WASHINGTON – Nearly 100 terrorist attacks, some intended to take place on U.S. soil, have been thwarted since Sept. 11, 2001, FBI Director Robert Mueller says. But he warns that many potential terrorists remain at large in the United States.
"We will be at war until we make certain that every member of al-Qaida is incapacitated in his or her ability to harm the United States,'' Mueller told The Associated Press.
In a wide-ranging, almost hourlong interview in his seventh-floor conference room at FBI headquarters, Mueller also rejected proposals to shift counterintelligence duties from the FBI to a new agency. He said punishment is not the answer for mistakes by individual FBI agents before the Sept. 11 attacks.
On terrorism, Mueller said "tens of attacks, probably close to a hundred around the world'' have been stopped in the past 15 months. He credited better intelligence gathering and coordination, and information from al-Qaida detainees in custody, including those he described as architects of would-be attacks.
"There have been any number of attacks on ships that have been thwarted,'' Mueller said. "Without getting into details, we have thwarted a number of attacks, both large and small.''
Asked if some of those attacks were aimed at U.S. targets, Mueller said: "Yes.''
He specifically mentioned Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen being held as an enemy combatant who authorities say was plotting to detonate a "dirty'' radioactive bomb in the United States. Also cited were the arrests of members of an alleged al-Qaida cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., and individuals in Portland, Ore., Seattle and elsewhere.
Mueller said it may take years to destroy al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, but he said the United States and its allies have the upper hand.
"I think we're well on our way to winning the war, but the fact of the matter is, it is a war. Al-Qaida still has the capability of striking us,'' he said.
The bureau, he said, is on the lookout for unconventional attacks, noting the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers used only boxcutters for weapons. "No explosives, no guns. Terrorists can operate in a number of ways. We need to continue to be alert, be vigilant,'' he said.
The FBI believes there are several hundred people in the United States who are either potential terrorists, part of their financial or other support network, or who authorities simply need to rule out as suspects.
These people are being tracked down by teams such as the new Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, a part of the FBI's broader transformation from an agency focused mainly on law enforcement to one whose priority is preventing terrorism, Mueller said.
That has included much improved technology, the reassignment of more than 500 agents to fight terrorism and the hiring of more than 330 linguists to translate such languages as Arabic and Pashtun.
There have been deadly bombings recently in Indonesia and Kenya, and renewed threats against the United States in an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden. Mueller, however, said he saw no specific, credible intelligence heading into the holiday season that should lead the Bush administration to raise the nation's terror alert from "elevated'' status.
"That level is where it needs to be,'' Mueller said.
The FBI has come under repeated criticism for failing to stop the Sept. 11 attacks and ignoring warning signs. Mueller said the bureau is a much different place now, with far better information-gathering technology and improved communication. But, he added, "We still have a ways to go.''
One major change has been better teamwork with the CIA, Defense Department and state and local law enforcement agencies, said Mueller, who took over the FBI only a week before the attacks. There are 25 CIA analysts working at the FBI to analyze intelligence and joint CIA-FBI teams working in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere to root out terrorists.
A decade ago, when Mueller headed the Justice Department's criminal division, he said CIA station chiefs and the FBI "didn't talk to each other. Right now, the exchange of information is truly remarkable.''
Yet he acknowledged it is a daunting task to analyze a veritable "river'' of intelligence that flows into the U.S. government for that one piece of information that could deter a terrorist attack.
"We need to integrate our human resources, our technical resources to do a better job of putting those pieces together,'' Mueller said.
Still, Mueller opposed a joint House-Senate intelligence committee's recommendation that Congress and the administration consider creating a domestic intelligence agency to focus entirely on preventing a recurrence of the terror attacks.
The FBI, he said, is "uniquely positioned'' to tackle the job because it has intelligence and law-enforcement capabilities — allowing it to both detect and, if necessary, arrest or seek deportation of would-be terrorists before they strike.
"There has to be a mechanism for deterring those individuals,'' Mueller said. "We have the same people who have knowledge of intelligence and knowledge of criminal activity being undertaken by these individuals.''
Mueller also said he did not share the enthusiasm of some on Capitol Hill to punish FBI agents or others who may have made mistakes prior to Sept. 11.
"One cannot look at holding people accountable as a solution to these problems,'' he said, adding that part of the pre-Sept. 11 problems involved a lack of resources. Mueller said that if the FBI's independent internal watchdog identified conduct worthy of punishment, it would be meted out to agents.
Of greater importance, Mueller said, is ensuring that the FBI and the government as a whole have the resources, training and focus needed to keep up the anti-terrorism battle.
Mueller also discussed the investigation into last year's anthrax attacks, saying he gets a report on it at least once a week. "I see progress in the investigation. Sometimes it's smaller than others, but progress,'' he said.