The Arab Spring uprisings have created a new segment of violent extremists that will threaten the U.S. and its citizens abroad for years to come, FBI Director Robert Mueller said.
Mueller, who will complete his 12 years atop the law enforcement agency on Sept. 4, said Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Algeria, Syria and most recently, Egypt, have become the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
“Every one of these countries now has cadres of individuals who you would put in the category of violent extremists that will present threats down the road,” Mueller told a group of reporters during an interview inside the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters in Washington. “Not only threats to us in the United States, but also threats to Americans overseas.”
Mueller’s comments came two weeks after the U.S. closed embassies and diplomatic compounds in almost two dozen countries because of terrorist threats and as the U.S. government continues to grapple with the diplomatic responses to unrest across Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
The State Department on Aug. 3 issued a worldwide travel alert warning of potential terror attacks by al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
For Mueller, a shifting landscape abroad has been the catalyst for the transformation that has taken place at the FBI since he became director just days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.
The FBI -- and Mueller himself -- were reshaped both by statute and through internal priorities to become a counterterrorism and intelligence-driven institution, he said.
“It took me awhile to fully understand that the training that I had had, which was principally with the FBI, DEA and others, which was to investigate criminal acts as they occurred, was not going to be the paradigm for the future,” said Mueller as he recounted the impact of the 2001 attacks had on his tenure.
James B. Comey, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, was confirmed 93-1 by the U.S. Senate last month to succeed Mueller. Comey, who Mueller called “a good friend, an excellent choice and a superb prosecutor,” will begin next week to work at the FBI to ensure a smooth transition.
Tracking terrorists -- particularly self-radicalized individuals, or “lone wolves” -- are the biggest threat he is leaving to Comey.
Comey also will join a bureau facing sharp budget reductions even as the Justice Department has worked to shift money to compensate for the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
Mueller said that along with cuts to travel, he’s been forced to curtail investigations of white-collar crime and joint programs with state authorities. FBI agents will likely be forced to take unpaid leave, or be furloughed, during the next fiscal year, which starts in October.
“The budget, making the hard choices, I think that’s going to be the biggest hurdle he faces at this juncture,” Mueller said of his successor.
Comey also will inherit the growing questions from members of Congress and civil-liberties advocates about the reach and scope of the intelligence gathering programs used by the U.S. government.
Mueller has publicly defended the merits of the bulk collection of the phone records of U.S. citizens, as well as the collection of Internet metadata targeting foreign citizens outside of the country believed to be involved in terrorism.
President Barack Obama’s administration, in response to the disclosures of the classified programs to media outlets by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, has moved over the last month to declassify and release court orders, legal white papers and broad descriptions of the programs in an effort to quell growing momentum in Congress to restrict funding or use of the programs.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence made public a previously classified 2011 ruling from a federal judge from the government’s secret foreign surveillance court that showed the National Security Agency repeatedly misled the court about the collection of tens of thousands of e-mails and other communications by U.S. citizens.
While intelligence officials described the problem as primarily technological and said it was corrected, lawmakers including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, are pressing for more information from the administration.
“There have been occasions, very few I might say, where there has had to be some adjustment, but I am fairly comfortable and confident that we are doing things the way the American public would expect us to do it with a appreciation of the potential impact on privacy and civil liberties,” Mueller said.
Mueller said Snowden’s disclosures, which have been published primarily in the The Guardian and the Washington Post, have “impacted and are in the process of impacting the capabilities around the world.” He declined to provide details of how U.S. capabilities have been impacted.
The U.S. government has made progress against cyber attacks and cyber terrorism, Mueller said, though the effort “still has a ways to go.”
A successful cyber attack on a large U.S. economic sector, specifically the financial sector, remains one of the FBI’s biggest concerns, Mueller said. The FBI has pushed for lawmakers and private industry to reach agreement on legislation that would better enable both sides to quickly share information to counter cyber threats.