You might think that someone who spent twenty-one years conducting and overseeing FBI investigations would be inclined to look at the world retrospectively. A lifetime of trying to figure out what happened, after it happened, might have you constantly looking backward. An organized-crime figure is discovered dead—who did it, and why? Somebody set off explosives at the Boston Marathon—how did they do it, and where did they go?
But I know the past is only part of the story.
It is crucial that we solve these mysteries not only to bring justice to victims and consequences to perpetrators, but also because the answers help us make the country safer in the future. In the days after the attacks on 9/11, President George W. Bush asked FBI Director Robert Mueller pointedly, “What are you doing to stop the next attack before it happens?” With that question came a new mission, and the necessity to transform the FBI into an organization focused on mitigating threats rather than simply working cases. We needed to learn how to predict the criminal activity, terrorist attacks and foreign spying that might take place in the future.
Reading the future is not a small or simple task. It requires an established process. You start with what you know. The FBI relies on analysts to know everything about our past work. They combine data from recent cases with reporting from informants, witness accounts, surveillance collection, intelligence from other agencies, and many other sources of information. Analysts digest that information with one eye on our reason for being: our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution.
Next they consider recent trends like changes in terrorist tactics, newly developing criminal schemes, advances in technology, and demographic shifts. From this mix, they divine possible outcomes. For example, if our cases in the previous year saw an increasing number of Americans travelling to Syria, and we know how this experience might radicalize people, we can predict with fair confidence that the next year will see an increasing number of battle-trained, hardened extremists returning to live in the U.S.
Finally, we rank these emerging threats in order of probability and impact. This process, completed in a consistent, disciplined way, gives us a rich picture of the challenges we will likely face in the years to come. With that picture of terrorist, criminal, and foreign-intelligence threats, we allocate investigative resources strategically, by moving agents and analysts among programs and field offices.
These days, as a concerned citizen, I try to apply that same process to understand the threats our country will face in the future. I don’t have access to the same information I reviewed as a leader of the FBI, but there are still abundant sources to work with. I begin the process by trying to know as much as I can about our past—understanding the history and challenges that have shaped the pluralist democracy we enjoy today. I apply that to the core assumptions I believe all Americans share: that we are still “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
The next step in the analysis calls for looking at current trends and recent developments. And that’s when things begin to look much darker. I see the malign actions of our foreign adversaries becoming fodder for political debate, rather than a rallying cry to protect our democracy. I consider how the bellicose positions we now take are straining relationships across the globe with our strategic partners. I see national leaders assailing the institutions that execute the rule of law with false stories about plotting coups and maneuvering against the president. I cringe when I hear those same politicians attack the men and women who protect us and demand their imprisonment to the gleeful cheers of onlooking supporters.
And I see people’s reflexive inclination to dismiss any inconvenient truth as fiction or fake news rather than engaging in dialogue. This analysis paints a dark picture of our future, one in which division and politics tear the country into warring tribes, unable to unite around issues necessary to protect our nation and advance the lives of all Americans.
And that is where the analytical process fails me. Or, rather, I fail it by abandoning it for faith. Despite the indicators, I still believe that most people, regardless of political affiliation, want to live in a country that is free and fair and just. For everybody. I still believe that most people think the laws our elected representatives create should be applied equally and consistently to every citizen. I still believe that there are more things that bind us as Americans than divide us into political camps.
My former colleagues might be disappointed with my forsaking the discipline of analysis for optimism and faith in the American spirit. But if I were sitting at the conference table with them again, debating the pros and cons, I would argue that my faith and their analytic rigor both stand on the foundation of our past while looking into our future. I would point out that we have been through tougher challenges and darker times before, from which we emerged as a stronger, smarter nation, better equipped to embrace our destiny. I have no doubt we will again.
McCabe ’90, former deputy director of the FBI, is the author of The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.