A talk with Tennessee's top homeland security official.
Interview with David Mitchell
David Mitchell has served as Tennessee's top homeland security official for nearly two years, first as head of the governor's Office of Homeland Security, then as commissioner of the state's Department of Safety after the two agencies merged in January. Mitchell began his career with the Murfreesboro (Tennessee) Police Department in 1973 and joined the FBI five years later. Early in his 26-year career at the FBI, Mitchell was a member of the nation's first Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York City; he was later national supervisor of domestic terrorism investigation. In 2002, Mitchell was named special agent in charge of the FBI's Milwaukee, Wisconsin, field office, and in May 2003, he led the U.S. team deployed to investigate a set of al Qaeda bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that killed eight Americans.
What are your basic responsibilities? What is a typical day or week like?
This year we've basically merged two agencies, and in this profession, every day is going to have a challenge. The Department of Safety has many responsibilities and keeping our highways safe is the primary one, but there are many, many more things that we do. We issue drivers' licenses, gun permits, we have to take care of the revocation of driver's license requests; these are three areas that demand a lot of resources.
If I had to put my finger on one of the biggest challenges that we face, it's technology, especially given the driver's license requirements of the REAL ID Act.
Can you discuss the office of homeland security's merger with the department of safety?
Our focus as the Department of Safety at the state level is to work on preventing future acts of terrorism, and we do that through an aggressive preparedness, training, and exercise program. One of the most important partners in that effort is the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), which is the enforcement part of the Department of Safety.
We have a very extensive interstate highway system here, and we have significant traffic as far as over-the-road carriers are concerned. And many of these carriers transport hazardous materials. With the threat of weapons of mass destruction as a number one priority, it was a perfect fit for us having a partnership with the THP.
What are some of the state's top assets and corresponding risks?
Well each state has its own critical infrastructure, and the list is classified. But it doesn't take much more than common sense to figure out some of the more notable ones, that if they were disrupted or destroyed it would have a significant impact on the public. We've got two nuclear power plants in the state, we've got numerous chemical-producing companies, a lot of our electricity comes from (Tennessee Valley Authority) dams. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a unique facility as you know, and has some very sensitive operations ongoing there and is a big part of our nation's technology research.
How has your background helped you on the job?
I started my career as a local police officer here, and later joined the FBI, where I spent 26 years. In the early 1980s, I worked in the New York field office, and I was a member of the first Joint Terrorism Task Force. New York City detectives and FBI agents worked together as a team with the goal of solving crimes where both local agencies and the federal agencies had concurrent jurisdiction. That gave me a great foundation as an investigator in the task force concept, and it has done a great deal to assist me as an executive manager at the state level.
What did you take from your deployment to Saudi Arabia?
I was very impressed with how aggressive the Saudis were in pursuing those responsible. We worked closely with their security forces, doing the crime scenes and sharing information. Numerous Saudi agents were killed in gun battles pursuing suspects, and within a few weeks, they had apprehended or killed a number of those responsible. They shared information with us, which we shared back to FBI headquarters and CIA headquarters, and that would go directly to briefings on a daily basis with FBI Director Robert Mueller and, subsequently, with the White House.
What's it like to go from federal agent to a state administrator?
It's been a tremendous challenge, but it's been a rewarding challenge. The new challenges are dealing with personnel issues, and budgets, resource needs; it's been a much broader challenge than I had working as a federal agent.
If the public only knew that in terrorism investigations in this country, many times the first piece of information comes from local law enforcement officers in the field. They encounter the fraudulent document; the initial money laundering that might be going toward material support, the purchase of weapons or explosives. I've gained a great deal of respect for the men and women who protect our state and what they do.
Does your agency collaborate with the private sector? If so, how?
We have a critical infrastructure program under the guidance of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and we're in the process of formulating a plan with the private sector of how we can take their most sensitive information and work with them in protecting that information and, of course, protecting their assets. what has your agency learned in recent drills?
The one thing that comes out in almost every exercise is the failure to share information to a central location in a timely manner. And that's not limited to periods of crisis response, nor is it solely a problem of technology; it's one of culture.
We're trying very hard in Tennessee to "market" the sharing of information. It's not just law enforcement, it can be an ambulance attendant, or a firefighter. When they encounter suspicious activity, it is important that they report what they see.
We've allocated a little over $1 million to develop and operate a state fusion center with an "all-crimes" approach. Local agencies will submit their records to one database here in Nashville, where we will have analysts, both state and federal. Hopefully, within about two years, we will be able to use that data to identify crime trends and get in front of any potential terrorist attack.
What are your agency's goals for the coming year?
One of our top goals, because the Department of Safety issues drivers' licenses in Tennessee, is to address the technology challenges posed by the REAL ID Act. It's an unfunded mandate, and I think it's important for the public to understand how it requires that states produce a driver's license document within the guidelines set by DHS. This in itself poses numerous challenges. Case in point with Tennessee, we have a 30-year-old IT system. And with our day-to-day responsibilities it's going to cost some substantial dollars to overcome these future challenges.
I have formed a task force on the REAL ID Act. I have also formed a document fraud task force to look at the vulnerability of our drivers' licenses here in Tennessee. I plan this summer to bring subject matter experts together so that I can brief Governor (Phil) Bredesen on what our needs are.