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. (His remarks have been edited to accommodate space limitations. Read the full interview online.)
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. …