On Christmas day in 2009, Andrew Arena, head of the Detroit FBI, made a beeline to the airport to deal with a young Nigerian man -- aka The Underwear Bomber -- who tried to blow up an airliner.
“He slipped up and gave us some stuff," Arena explained of the valuable global terrorism information the bomber gave up during the interrogation. " I can’t get into because it’s still classified. We exploited a lot... We got some key stuff."
Arena was directly involved in the decisions about the interrogating the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, including when to read him the Miranda warning, an issue that would later become a “political football” in Washington.
Some conservative Republicans like Michele Bachman were highly critical, insisting the FBI shouldn’t have read the Miranda warning to a terrorist because it may have stifled the flow of valuable information. Many Democrats defended the FBI and Justice Department, which delayed reading the rights, but ultimately did after six hours. The Obama administration claimed it got plenty of valuable information about the plot and terrorism around the world.
“People used the national security issue for political purposes,” he said of the partisan bickering in Washington. “Yeah, that did bother me.”
Arena is a personable man who speaks fondly of his native Detroit. In his FBI office on Michigan Avenue downtown, he sat down earlier this month with Deadline Detroit reporter Allan Lengel to discuss his 24-year-career in the FBI, including the last five as head of the Detroit office.
He’s set to retire at the end of the week, on May 31, and take over as director of the newly formed Detroit Crime Commission. The commission, he says, will try unearthing corruption and other crime and try to fill some gaps law enforcement hasn’t been able to address. He says the business people funding the commission were shy about having their names in the press.
To be sure, his five years have been eventful.
Besides the Underwear Bomber, he’s gone after corruption in city hall, resulting in an indictment of ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is set to go to trial in September. Arena’s agents have also doggedly pursued corruption involving Wayne County government.
What will happen to Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano?
“I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see where the facts take us.”
He had to deal with his fair share of controversy, including the fatal shooting of an imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, who was killed by his agents during a raid in Dearborn in 2009 after the imam, according to agents, pulled out a gun and fired, killing an FBI dog.
With all the many successes in court -- and there were plenty -- it wasn’t always perfect. Recently, a federal judge dismissed charges that a militia known as the Hutaree was plotting to revolt against the government and kill cops. The judge simply didn’t buy the case, saying their talk was protected by free speech. Two members ended up pleading guilty to gun charges.
It was an embarrassment to the government. Arena says he and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade strongly disagreed with the ruling.
In Washington, Arena was a highly regarded bureau official, and while he was stationed there after Sept. 11, 2001, he briefed FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III regularly on terrorism. Arena also pushed back when the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney were pressuring the FBI to find a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
In the book --"The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda" -- author Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent, writes of Arena, who at the time, was chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section:
Prior to the Iraq war, when there was a lot of pressure on the FBI from the White House to produce a “link” between Saddam Hussein
and al-Qaeda, the 9/11 Team’s assessment, again and again, was that there was no link. The White House didn’t like that answer, and told the bureau to look into it more and “come up with one.” Andy refused, and in an exchange (now famous among bureau agents), he told Robert Mueller: “Sir, in the FBI, we present facts. We don’t manufacture reasons for White House wars.” The director agreed, and the message went back that the assessment wouldn’t be changed.
The following is an interview with Arena, which has been trimmed for brevity. The questions have been edited for clarity.
Deadline Detroit: Tell me about the Detroit Crime Commission. What's your core mission?
Arena: I think we’re looking at what are the gaps in law enforcement. First and foremost we’re gong to be looking at criminal enterprise, public-corruption-type investigations. As the FBI, I can’t go out and look at all these not-for-profits that people are using to funnel money through. Unless I’ve got reasonable suspicion that they’re using it for criminal activity, I can’t look at it. As a private entity I can do whatever the hell I want.
Deadline Detroit: When you talk about criminal enterprise, what are you thinking?
Arena: People who are involved in insurance fraud, mortgage fraud, auto theft rings, things like that.
Deadline Detroit: When you find criminal activity, will you do research and pull together cases and then turn it over to law enforcement?
Arena: There’s only going to be so far we can take it. Some cases we’ll be able to take right to the prosecutor’s office, to Wayne County, to the State A.G. (Attorney General). But some cases legally we’re going to get to a point there’s not much we can do. A lot of stuff is online. It’s public record; the sale of property, the donation of money, those things are all public record, we can look at that, we can do some interviews, we can do some surveillances. Beyond that, we’ve got this nuisance-abatement project where we’re gong to be attacking some of these landlords who are basically allowing these houses to fall in disrepair in the city.
Deadline Detroit: Will employees be able to carry a gun and do private detective work?
Arena: I already have my CCW (concealed weapon permit). A lot of that is because of this job. I’ve had some death threats, it’s no secret.
Deadline Detroit: Can you say who is behind the funding?
Arena: Officially, they just don’t want their names in the press right now. They’re nervous. They know we’re going to piss some people off.
Deadline Detroit: How many people will you have?
Arena: Right now we’re starting out with four investigator types (including himself). We’re actually using some interns from the University of Detroit as intelligence analysts. And I’ve just met with the U of D Law School on the nuisance abatement.
Deadline Detroit: The “Underwear Bomber” case caused a lot of controversy beyond the bomb itself. One of those controversies was about the way the young man was debriefed and at what point he should have been read his Miranda rights. Were you getting direction from Washington?
Arena: We were in contact with Washington. To this day, three-plus years later, I don’t think people actually know what the hell happened out there that day. I’ve heard so many stories and I’ve talked to politicians and I’ve talked to people from Congress. There’s all these different theories or stories or everybody thinks they know what happened.
I was watching a presidential debate a few months ago and one of the candidates said he was read his Miranda warnings 45 minutes after he was taken off the plane and that’s not true.
Deadline Detroit: How long was it?
Six hours later.
Deadline Detroit: Were you involved in the interview?
Arena: I was not. I interviewed some of the witnesses because I got out there so quickly. When I got there, they were taking him to the hospital. I made the decision initially not to Mirandize and that was initially controversial among some people. You’ve got a guy in custody and you didn’t Mirandize him. My thought process was it was a threat...an exception to the Miranda warning.
We had a real threat to national security and this country. My experience told me...if this was al Qaeda, there were other waves, other attackers out there. We needed to get that information as quickly as possible and we didn’t have time for a Miranda warning and I thought legally we were on solid ground.
That was a decision I made here and we did. I basically told Washington this is what I’m doing. As time passed and several hours went on, the decision to go back in and do... the problem was, he was getting treatments for his burns, pretty severe burns.
Deadline Detroit: Was he cooperating right from the beginning?
Arena: I think when we got there they had to stabilize him, had to do some things and then we got access to him. And then they had to do some other treatments and sedate him and things, so we lost access and so we were kind of in an out. And then when we got back the second time and a lot of time had passed... (there) was a decision based out of Washington to give him the Miranda Warnings.
Deadline Detroit: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Arena: Initially, not. I’m looking back at that day. You can only imagine the turmoil out there. When I got there I just remember the plane had pulled right up to the terminal. We found out later that the tanks, the toilets had been dumped, which we probably would not have liked that to happen. All the baggage had been off loaded. and I remember standing in a terminal and saying, ‘What are these bags. Have they been swept for explosive?’ And they had not been. There was some indication that maybe he had a secondary device. So we were focusing on the plane. We had to sweep the bags. We got a hit on a bag. It ended up some gentleman brought in some herbs or something. It wasn’t just focusing on him. Within 30 minutes of showing up at that airport the case ceased being a criminal investigation and started being an intelligence investigation.
Deadline Detroit: How helpful was the Underwear Bomber?
Arena: I think he told us some things that were truthful and some things that weren’t truthful. And we had to kind of decipher that.
Deadline Detroit: What was not truthful?
Arena: Lying about where he came from. He slipped up and gave us some stuff. I can’t get into because it’s still classified. We exploited a lot. I can’t talk about the techniques and stuff. We got some key stuff.
Deadline Detroit: It became a political football in Washington as far as the Miranda issue was concerned and where to prosecute the guy. Did that bother you at all that it became a Democrat and Republican issue?
Arena: That’s a great term. It became a political football. People used the national security issue for political purposes. Yeah, that did bother me. Because I’ll say it til the day I go to my grave, people left their families, they left their Christmas dinners, their presents and went out to defend their country. And then we were criticized, quite frankly, unjustly. People didn’t understand. They didn’t have all the facts but yet they criticized us.
Deadline Detroit: Does that drive you crazy when you hear politicians in Washington who don’t have the facts?
Arena: Yeah, the only person who came here and got the facts was Congressman Rogers. He sat down with us and I will always give him credit for doing that. He listened and asked questions and really got down in the weeds.
Deadline Detroit: He’s a former FBI agent?
Deadline Detroit: You have worked hard to establish a relationship with the Arab American community. In the end, how would you grade your relationship?
Arena: I don’t know if I could give it a grade. It’s such a complex relationship. I’ve got dinner tonight with a group of Arab American leaders. I’m going to a dinner tomorrow night, an awards ceremony. I spend a lot of time, my office spends a lot of time, because it’s important. Building that trust is important. There’s a lot of cultural barriers.
Deadline Detroit: So you have the trust of the Arab American community or just some of the leaders?
Arena: I think some, we have the trust, I think with some we just have the respect. I guess at the end of the day we’re gong to have to agree to disagree.
Deadline Detroit: Has the FBI and law enforcement evolved in terms of figuring out what is a terrorist case?
Arena: I think we’re always going to be evolving.
Deadline Detroit: You’re from Detroit. You dug up a lot of public corruption in city hall and now Wayne County. How do you feel seeing that in your home town? Is it more personal?
Arena: It is personal to me. It doesn’t have to be like this, you don’t have to accept this type of behavior. Without talking about any specific cases, because some are going to trial, some are under investigation, but I think exposing this type of activity to people, I think it’s kind of a cleansing process.
I was giving a speech recently. Someone in the audience said, “Hey, this Wayne County investigation, you guys got to hurry up with this thing, You know this investigation you're doing is really hurting the area. Businesses don’t want to come here. It’s making us look bad.”
And I said to the guy, ‘Stop and think of what you just said, what’s making the area look bad? The fact the FBI is shining a light on the activity or the fact it’s going on?’ I didn’t want to insult the guy or anything, but that’s the mentality. It’s not really the problem that it’s happening, it’s the problem somebody is shining the light on it. We’ve got to get beyond that. It’s not acceptable acceptable.
Deadline Detroit: In terms of Wayne County, do you expect more to come from that?
Arena: I don’t know, I always say, you let the evidence take you to the truth. It’s moving pretty quickly, that’s obvious. We’ve got to move this thing as quickly as possible because we owe it to the taxpayers, which I am one. There’s a lot of people getting their names dragged through the mud, we’ve either got to clear them or charge them. It’s moving pretty quick.
Deadline Detroit: Are additional indictments possible?
Arena: It’s possible more people will be charged. Right now, I can’t say.
Deadline Detroit: And Bob Ficano, the county executive, where does he stand in this mess?
Arena: I don’t know. We’ll see where the facts take us.
Deadline Detroit: Ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been charged some with some serious allegations including bribery. What has the FBI done to try and find that alleged bribe money?
Arena: Because he’s getting ready to go to trial, I don’t want to speak about his case specifically, but in all these cases, that’s the key; to find the money and in an investigation, we’re not going to give up until we find that money. So we’re constantly looking at avenues to track: Not-for-profits; Did money go overseas? Does it go to family members? Did it go to friends? Is it invested? Is it hidden in jars in the backyard?
Deadline Detroit: You were in Washington in 2001.
Arena: Yeah, I got there right around Christmas 2001. I was chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section.
Deadline Detroit: There’s a book by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, which noted that the White House and apparently Dick Cheney’s office was pressuring the FBI to produce information linking al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and you stood up and said it wasn’t there, and you wouldn’t give in. Can you comment?
Arena: I can’t speak speak publicly about that. There’s a (chapter) where he talks about that. Most everything he wrote in that (book was right on). He had a big running battle between the CIA over enhanced interrogation techniques. Ali was able to break people without doing that stuff. He would key in on your personality and find your weaknesses and attack.
Deadline Detroit: Was that a tough position to be in, going up against the White House?
Arena: I will always give credit to Director Mueller and I admire the man for the stances he took. He also understood we had to stay within the confines of the Constitution. I think there were some who thought the situation called for whatever means necessary. He just never let the FBI as an agency stray.
Deadline Detroit: Was he supportive of when you stood up?
Arena: I think he was supportive of what was right. I think the man let his moral compass lead him in the right direction. I think the country owes him a great debt of gratitude.
Deadline Detroit: Did you have a lot of contact with Director Mueller?
Arena: For a year, I briefed that man twice a day.
Deadline Detroit: How was he handling the pressure?
Arena: He’s a Marine Corp officer, he’s a no nonsense guy. Get the facts and what do we need to do to fix that. There’s not a whole lot of joking around with the guy. He’s very serious. I look back at my career, he treated me well. He’s tough. He’s a tough guy to work for. He’s very demanding.
Deadline Detroit: Have you found you had to readjust resources between counterterrorism and other pressing matters like violent crime in Detroit?
Arena: As far as what goes on here, they really give me a lot of autonomy. It’s incumbent upon me to use my intelligence group to tell me, these are the threats. But you also look at what other threats (there are). Four of the top 10 violent cities in the United States are in our territory. Gangs are a problem here. Obviously, with corruption, mortgage fraud, healthcare fraud, it’s incumbent upon me to know my territory. I’m held responsible for using my resources carefully.
Deadline Detroit: In the Hutaree case, that militia was accused of trying to overthrow the government and kill cops. From an outsider’s standpoint, it’s a case that imploded on the FBI. The judge threw out all the serious charges relating to violent plots against cops and the government. Do you think the judge’s ruling was wrong? Or do you think you guys misinterpreted the case?
Arena: I refer back to the U.S. Attorney’s statement. I don’t agree with the judge’s decision. But it’s the judge’s decision. And we obviously have to abide by it. How far do you let things go. At what point does the free speech cross over the line. I think we believed it had crossed from free speech to action. Obviously, the judge didn’t agree with that. The next time we bring a case like this we’re going to really have to second guess and take a harder look and make sure we’re comfortable with it. I’ve talked to the director about it. The director was very supportive. I think he was disappointed with the decision. But he called and said “I think you did what you had to do.” It’s not a game you win or lose to us. You can’t take this personally. It’s a job. Just move on to the next one.
Deadline Detroit: In the 2009 case involving the Imam, FBI agents fatally shot him after he pulled a gun and fired. Not everyone thought the FBI was in the right. What did you learn about public relations?
Arena: What I learned the time and effort we put in the community outreach program... I mean there are days I go home and think I’m beating my head against the wall. What I learned it was worth every minute of it. Because the vast majority of community leaders waited to pass judgment to see what the facts were. One person made a bad decision that day and it wasn’t me. He pulled a gun and started firing. He was a felon in possession of a gun. Quite frankly, when he pulled the gun and started firing; What are agents going to say, ‘Oh he’s shooting at the dog, not us.’ Quite frankly, it didn’t matter if he was shooting at the dog. You pull a gun and fire it, it was gun.
Deadline Detroit: In a case like that is it heartening to hear from the director?
Arena: There was a year here from March 09 to March of 2010 where we had (an FBI agent) die, he was killed in a car accident; one of the daughters of our agents died of cancer, the (imam) shooting. We had an agent shot in Flint right before Christmas. I don’t know if any FBI office in the history of this organization has ever gone through that much in one year. The director flew out here in 2010 to meet with the office. He came out to tell everyone thank you. It was very much appreciated.
Deadline Detroit: You think because of all that was gong on?
Arena: Yeah. That’s a side I think people don’t really see of Robert Mueller. I think he does care about the employees.
Deadline Detroit: In terms of terrorism tips, are you still gathering good nuggets of intelligence here?
Arena: Yeah, I think we have a good source base.
Deadline Detroit: Are you getting more these days from the Internet chatrooms?
The websites, the chatrooms, i think that’s the future.
Deadline Detroit: Do you have agents dedicated to just keep an eye on that?
Arena: Yes. You don’t have to go to the camps in Afghanistan anymore. You can become radicalized and operational here, just on your own.
Deadline Detroit: What’s your read on public corruption in the Detroit Police Department?
Arena: I’d say there’s less corruption over there.
Deadline Detroit: Is it a better than five years ago?
Arena: I think it is. I think they went through a period that they hired folks they probably shouldn’t have hired. I think they’re a much better department the way they handle themselves, they’re understaffed, they’re undergunned, it’s a difficult job.
Deadline Detroit: Did anyone in Washington try to get you to stay on at the FBI?
Arena: I talked to some folks back in Washington that wanted me to stay on a little longer.
At the end of the day, it’s a hard decision, I don’t take this lightly. As I reflect on this, it’s probably the right one for the family. I’m really excited about (the Crime Commission). This is a great opportunity. I’ve been here five years, that’s a long time. i don’t begrudge anybody in Washington. There’s probably a good chance I was going to get pulled back there.
Deadline Detroit: What are you going to miss the most?
Arena: I’ll miss the people. We always say that, but it is a good group of folks. I’ll miss the adrenalin rush a little bit. I joke all the time. about hey, next time some jack ass tries to blow up an airplane on Christmas day, it ain’t my problem.
Deadline Detroit: But in reality, will you want to be there?
Arena: Yeah, That’s what you suit up for, that’s why you play the game.
Deadline Detroit: You think people will miss you?
Arena: They always say when you’re out your out. 11:59 on may 31st, I’ll be out. When I walk out the door on the last day people in this office are going to miss me terribly for 10 minutes. But that’s the way it should be.