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ANATOMY OF A HYPOTHETICAL TERRORISM CASE
Director Mueller Takes You on a Verbal "Ride Along"

03/27/06

FBI Director Robert Mueller

You've heard that terrorism cases are solved by uniting efforts of local police, the FBI, and our international law enforcement partners...but just exactly how does that actually work out in real life?

Director Mueller took time last Friday to sketch the process out in his address to The Houston Forum, and we thought you'd be interested too. Come along for a "ride along" on a hypothetical case that starts with "Officer John Smith" of the Houston PD.

  • Officer Smith checks his secure LEO computer account before going on duty and reads an FBI/Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Bulletin that notes certain Europeans associated with a recent terrorist attack may be living in the U.S. and did call phone numbers in the U.S. with pre-paid cell phones that had been bought in Texas.
  • On duty, Smith sees a car speed through a red light in downtown Houston, pulls the car over, and asks the driver for his license and registration. He runs license, license plate, and registration info through his patrol car NCIC computer and instantly discovers the car is stolen.
  • Moments later he gets an alert on his computer from TSC, the Terrorist Screening Center: the driver's name is on a watch list. Smith calls the Center to get the full report as well as guidance on what questions to ask the driver.
  • While listening to the driver claim he's just a student from Europe studying at the local university and doing some sightseeing, Smith looks hard into the car—and spots multiple cell phones, a camera, and a map piled on the front seat. "What's that map?" he says. And the driver hands him a map with circles drawn around a sports stadium, a hospital, a shopping mall, and the port. Smith arrests the driver for possession of a stolen car and takes him in for questioning.
  • At his first chance, Smith calls a police colleague who is serving on the FBI's JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) in Houston and asks her to check State Department databases.
  • Houston PD takes the driver's fingerprints and runs them through the IAFIS database—and gets a hit. The driver has been arrested before, but under another name.
  • The phone rings and it's the Houston JTTF: yes, the driver IS in the U.S. on a student visa, but is NOT enrolled in any university.
  • Back to TSC: Is there a hit on its databases for the alias of the driver? YES. And now the TSC FBI Agent runs the cell phone info through investigative databases and finds one of the phones was called from a phone connected to the very European terrorist attack Smith had read about just hours before. The TSC agent advises he's already alerted FBI Legal Attaché offices in Europe and brought U.S. and European law enforcement and intelligence agencies into the loop.

In Director Mueller's words, "And so, within hours of the arrest, the Houston Police Department, the FBI, the CIA, and European law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working hand-in-hand on this investigation. Has the man been sent to the United States to do reconnaissance on possible targets? Or is he here to recruit members for a terrorist cell? As the pieces of the puzzle come together, it becomes clear that the work of just one police officer set in motion a chain of events that led to an international investigation, the identification of a potential terrorist cell, and the prevention of a possible terrorist attack."

We urge you to read the whole speech...for some real life examples of this hypothetical "ride along."