Anatomy of a Terror Investigation

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Ted Kaczynski

Ted Kaczynski

When Jim Freeman began calling on FBI agents in 1994 to join his task force investigating the “Unabomber” attacks, he had to “break the news to them.”

The 16-year-old case, known as UNABOM, was “career-bending and potentially career-breaking.” Investigators had no definitive suspects, despite a steady drumbeat of 14 attacks and attempted bombings on university and airline personnel between May 1978 and June 1993.

Soon after taking on the job in March 1994, Freeman, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI's San Francisco office, identified Terry Turchie and Donald Max Noel as the agents he wanted to lead the investigation.

Turchie was reluctant and Noel, who had already worked the case for more than a year, wanted to be reassigned.

But Freeman convinced them that he wanted to craft an investigation unlike any the FBI had ever seen before. He wanted them to break the FBI's own rules and disrupt law enforcement culture.

Two years — and two deadly bombings later — Ted Kaczynski was behind bars, and the trio had established a new model for interagency cooperation and public participation in major terrorism cases.

Turchie and Noel discussed the case, modern terrorism investigations, and their new book written with Freeman, Unabomber, in a Q&A with The Crime Report's Deputy Managing Editor Graham Kates.

The Crime Report: You mention several times in the book that UNABOM office culture was modeled after those of Silicon Valley startups. Can you explain?

Terry Turchie: I wanted to make sure that the people involved felt loose and creative, and felt free to bring us ideas that maybe before they wouldn't have brought to anyone.

In my first meeting with the UNABOM task force, that's what I told them. It doesn't matter if you've been in the bureau for two months or 20 years, all of your opinions are equal.

In terms of restructuring, we wanted to make sure that we reinvestigated these crimes the right way. This actually came out of my first meeting with Max. He had been the only agent that was allowed to go out of San Francisco to other field offices (to research previous bombings).

And I recommended to Jim that all of our teams go out and start investigating. They were all assigned certain events and they went all over to other field offices: Chicago, Salt Lake, Sacramento. They needed to be the hands-on coordinators of those investigations.

We also needed a new strategy for the tip line: It was workable, but it lacked a focus. We were kind of depending on a couple of press conferences that were given, and the public's general awareness of the Unabomber to generate tips.

So we needed a new media strategy. We decided, as we do the re-investigations and we find new information, let's get that information out to the public.

Finally, in Silicon Valley, they're always researching. They're always looking for the big breakthrough. So we went back to the bureau and said, 'we need to have 24-hour analytical capability, because once we have our act together and have all this information coming in, we'll need a way to analyze it so we don't miss anything.'

What any company in Silicon Valley is trying to do is maximize and leverage all of the working parts. For us that translated into integrating reinvestigations, analysis, profiling, lab work, and getting it all back to the agents, so they could utilize it.

So we set up something really simple, it was called “Known Facts, Fiction and Theory About Unabomber.” Everyone on our task force had to know it, and we kept updating it.

TCR: There's an incredible moment of tension in your book when, during a meeting, Max essentially lists for FBI Director Louis Freeh all of the problems with his agency, and explains how they're hindering the investigation.

Donald Max Noel: When Terry and Jim took over the case, I had been there for about a year, and the frustrations were huge. We met obstacles all along the way, because the bureau wasn't set up to address a problem of this magnitude over this long a period of time.

So it became an albatross. No one wanted anything to do with it. (For example,) Chicago was the office of origin, because that's where the early bombs were, but they couldn't wait to get rid of it. And as soon as the venue (for attacks) changed to California, they immediately said, “San Francisco should be handling it.”

Nobody wanted it. It was eating up budget, it was eating up manpower. Offices were acquiescing their investigative responsibilities to the FBI's bomb lab. They weren't just examining the debris from the bombs and providing you with information like a normal case; they were trying to direct the case.

So we had a very difficult time as agents trying to address this and we knew we had to present those problems to the director.

Not only did he react favorably, he had his two assistants get with us the next day and he resolved those issues.

And he addressed the inter-office stuff. He allowed us to let more people travel from the task force. If you ask a regional office to investigate a lead, they don't have the institutional knowledge to address a case like this. So the bureau provided the budget and support to send our investigators out.

It was a great feeling when he allowed us to cut through the layers of bureaucracy and establish a new way of doing things for cases of this magnitude.

And instead of the traditional “no comment” to the media when they asked us a question, Louis Freeh allowed Jim Freeman to be the spokesman all over the United States. And it worked great: we had articles and interviews in everything from print media to television and radio. Even Gentleman's Quarterly and Playboy. You think the old FBI would do an interview in Playboy? But we needed to get the constant message out, because even though we knew we were looking for a 'lone wolf' we thoroughly believed that you can't do these things in a vacuum, and someone would come out with information.

TCR: We hear more and more about the possible threat of 'lone wolves,' especially here in New York. Are there things the FBI has carried on from the Unabomber case either for lone wolf investigations or larger national cases?

TT: After UNABOM and after the Eric Rudolph case — the Olympic bombing — the FBI decided it was time to set up its own counter-terrorism division, and I was asked to be the deputy assistant director of that. We modeled much of that structure from what we had done in UNABOM and what we had brought directly to the Rudolph case.

You can almost take each of the strategic components that I talked about, and you can see how they affected our work on counterterrorism. At the time, we didn't have any terrorism analysts. We found in UNABOM that was strategically vital.

I sent a letter in March of 1999 to the Bureau and I said, “Looking ahead at what's probably going to happen in the world in the next few years, the counterterrorism operation needs its own analysts.”

By the time the counterterrorism division was established, we had our own group of analysts within the division. We also established a separate division that would deal with threat assessments.

And in New York, because of the tactical aspect of this, we actually put a group of analysts with the Bin Laden unit in the New York City office. That came directly from how we viewed analysis in UNABOM.

An example that's close to my heart — going back to the 'lone wolf' idea — is after 9/11 we had the anthrax case.

There was a real push at that time in the White House and the Department of Justice to go after Iraq and tie Saddam Hussein to the World Trade Center (attack) and the anthrax attacks.

We got a call from somebody back at the bureau at the time. He said, “look we're about ready to go to war, because the government officials back here think the anthrax is connected to Iraq and 9/11.”

And we said, “from everything we learned in UNABOM and everything we learned with Rudolph, our opinion is that this is domestic terrorism.”

We were able to say that because of work that Kathleen Puckett, the clinical psychologist for UNABOM, had done. For years during UNABOM we had been begging the profiling unit to give us a study on previous lone wolf bombers. I called them and they said, 'We need a grant to do one.'

I went to (the bureau) and said, 'Look, all we need is 90 days and a housing allowance for Kathy Puckett, and for her to be free to talk to whoever she needs to get this done.'

Ninety days later, she had put together a study, working with psychologists around the country, that today is still the most substantial study of cause and effect there is. They studied 20 to 30 cases; and the key for us at the time was that, if you look at these people, every one tried to be part of a group and failed. They failed miserably, so they started their own groups. Eric Rudolph was the “Army of God,” Ted Kaczynski was “F.C.”

Some of these people tried to get into terror groups and the leaders of those groups told them, 'We don't want you, you're too violent.”

Now, we've got groups like ISIS — supposedly told they were too violent for Al Qaeda — and they're looking for these kinds of people. This is a psychological thing. It's not an ideological thing.

Both of these worlds are colliding. You've got the world of domestic terrorism and lone wolves, and groups like ISIS. People searching for a group identity, and a group that offers it.

But going back to that one moment: We like to think that we talked the government, because of that study, out of attacking Iraq in 2001.

TCR: Your book talks about the challenges of getting a variety of offices and agencies to work together. Now, with large terror investigations, we're talking about bringing dozens of agencies together.

TT: The Rudolph case is another good example of this. [Before the end of the first year], it included 27 different agencies working together. But initially when Max and I showed up, you had FBI and ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) almost vying for information.

DMN: Yeah, it was the old rivalry between the two agencies — and with UNABOM it was three agencies. So I did an operational survey in North Carolina and they were running two parallel case management systems, and they hadn't entered stuff into both.

So I'm looking through their system, and I'm seeing vital information, but there's no information about who gathered it, or what office it came from. They had something like 800 interviews in there, and you had no idea where any of it came from. So we needed to once again get all the agencies working under one roof — three different federal agencies, nine different local police agencies, five different United States Attorney's offices, and (several) local district attorneys offices, all vying for their own piece of the pie on this case.

But you need to have them all working with one voice and one purpose.

On UNABOM, guess how many search warrants we served? One. And that's an incredible statistic.

When we finally went to court, the judge was astounded. The defense, some of the best attorneys in the nation, threw everything against the wall to try to suppress our search warrant and the fruits of our search, but they couldn't do it. They couldn't say we were out willy-nilly searching and seizing everything we could.

I think as a result of UNABOM and the Eric Rudolph case, we get the formation of the JTTFs (Joint Terrorism Task Forces), where you have all the agencies participating together.

TCR: The Unabomber case was really unique at the time for how the media was used — the constant dissemination of information.

TT: We really went out of our way to establish a relationship with both print and broadcast journalists. We always stayed with the same themes. We wanted people to think about Chicago, Salt Lake and the Bay area during certain time frames, think about the composite drawing, and then eventually, think about the manifesto.

The media picked that up, and that really was a story they continued to put out there.

Up until that time. FBI agents didn't talk to the media; we never would have come out with that information. But we felt very comfortable with Jim, and from day one, internally we recommended that he be the spokesperson.

That consistency is important. The public needs to be focused, but what people also need is the repetition, until they finally get it and it seems simple. And that carried forth right to the end.

The first thing David Kaczynski (Ted Kaczynski's brother) told us, after he gave us an essay that we ended up comparing with the manifesto, was that the reason he finally started to get it was that he was persuaded by Chicago, Salt Lake and the San Francisco Bay area.

They were born and raised in Chicago; he knew (Ted) had been in Salt Lake several times and he also knew (Ted) had taught at Berkeley, before he left to build his cabin in Montana.

He put it all together with the composite, and of course the manifesto, but that's what he keyed into and that's what a lot of people keyed into.

You can see the influence of the Unabomber case on how the FBI deals with the media today. The D.C. sniper case is a good example. There were daily press conferences, focusing people on certain information.

Most recently, you saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing, in the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers. The decision to come out almost immediately with some of the information they were developing, and keeping it focused, was an important part of finally getting to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

TCR: This cooperation with the media came to a head when Kaczynski demanded that the nation's largest newspapers print his 17-page manifesto. In the book you describe one of the most unique meetings in American history, attended by the heads of The New York Times, The Washington Post, UNABOM investigators, Attorney General Janet Reno and Director Freeh.

TT: Everything came together at that moment. We had a critical decision to make. Do you let a terrorist extort The New York Times and The Washington Post, because he says if you publish this manifesto he'll stop his bombings?

Just about no one in the FBI thought we should publish the manifesto. We asked our clinical psychologist, “If we publish this, will the Unabomber desist?” And her answer was, “No, because even if he wants to, he can't. It's part of his psychology.”

So then we had to go in, and sit at the meeting with The New York Times and The Washington Post, and when they asked, “If we publish this, will he stop?” We had to say, “No, that's not the reason we're proposing you do this. We're proposing it, because we think somebody will identify this document. It is passionate, it's detailed, it's probably the life's work of this individual.”

There was a lot of tension in that meeting.

We wanted to do one other thing that day. We were told by our clinical psychologist that the Unabomber might want to buy a trophy copy. So we decided to set up on the newsstands in the Bay Area.

So the Post and the Times are listening to our briefing, and finally someone asks, “We're just curious, who sells the most papers out there?”

We knew the answer, but we didn't want to just throw it out there, so there's this long pause, and finally the FBI Director says, “tell them Terry, tell them!”

And I said, “Well, the Post only sells about seven copies.” You could see people wanting to just howl, but there's just this muted laughter.

But then Louis says, “Well it just confirms what we've all known. No one cares about Washington or The Washington Post.

That really broke the tension.

So the Post published it, because it was easier to control for us, but they split the cost, which is also pretty amazing.

And it was through all this cooperation that everything came together and we were led to his cabin in Montana.

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes readers' comments.

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