criminal squad?
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And for our listeners, you can distinguish that from the other types of work the FBI does counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and the like.
McCabe: That’s right
Rosenberg: And there is a bit of a friendly rivalry within the FBI between these various divisions.
McCabe: Sure, sure. I think, you know, we’re all somewhat tribal. I think by nature and that tribalism shows–it rears its head in the bureau in that way. So, each you know–the agents from the different operational divisions all kind of consider themselves to be, you know, the only real agents, the only–the hardest working agents in the FBI, and they think of their own work as being tougher and more challenging a more fighting them than the work that everyone else does.
Rosenberg: But in your case, it was absolutely true
McCabe: Of course, it was everywhere I ever worked. I think that’s just also a reflection of the pride people have in the work that they do, which is a good thing. With criminal cases, you have the opportunity really to start a case, and to investigate it thoroughly, and then to work with a U.S. attorney, and take it all the way through prosecution in a very holistic and complete way. You can, as a criminal case agent, be really solely responsible for an entire case from the FBI side very early on in your career. So, you get a broad base of experience
Rosenberg: when you were working Russian organized crime in New York City, I assume you were working with prosecutors either from the Southern District of New York: Manhattan, or the Eastern District of New York: Brooklyn, perhaps both.
McCabe: Yes artfully, both. It is a situation, an embarrassment of riches that the FBI office in New York City has on its hands. Two extraordinary prosecutors’ offices with incredibly aggressive, and I would say, competitive prosecutors who vie for, what they believe, are the best cases. So as an agent in New York, you have–you benefit from that competition.
Rosenberg: You’re not telling me Andy, that the FBI plays one office off the other.
McCabe: I’m not telling you that, Chuck, but if you’re concluding that, you are not wrong.
Rosenberg: I don’t know that people appreciate how close the working relationship is between the FBI and federal prosecutors. Was that your experience?
McCabe: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you become very close to the prosecutors you work with. You typically will have more than one case with the same prosecutor if you develop a really sound working relationship, you can–you could go many, many years bringing one case after another to the same prosecutor as I did, and many people did
Rosenberg: the 10 years that you spent in New York City working criminal cases, including Russian organized crime, straddled the horrific attacks of 9/11.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And you write in your book about, well, a couple of things, including the fact that you were supposed to be in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11th at a gym, working out. But as luck would have it, you slept late that day, and weren’t there when the planes struck the towers.
McCabe: That’s right, that’s right. I ended up staying in the office very late the night before, which was not planned, and so, on that morning, I was a little–it was a Tuesday morning, as we all know. I was a little bit later than usual in leaving the house and had kind of canceled my morning workout at a gym that was just a few blocks from the World Trade Center.
Rosenberg: For those of us who were at the Justice Department, certainly for those of you in the FBI, that was literally the day that changed everything, the nature of our work, how we think about terrorism, and how we respond to it. I was going to ask you to read, Andy, the paragraph on page 66–Your impressions of that day and how it made your life different.
McCabe: Sure. “September 11th was the day that made everything look different from how it had looked before. This is true even in a literal way. After standing watch the night of September 11th, three of us drove downtown. By that point, everything south of Twenty sixth Street was like a world under martial law. No private vehicles, restaurants serving food only to first responders. I remember coming down Broadway with City Hall on the left, the park and front tapering to a point. It looked like a winter morning after an eight-inch snowfall. Every surface was white. It looked peaceful, and it was quiet. The dust-like snow muffled every sound. There were no people walking around and there was no traffic.
Rosenberg: It looked peaceful, but it was anything but.
McCabe: That’s right. What looked on the surface like snow, like a peaceful snowfall, was actually the pulverized remains of those towers. So, if you can imagine the reams of–putting aside the people, just the material in those buildings: the furniture, the filing cabinets filled with tons and tons and tons of paper–the material of the buildings themselves. Everything in there was when they collapsed was ground into a dust a white dust that blanketed all of Lower Manhattan.
Rosenberg: And you probably didn’t know it that day, but counterterrorism and the FBI response to those attacks would come to define much of your career in the coming years.
McCabe: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. It was, it was hard to escape the notion on that day, and in the days following, that everything had changed. Although I didn’t see how specifically it would change my life individually, you knew just kind of in your gut, that the rules of the game had changed, that what was going to be asked of us as an organization and as individual agents and FBI employees had changed fundamentally.
Rosenberg: And we can’t really overstate this. You took the largest field office in the FBI on September 11th out of its office, out of the place where your desks and computers and phones were, and moved it blocks away to a place that had been jury rigged in a few hours.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: To accommodate all of this work.
McCabe: That’s right. So, the New York City field office is the largest in the country. It is approximately 10 percent of the entire FBI works from the New York City field office, over a thousand agents and at least twice that many support staff and other professional staff. And instantly, all those folks had no place to work. In addition, we had a lot of work to do, so we couldn’t afford to take that entire workforce and have them, you know, thinking about building out a new workspace. So, it was–we got a lot done in a very short period of time. And then the SWAT team found themselves standing on the West Side Highway and in the surrounding on the streets surrounding the garage doing essentially perimeter security for months.
Rosenberg: And that was your assignment.
McCabe: That was my assignment until I was pulled from that duty. About maybe a month or so into it, I was asked to reconnect with my supervisor, Ray Kerr, as he had been given a new task to clear the many people who had been taken into custody during the course of the 9/11 investigation and placed in immigration custody because they had been found to be out of, you know, no longer having legal status to remain in the country.
Rosenberg: And it’s a strange role for the FBI. Though it has the authority to do so, it does not normally enforce immigration law.
McCabe: That’s correct. That’s correct. I think in the, in the fog of war and in the scramble to investigate every lead that came our way–that was our theory at the time: no lead would go uninvestigated. We found ourselves interacting with large numbers of people in different immigrant communities, but particularly in Arabic speaking communities and people from Asian communities, things like that. And the direction we received from the Department of Justice at the time, was that instantly, in the days that followed September 11th, we would begin enforcing immigration laws in ways that we had not done before.
Rosenberg: What effect did that have on you and your work and on your colleagues? Because overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, none of these people were connected to the events of 9/11.
McCabe: Well, that’s right and we know that now. But of course, we didn’t know that at the time, and that was the task we were given as this small group of criminal investigators. You had the numbers of people who were being detained on immigration charges and were being, kind of, slated for deportation–was growing, and the immigration authorities at the time, at the time–at that time, it was INS, said well, we’re not going to deport anyone until the FBI tells us that these people didn’t have any connection to terrorism. So, we essentially had to conduct these investigations to see if these people who were in custody had any connection to the 9/11 attacks or to any other terrorist issue.
Rosenberg: And I think that’s a really important point you make at the time. At the time, you did not know whether or not they had been connected. And so, hindsight is not 20 20, hindsight is perfect.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: Hindsight is better than 20 20.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And so, I imagine the directions at the time given that it was the largest investigation in the history of the FBI made sense.
McCabe: That’s right. You know, we–what did we know at that point? We knew that 19 young men had gotten on planes and staged the largest, most impactful, most horrific attack on American soil that we’d ever seen. And most of those 19 men we didn’t know about before 9/11. And so, we were very, very interested to find out everything we could about them and anyone who might have been connected with them in any way in the years leading up to that attack.
Rosenberg: Your career took a turn in 2006 and you began to work counterterrorism full time.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right. So, after nine–some time, actually in 2003, I became a supervisor of the Russian Eurasian organized crime squad in New York. And I did that for three years. And in those days, you could only be a field supervisor. What we call a “stationery supervisor,” having not been to headquarters for five years and then at the end of that time, you’d have to go to headquarters, so I knew I had was going to have to make the trip south whether I liked it, or not. And so, it just worked out for me to do it in 2006.
Rosenberg: Like in many large organizations, there is a tension between “the field,” whether it’s New York or Kansas City or Atlanta and headquarters. The folks at headquarters sometimes think that the field isn’t paying attention to their edicts and their rules. The folks in the field think that headquarters is making far too many rules, and issuing far too many edicts.
McCabe: And both are right. You’re absolutely right that there is a, kind of, robust tension in the FBI as there is in many organizations between the field and headquarters, and they are there, you know they–
Rosenberg: Both have some validity…
McCabe: –Both have some validity. The real work is done in the field. That’s where cases are investigated. Real progress is made, that people are saved. You know, all of those sorts of things but good and important work has also done at headquarters. And you can’t have an organization of 36000 people kind of marching in their own direction, and 56 field offices at the same time. You need some structure and organization and rules and that sort of thing. So, it’s, it’s just a part of large bureaucratic organizations. And it’s one that you know it’s part of the bureau lore.
Rosenberg: In fact, I was working for Bob Mueller and his staff in 2002 and 2003 in the aftermath of 9/11 and saw that tension as he tried to centralize much of the responsibility for the counterterrorism response at headquarters really in some ways at the expense of the New York field office.
McCabe: That’s absolutely right. And it was a startling contrast to someone like me who left the New York field office as a career criminal agent and then came down in 2006 to experience terrorism. That centralization was already underway in 2006, and it was like, it was like learning the rules of an entirely new world. You know, I prided myself on my independence from headquarters when I was running a squad in New York and working on a squad in New York. Now here I was, at headquarters, telling field offices how they would work terrorism cases. It’s a very–it’s a very different approach. But when you see the there’s a few things about terrorism that make it very different from criminal work, surveillance and terrorism cases is done in a classified manner through the FISA court. The FISA court is here in D.C., It is not in all of the local courthouses around the country the way surveillance is done in criminal cases you go to your local judge for a warrant in a terrorism case. All that work has to come through the FISA court in D.C. So, by kind of logistically, it requires a somewhat focused approach, and the issues you’re dealing with are of sometimes you know have large national security implications or require the coordination of other entities across the government the administration will need to know about how things are being done. Congress needs to be notified. So, a lot of that work has to be—it’s important that the organization speaks with one voice and is well coordinated and directive on those efforts.
Rosenberg: So, I’m biased, Andy, I believe, and will always believe that Bob Mueller’s instinct to centralize the work in Washington D.C. at headquarters was correct. How do you see it?
McCabe: I totally agree, totally agree. And I think, Chuck you would see if you talk to our special agents in charge, so we refer to them as: SACs. Those are the men and women who run the field offices. With the exception of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., which are run by an assistant director in charge, all the other 53 field offices have SACs. In 2002, when you were working for Director Mueller, I’m pretty confident that the majority of SACs were pushing back vigorously against these efforts to centralize. In those days, when they were working a terrorism case and headquarters wanted to send someone out to kind of watch how things were going, that was a tough job that you did not want because you’d be greeted–when you know–you were not greeted warmly by the field office. If you surveyed all of our SACs today, you would find a very, very different perception. They understand the role of headquarters in national security cases. They welcome that assistance during times of crisis. It’s been a complete shift in approach.
Rosenberg: But the men and women who are running field offices today also grew up under a different paradigm.
McCabe: And that helps.
Rosenberg: And that helps. Cultural change takes time.
McCabe: It does
Rosenberg: So, in 2006, Andy, you went to that place that was issuing rules and edicts to the field. You went to headquarters. What did you do there?
McCabe: I did. I came to headquarters to work as the Unit Chief, which in headquarters parlance is about the same as running a squad in the field, right. You have about 12 to 15 people working for you. They are mostly agents and analysts and I was in the counterterrorism division and my unit was responsible for managing and coordinating the cases that we had against terrorism subjects who were located overseas and a bunch different places.
Rosenberg: Was that also your first exposure to Director Mueller?
McCabe: It was, it was
Rosenberg: What was that like?
McCabe: He’s not here right so I can tell the truth?
Rosenberg: I don’t even know if he’s listening
McCabe: It was rough. Shortly after arriving at headquarters, my unit became responsible for a case that we referred to as: Operation Overt, which was the investigation of some young men in London who were planning, we thought, to blow up U.S. bound airliners. And it was an all hands-on deck moment. It was probably the most serious terrorism case that we had encountered since 9/11. And so, as the unit chief over the folks who were kind of coordinating that effort, it became my responsibility to brief Director Mueller twice a day. Whether either of us needed it or not, we would either meet in person, or I would tune in on a videoconference line which we refer to as an: SVTC, or “civets,” for short
Rosenberg: Secure video teleconference.
McCabe: That’s correct. And I would have to tell Director Mueller all the wonderful progress that we had made on this complicated case in the preceding 12 hours because these cases are, you know, these are, 24 hour a day affairs.
Rosenberg: The Bob Mueller I know, of course, never had any questions. Never had any concerns and let you do whatever you wanted, right Andy?
McCabe: He’s a very hands–off kind of laid back manager. No, he’s not that at all.
Rosenberg: Not at all. He in fact has quite the opposite.
McCabe: That’s right. He is a very hands-on, in the weeds manager and for a variety of reasons some of which I, I appreciated at the time, and some of which I’ve only come to appreciate later. One of the jobs of the unit was to prepare a link chart that had all of the major associated cases and subjects and issues. So, a link chart is a visual depiction of the situation you’re investigating. It can be very simple. If you have, let’s imagine a terrorist in the United States, who’s speaking to a terrorist in a foreign country, and they’re both talking to a terrorist in a third–or a second foreign country. You’d have three people on that chart. You have lines connecting them and maybe different colors representing the different places that they’re located. But as you get deeper and deeper into a more complicated investigation, the number of players and locations and what we call “facilities” or “devices,” that could be a phone or an e-mail account or something like that things that people use to communicate. As you get more and more data points like that onto the linked chart, they become more and more complicated and they get larger and have more colors and more lines and boxes connected.
Rosenberg: In essence, it’s an illustration of how the people you are investigating are connected to one another, and often how they communicate with one another.
McCabe: And that link chart was updated at least twice a day before the briefing and he would get a copy of it. And he and I would sit there and he would start in the top left-hand corner the link chart and just go across and down at every single entry on that chart he would ask me a different question about
Rosenberg: And you either knew the answer or told him that you would get it but you never made anything up, I imagine
McCabe: no no no no. You–listen. Your goal was to know the answers. So, you spent a lot of time preparing the first rule for anyone having to endure those situations is you have to know your stuff. So, we spent a lot of time getting ready but in that you know in those unfortunate times when you didn’t know the answer that was the only acceptable answer. I don’t know, but I will get that for you and then you had to get it. If you didn’t follow up within an hour or two and send a note along to his chief of staff with the actual answer, and you kind of left that “hanging Chad,” as we used to say, oh not a good thing.
Rosenberg: Bob Mueller would not forget that he had asked the question and you didn’t know the answer.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right. If you followed up and got him the answer you not only gave him the answer but you were communicating to him that you were a person of–you could be trusted, that you were serious about your work, and that you were, you know your word was good. If you didn’t follow up and get that answer, you were communicating the exact opposite.
Rosenberg: I had the privilege, Andy, of sitting in on many of those briefings and watching some of your colleagues struggle with those, and some of them flourish. But I know that Bob Mueller was a demanding boss.
McCabe: He was, but he had a very hard job, and our work was important and ultimately people’s lives depended on it. And he, through that sort of thoroughness, he was communicating to us the standard of excellence that we needed to reach in the work that we did.
Rosenberg: I adore that man. And I think to this day working for him was one of the great professional privileges of my entire life.
McCabe: As do I.
Rosenberg: Andy, you speak in your book about muscling versus targeting. And I thought that was a really interesting way to describe how the work of the FBI in the counterterrorism realm evolved over time. What do you mean by muscling, and what do you mean by targeting. And can you give us an example?
McCabe: Sure. So, muscling is just the word I’ve used to describe our initial approach to terrorism, which was that imagine that same response that we had to 9/11. We will investigate every lead, we will run down every alley, every fact, every person, every vehicle, whatever it might be as long as it takes. And we will throw as many men and women and analysts and agents and eyes and spreadsheets and link charts at that task as it’s necessary to get it done. And that is, that is an approach that communicates thoroughness and confidence and generates confidence in people who hear it, right. You think, hey I don’t have to worry, the FBI is on–in control and they’re doing everything
Rosenberg: But doing everything is not always the most efficient approach.
McCabe: That’s correct because these problems quickly get, can get beyond the scope of your ability to do everything and everything quickly and efficiently. So, what I realized, and I think you know, more importantly, what the FBI realized, is that you have to bring a sense of prioritization to that work. You have to be able to see things and make very quick judgements about which leads are most important and which leads probably aren’t. And then direct your resources accordingly.
Rosenberg: And that’s the shift from muscling to targeting.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: I want to talk to you a little bit about Northwest Flight 253.
Rosenberg: Bound for Detroit, one of the passengers on board, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: Was wearing, concealed in his underwear, a homemade explosive device.
McCabe: He was wearing that device when he boarded Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009. He attempted to detonate the device as the flight approached its final destination in Detroit, and it for, you know an incredible stroke of luck, the device did not detonate as it was designed. It caught fire briefly in severely injuring him, but no one else on board the plane was injured
Rosenberg: Using the underwear bomber as an example, you describe to your readers how the FBI approaches not just investigations but interrogations, which I thought was quite interesting
Rosenberg: Can you tell us a little bit about that and your approach to him?
McCabe: Sure. So, that was a subject that I had become inextricably immersed in at the time. I had recently been sort of reassigned by Director Mueller to begin what was known as and is still known as the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group. Which is referred to by practitioners as the “HIG” H.I.G. It was really the Obama administration’s first major policy decision on counterterrorism security issues. President Obama had signed two executive orders, one that officially kind of closed Gitmo or eliminated the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay as a possible detention location for terrorism subjects. And also, President Obama essentially eliminated the use of what’s referred to as: Enhanced interrogation techniques, which had been used by the CIA interrogating terrorism subjects in the past
Rosenberg: But never by the FBI
McCabe: Never by the FBI.
Rosenberg: Why is that?
McCabe: Well because the FBI is guided first and foremost always by the Constitution. And, so we interact with the people we investigate and the people we interview and sometimes interrogate always with an eye on their fourth amendment rights and we don’t abuse people or torture them in that process.
Rosenberg: And not only is the FBI tethered to the Constitution and the rule of law when it conducts interrogations. Oh, by the way, it turns out that building rapport and treated with respect and civility and dignity turns out to be more effective.
McCabe: That’s correct. That is our strong belief and it’s certainly the one that’s proven correct for us over the past 110 years of our existence. But, so that’s the approach that we bring to–we refer to them as interviews not interrogations. It’s not that much different from the approach that the United States military brings to, to interviews and interrogations which are governed by their own rules which are presented in the Army Field Manual, the manual that soldiers look to, to understand what the policies and the rules are for that sort of thing. And so, in 2009 President Obama basically said that all components the United States government would be limited to the techniques the interview techniques prescribed in the Army Field Manual and those used by federal law enforcement like the FBI. That’s the universe of possible techniques that we could use.
Rosenberg: You write it page 112 of your book that “at the heart of every good interrogation or interview is relationship, one in which the interviewee begins to trust the interviewer, and decides that talking is in his or her best interest.”
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: Ultimately with the underwear bomber, you got him to talk.
McCabe: We did, we did.
Rosenberg: How did you do that?
McCabe: It was outstanding work that was done primarily by the Detroit field office. As soon as Mutallab was taken off the plane he spoke very, very briefly to the agents who took him into custody. Not an interview by any stretch, and then was immediately taken into surgery for his wounds. And then he stopped cooperating and was, you know, jailed. Anybody would be who was charged with such a significant crime. So, the Detroit field office immediately sent agents to Nigeria for the purpose of meeting and build–starting to build that relationship of trust with Abdulmutallab’s family to understand where he had come from and what might have driven him to commit this to try to commit this horrible terrorist attack, but also to build a bridge to that family to start the process of convincing them to help convince Abdulmutallab to talk to us. After several weeks, the agents came back with a few of the family members, and we engage them in that process. It wasn’t just us telling Abdulmutallab “you should talk to us.” It was actually his family members sitting with him and saying we trust these men. We understand the process that you’re going to be subjected to is governed by a judge and rules and laws that make sense that are transparent and we think that it is in your best interest to cooperate to try to better situation.
Rosenberg: And so, to get Abdulmutallab to talk, actually it takes a tremendous amount of investigative work, time, and effort. You don’t just walk into a room, sit down, flip on a bright light, and start shouting questions at him.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right. That relationship. That interview is based on trust. And you. And you. You assemble the building blocks of that trust by going out and understanding the person that you are going to be interviewing. So, that takes a little bit of work especially for somebody like Abdulmutallab, who none of us were aware of before he tried to detonate a bomb in his underwear.
Rosenberg: And so, I presume when you’re a new agent in class 96 89 at Quantico they actually teach you this?
McCabe: They do. They do. And it is, you know, the FBI referred to it as: the rapport building technique. It’s–you need to be able to sit down across the table from anybody from that incredibly devout, pious, kind of closed off young man from Nigeria, or from a corporate CEO, or from a gang member who’s just committed to a drive by shooting, you to be a sit down with anyone and start up a conversation about anything.
Rosenberg: I was always struck by how easy it was to talk to other people including people who did horrifically bad things when you approach them as a person.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: That, if you could put aside, because you had to for a moment, their conduct and reach them in some other way they would tell you amazing things. In many cases, in criminatory things.
McCabe: That’s right. And I always found that one of the things you had to do in that process was really carefully avoid communicating any kind of judgment. And sometimes, that’s hard when people are telling you, you know, horrific or surprising things or even things that you know aren’t true. And you know you’re–everybody’s instinct is when to kind of yell back. That’s not right and you know devolve into confrontation when you are trying to establish rapport with someone you need to talk to you. You have to suspend that for some period of time that judgment. And just let them talk.
Rosenberg: Andy, I wanted to talk to you about, what I think is one of the most remarkable investigations in FBI history: Patriots Day 2013 celebrated in Boston. April 15th.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: The anniversary of the first two battles of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord, and also the day historically that the Boston marathon is run.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right.
Rosenberg: What happened on April 15th, 2013? Where were you?
McCabe: So, I was just arriving at a–one of my many meetings at the White House. I was attending what we called at that time the Counterterrorism Security Group, which is like the counterterrorism kind of professionals from different agencies.
Rosenberg: And by this time, you’re the assistant director for counterterrorism for the FBI.
McCabe: That’s correct. That’s correct.
Rosenberg: So, you’re in charge.
McCabe: That’s right. So, we were meeting at the White House and one of, the kind of–one of the rooms that’s capable of having kind of top secret conversations those sort of things. And just after the meeting got started, someone walked in and said “there’s been two bombs that detonated at the Boston Marathon.” And so, immediately just closed my books, threw them in my lock bag, which is a briefcase that we use to carry classified material, and I kind of very quickly made my way back to the office where I spent essentially the next week trying to figure out exactly who had detonated those bombs and who might have worked with them in that process.
Rosenberg: As you describe in your book the crime scene is enormous. It goes on for blocks and blocks and that when those two bombs detonated, well, three people were tragically killed 250 were maimed or wounded. But thousands of people dropped what they were carrying, and ran. That’s right. And you knew, or you suspected that any one of those packages could contain another bomb. How do you even begin to approach a crime scene of that magnitude while at the same time you have to treat the injured?
McCabe: That’s a great question. You know, I think the keywords that you use there are “begin to approach.” You have to make that–you do everything you can to rescue victims in the moment. But you have to do it knowing–this is why training is so important.
This is why it’s important to have professionals doing this work. You have to do it knowing that any package or backpack or bag or briefcase that you encounter as you’re trying to help someone off the street might be the next device. Once those victims have been removed from the scene, you still have thousands of packages laid out across a crime scene that’s four or five blocks long. And then, we bring in bomb technicians, so specially trained agents and police officers to approach every single one of those packages as if it’s an explosive device.
Rosenberg: Now the Boston field office of the FBI is large, but not nearly large enough for a task like this.
McCabe: There is no field office on earth that’s large enough for a test like this on its own. And that is really the job of headquarters, that’s what–that’s our primary role is to support the field and to get that field office, in this case, Boston the resources and the help and the guidance that they need to get that work done.
Rosenberg: And this is the FBI at its best, where you surge resources from all over the country, in fact, if needed, all over the world to a particular place at a particular time. To make an investigation
McCabe: That’s right. Within, I don’t know, two hours, those bombs going off, we literally have hundreds of agents, of specialists, of pilots, of bomb techs. You name it, logistics specialists, contracting officers, anything you can think of, we have surging towards Boston in the immediate aftermath and that is one of the things that makes the FBI so unique. We have a, a scope of talent and specialties and expertise that I think is unrivaled in any other organization on earth.
Rosenberg: At the same time that you are flooding Boston with the evidence response teams and the lab personnel, you have something going on at headquarters. There’s a clunky name. The Strategic Information and Operations Center known as “SIOC” SIOC.
McCabe: Because we love our initials
Rosenberg: We can’t live without acronym.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: What’s going on at SIOC while you are flooding Boston with the resources?
McCabe: SIOC is a large space within the FBI headquarters building that is kind of pre-armed, if you will, with the computers and telephones and resources video screens and teleconference ability, and it waits for a for a crisis.
Rosenberg: It becomes your command center.
McCabe: That’s correct. So, during a time of crisis we can surge all the right folks from the right divisions, we can bring in our partners from DOJ, and from the U.S. attorney’s office, and from the Department of Energy and Defense, and whoever else has a stake in that crisis convenes on SIOC–has a place to work and coordinate and most importantly to understand what all the other elements are doing. That’s how you run a coordinated crisis response
Rosenberg: And you’re running it. You’re the assistant director for counterterrorism.
McCabe: That’s right.
Rosenberg: You’re in charge.
McCabe: That’s right. We start that process with a conference call. So, the assistant director will convene all of the relevant headquarters groups on a conference call with the field office that’s affected in this, case Boston and then all of the surrounding field offices that might be called upon to help. So, in this case, was New York, New Haven, you know, the other offices in that region that had assets to contribute. So, we get on that conference call and we first get a debrief from the Boston agents to understand what did they know so far that helps us to be able to go back and let the deputy director and the director and maybe the White House and the attorney general and others know what the situation is. And after they’ve told us what the situation on the ground is, we go around the table and every entity is expected to offer to the field office whatever support they think might be relevant.
Rosenberg: But on day one, you have no idea who detonated those bombs, right?
McCabe: That’s absolutely right.
Rosenberg: So, the investigation itself to me is fascinating including how you ultimately identified: white hat black hat, the surname of brothers the two who were carrying the explosive devices and left them at various stages near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But I was also struck, Andy, by something you described in your book. I know you to be an incredibly kind and decent and thoughtful leader.
McCabe: Thank you.
Rosenberg: But you lost your temper.
McCabe: I did.
Rosenberg: And I thought it was interesting because it illustrates the pressure that people work under and the expectations that we have from headquarters of the field to respond in a timely manner. Set this up for us.
McCabe: Sure. So, this is one of those conference calls with the field and this is probably maybe a day in a day or two into the, into the investigation. And we have these conference calls with the field office to get these updates on what progress we’ve made on the investigation. One of the most important things as you might imagine nowadays, is to collect video–video coverage from businesses that might have cameras and things like that that are anywhere in the area or near the area for the clues that they might deliver to us.
Rosenberg: So, I’m gonna ask you to read that paragraph and page 147
McCabe: “In a call with Boston. We were talking about video coverage from a bank along the route. We assumed the attackers had likely taken as they left the scene. I asked the assistant special agent in charge if we had gotten the video from the bank. She said “No we haven’t.” And then silence. Until I aske,”well why,” she said, “we’ve got a lot to do.” It’s 6:00p.m. The bank is closed. We’ll talk to them tomorrow. That was the breaking point for me this kind of stuff had to stop. I lit into her. I said You do not get it. You are not handling this the way it needs to be handled. This is a terrorist incident and this is the counterterrorism division. You are working the biggest terrorism case we’ve seen in the last decade, and that means you are on, it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no break. Nothing gets done tomorrow, everything gets done today. When you develop a lead, it gets handled immediately if you need more people to get that done. I will send you 500 more people by tomorrow morning. If you need video coverage from that bank. I expect you to be at that bank five minutes after the thought occurred to you. If the thought occurs to you in the middle of the night, you should be at the manager’s front door banging on the door waking him up. That is how we respond to a terrorism incident. And if you don’t know who the manager of the bank is, and you don’t know where his house is, just tell me you don’t know and I will find that out for you, and push that information to you.
Rosenberg: Thank you, Andy. I Imagine you are not proud of the fact that you did that and did it publicly on that phone call.
McCabe: No, I was not. And I am still not proud of it.
Rosenberg: But it had to be done
McCabe: But it had to be done.
Rosenberg: And in fact, Director Mueller saw you later that day because he heard what you said.
McCabe: He did, of course, Director Mueller and our then deputy, Sean Joyce, were surreptitiously listening in on the call, which I found out about shortly after ending the call. I got a summons over the loudspeaker: “please report to the director’s office.” That’s not anything anybody wants to hear.
Rosenberg: That’s not typically to say thank you.
McCabe: No no no there’s no thank you there. So I went upstairs. I knew I figured he’d been on a call he’d heard my–the way I had handled that conversation, and I thought this is probably it I’m probably going to be asked to step aside and let somebody with a cooler head continue to manage this. So I walked into his conference room he was at his chair at the end of the table where he always sits and the Deputy Director, Sean Joyce was next to him. And I walked up to him and I immediately started Nero launch into my explanation and he just kind of held up his hand. You know to tell me to stop. And he looked at me and said “you had to do that. It had to be done,”
Rosenberg: And he was right as–
McCabe: He was right. And I felt bad about I still kind of feel bad about it today but I know that he was right it did have to be done that was kind of my instinct at that time. It was as important for everyone else on that call as it was for the assistant special agent that I was talking to. It was a way of conveying to the entire group the kind of intensity that we expect and that we have to have responding to those events.
Rosenberg: And it’s remarkably difficult to maintain that tempo, that sense of urgency. But in the aftermath of an astonishingly horrific terrorist attack on U.S. soil, that is what the FBI does.
McCabe: That’s exactly right. That is exactly right.
Rosenberg: How did you find the Sarny of brothers.
McCabe: Well you know through great investigative work by the team in Boston and the folks that we had sent up to help them. So, we were receiving just tons and tons and tons of information from the public so you can imagine thousands of people lined that street. They’re all taking photographs of their loved ones and of the runners and the finish line and all this stuff. And so, people started contribute–you know sending all that still photographs and all that video coverage to us.
Rosenberg: The FBI also put out a call to the public for information which can be a mixed bag.
McCabe: That’s right. That’s right. You are going to get information, and most of it will probably not lead you anywhere. So, you’ve been doing that you saddle yourself with the obligation of going through all of that, but you do it when you have very few leads on an investigation that’s gone ice cold overnight which is what we had in Boston. You start to get pretty desperate for leads and you look anywhere for them. So that’s what we did. We also knew where the second device was detonated. It was detonated right on the sidewalk outside of a place called the Forum restaurant next to a mail collection box. One of those green old-fashioned mailboxes. And so, we started looking for video coverage from across the street that would be looking at the front of the forum at or–at or around that time. A Boston analyst saw a gentleman walk up to that very area where we knew the bomb had gone off with a backpack on hisshoulder and he happened to be wearing a white baseball hat turned backwards. And so, with him as a person of interest, we then went to the video coverage from the Forum restaurant essentially looking from inside the restaurant. Out to the sidewalk and we very clearly saw the same gentleman walk up to where he ended up standing. He kind of looked in both directions. And then he carefully took the backpack off and set it on the ground. And as everyone else in the frame in the video is looking out at the runners and pretty soon, you hear the first device detonate. So that’s going on–as you’re looking at people’s backs as you’re looking at the runners, that device would be to their left and everyone in the frame immediately turns left to look to where that sound came from except the man with the white hat on backwards. He looks to the right, and then slowly walks away. And so, we were pretty confident that the bomb was in that backpack and he’s the one that set it off.
Rosenberg: And then you scoured other video to see how he had approached the site where he dropped the bomb and who might be with him.
McCabe: That’s right. So, then it was a process of going back through all of that video we’d collected like the bank video that we had argued about earlier and all from all the other businesses in the area. And eventually we found him walking to that location coming from blocks away and standing next to him, walking beside him was another individual, with a backpack on wearing a black baseball hat. I think also turned backwards maybe his frontwards not sure, but in any case, that’s how they became known to us as “white hat” and “black hat.”
Rosenberg: And how do you go from white hat black hat to the Tsarnaev brothers.
McCabe: Well that’s another story entirely. So, we made the very careful and hard decision to release the photographs of white hat and black hat to the public to see if someone could identify them for us because we were rapidly running out of time. We had not very productive lines of investigating that we were currently following, and there was another interesting thing happening at the time. In the public obsession with finding who had done this, numerous people were being incorrectly identified and exposed to the media. And so, newspapers would run a picture of someone who is, you know, standing near the finish line and say Is this the guy. And then pretty very soon thereafter those people were being hounded by the media and by others and so it was, it was almost becoming a volatile and dangerous situation for people who were being incorrectly identified. So, in a pivotal moment, we decided that we should release the photographs, that was on Thursday night of that week and it was that release of the photographs that compelled the two brothers who we now know as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to embark upon what can only be described as a crime spree that evening that resulted in not just us identifying them but, also in Tamerlan’s death.
Rosenberg: And before that happened, of course the murder of MIT police officer
McCabe: Right. That’s right. The senseless murder of Sean Collier the MIT police officer, just sitting in his car doing what he supposed to be doing. He was essentially ambushed by the brothers who were seeking to acquire another handgun. They killed the police officer and then were unable to get the handgun out of his holster. So, the entire episode was a just horribly tragic waste
Rosenberg: Andy, you held a series of remarkable jobs in the FBI you talked about some of them. We didn’t talk about others. They included your role as the Assistant Director in charge of the Washington field office. That’s right. As the deputy director of the FBI and for a short time as the Acting Director of the FBI. There’s probably not enough time in the day to talk about all of that, but I wanted our listeners to know that from the day you set foot at Quantico to the very beginning of your work in New York against Russian organized crime, the path you traveled in the FBI was an extraordinary one.
McCabe: Thank you.
Rosenberg: you wright at the end of your book and I’m always drawn to beginnings and ends that, “hundreds of thousands of people in government devote their lives to the work of the United States of America. Millions upon millions of ordinary citizens serve their communities and make up the backbone of institutions of every kind. All of these people, in ways large and small stand up for what they believe in. It’s an abiding characteristic of our nation. If ever we lost that capacity, we’d be lost. But that capacity is something that real Americans will never lose.”
McCabe: I believe that very strongly.
Rosenberg: Thank you for devoting your life to the work of the United States of America and to the FBI, and for making us all safer.
McCabe: Thank you Chuck, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about the institution I love. And there’s no one better to talk to about it than someone who’s experienced in the same way that I answered. Thank you for this.
Rosenberg: Well you served well and honorably, my friend.
McCabe: Thank you.
Rosenberg: Andy McCabe is the author of “The Threat. ” If you enjoyed our conversation today, you will enjoy his book.
Next time on The Oath, I sit down with Lisa Monaco, the former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President Barack Obama and the former Chief of Staff to FBI Director Bob Mueller.
Look for my conversation with Lisa, out next Wednesday.
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