How the FBI Caught the Unabomber

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Ted Kazcysnki, the Unabomber, was arrested in 1996 after leading the FBI on a 17-year manhunt. Video still.

When FBI agents led a shackled, unkempt Ted Kazcynski out of his Montana cabin in 1996, they brought to an end the longest and most expensive manhunt in the agency’s history. And almost immediately, it set in motion a stream of books, films and documentaries about the so-called “Unabomber” and the 17-year terror campaign he pursued single-mindedly across the U.S.

But there’s still more to tell—and more to learn—from an investigation that represented the first efforts to harness the technology of the early Internet age to the shoe-leather skills of classic detective work. On the 25th anniversary of the Unabomber’s capture, the FBI agents who led the team―Jim Freeman, Terry Turchie and Donald Max Noel—have produced a new “insiders” version of the case which concentrates on the final two years of the manhunt.

 Capturing The Unabomber: The FBI Insiders’ Story is a sequel to their first book, Unabomber: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski.  At a time when the FBI is celebrating its recent triumph along with other agencies around the world  in breaking up an international ring of cybercriminals through the skillful use of a high-tech sting, the book’s publication underscores how far law enforcement has come since then in its mastery of digital tools.

But it’s also a reminder, as co-author Donald Noel tells TCR, of another polarized time in the nation’s history, when extremism dominated the headlines. Noel, the agent who arrested Kaczynski, discusses why authorities were so fearful of the potential for violence represented by the Unabomber’s purported anti-technology creed, how the precedent-setting multi-agency task force they created was at first so unpopular that many agents avoided walking by the office for fear they’d be dragged into it, and whether someone with the technical skills of Kaczynski could wreak even more havoc today.

The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

The Crime Report: Why did you decide to write this book and have it come out now?

 Donald Noel: Our first book about the investigation into the Unabomber was pretty much in a textbook format, and it appealed to police agencies and criminal justice institutions. We were very satisfied with it and it did accomplish what we set out to try to do, which was to explain how difficult the investigation was and how far reaching. But over the last several years a number of things have come out in television and writing that represented themselves as the truth of what occurred when, in fact, they were anything but the truth.

Donald Noel

We gave lots of presentations to various groups around the country on this investigation and we kept getting questions about what this person wrote or what this documentary showed. People didn’t know what to believe. So, we decided that on the 25th anniversary of our identification and arrest of Ted Kaczynski that we would change our book’s format and write a sequel which was more appealing to the general public and to the non-professional.

We wrote this sequel to stress that this was a large team effort, that it was a lot of people working over a five- or six-year period of time as a team that accomplished the resolution of this case. It wasn’t one individual, but a group of individuals working closely together under the same roof from multiple agencies that was able to finally resolve this 17-year investigation.

 TCR: How did the team come together?

 DN: In 1993, when the Unabomber reappeared after almost a six-year hiatus by sending two bombs to the West Coast and the East Coast, it was very apparent that he had become much more sophisticated in the construction techniques and the explosives that he was using. And then he announced in that letter to The New York Times that he was going to begin his campaign of terrorism once again. So, the new United States attorney general at that time, Janet Reno, went to the director of the FBI and said we need to solve this before more people are injured and killed and I want the FBI to put together a real task force.

Now up until that time, most task forces in law enforcement were generally task forces in name only. They would come together once a month to periodically “share information,” but, essentially, nobody really ever shared anything. That’s just the way it was. Janet Reno, a former local prosecutor, said I don’t want that. She wanted all three federal agencies who have jurisdiction to work together under one roof, for one set of administrators, full time, and she wanted the FBI to be the lead agency.

The new FBI director, Louis Freeh, agreed, and  together they announced the creation of a federal task force including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. All three agencies contributed manpower, supervisors and resources. We worked on a daily basis. It was a labor-intensive, massive project.

59,000 Volumes of Data

The information we collected on a computer amounted to 59,000 volumes of information. Prior to that, agents and postal inspectors had been trying to resolve this investigation with three-by- five index cards in a little wooden box on their desk. This case was too massive to do that, and that first year was just spent accumulating and putting together all the necessary information and putting it in its place.

Then Jim Freeman took over the investigation, brought a new perspective, and said that we needed to do something different and we needed the public’s assistance in doing this. How do we get the public’s help? What’s the biggest motivator? We decided to offer $1 million, the largest reward ever in law enforcement history. However, Congress wouldn’t appropriate funds to the three investigative agencies for large rewards like that. So, we had to go out to industries that were affected, the airline industry, universities, the medical industries, and enter into contractual agreements with them for reward money to ensure that we had a million dollars if someone came forward with the necessary information. We received over 53,000 calls.

TCR: How was the media involved in the investigation and in what ways did that involvement help or complicate things?

 DN: For the first time in my career in the FBI, the media component was very important throughout the course of the entire investigation. We openly went to the media and solicited their assistance in getting the facts of the case out to the public and asking for help publishing the 1-800 number for the reward money.

Companies were asked to contribute to the reward offered for the Unabomber

We went to America’s Most Wanted, Nightline, Dateline, and Eye to Eye with Connie Chung. We cooperated for articles in Gentleman’s Quarterly and Reader’s Digest. We even did an article with Playboy magazine, and I’m sure (late FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover was turning over in his grave.  But when it came to Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, and whether or not to publish it and give him the opportunity to put his thoughts out to the public, that was a very controversial thing within the law enforcement community.

Up to this point, the rule of thumb had always been we do not give in to the demands of terrorists. But we also didn’t have a lot of physical evidence or forensic evidence to go with and this manifesto was a 40,000 word document that had unique ideas, unique spellings, and unusual phrases and idioms in it. We felt that, certainly you couldn’t commit these crimes in a vacuum, someone must be able to recognize some of these things and that meant there was an opportunity. We decided that we needed to seize that opportunity and we did it as a group. We wrote a position paper and gave it to Jim Freeman, who passed it along to Attorney General Reno, and they both concurred.

In deciding how and where to get it published we looked to the places that the Unabomber had mentioned in his letters: the New York Times and the Washington Post. We had to walk a very thin line, and it was Jim Freeman and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Terry Turchie, as well as Louis Freeh and Janet Reno, who ensured both publications that publishing this was necessary and could help us prevent people from being killed.

The Media Collaboration

We wanted to be very clear in our agreements with them that they were not becoming a part of the FBI, or an investigative tool of the FBI, but rather they were doing this out of public concern for the well-being of future victims. And the two newspapers agreed, and they agreed to pay the considerable cost of publishing that manifesto. That eventually led to Kaczynski’s brother David and his wife Linda coming forward with the suspicion that Ted might be responsible for these bombings.

TCR: What were the difficulties in profiling the Unabomber?

 DN: There’s a misconception in the public, and I think it’s due to a lot of movies and television programs, that behavioral profiling tells you who the suspect is. It doesn’t. It’s an investigative tool that provides you with parameters to evaluate suspects. It depends on which profile you look. I think there were six to eight profiles done on the Unabomber over the years, so, which one do you pay attention to? They were all done by very competent behavioral profile people, but they were all different. If you took a composite of all of those profiles you had essentially every white male in the United States over the age of 25 and under the age of 60 as a suspect. It became almost counterproductive. And when the task force tried to get a new profile, the behavioral profiling unit in Quantico said the profile is the profile and it isn’t going to change. So, we brought in Kathy Puckett, who has a PhD in clinical psychology. She was from the counterintelligence side of the FBI, and she did a great job.

 TCR: How did you maintain morale through all the ups and downs of such a long investigation?

 DN: Maintaining morale was extremely difficult. After that first year, the task force started to deteriorate, people moved on to other jobs, and people wouldn’t even walk past the UNABOMB offices because they were afraid that a big tentacle would come out and pull them into an unsolvable case that had been going on for 15 years. And nobody would volunteer, so we had to really work to get the appropriate investigators to come in from all the other agencies.

And keeping morale up depended on us using new forensic techniques, new computers, the 800 number, things like that which tended to keep people interested. Director Freeh also sent us brand new, young agents right out of training school who were very enthusiastic and couldn’t wait to hit the ground running. However, these agents were also inexperienced so we went out and found journeymen FBI agents with a lot of experience and we coupled them with these young agents so they could direct that fresh enthusiasm. It was a great thing to see, it worked out well, and many of those young agents went on to have very successful careers in the FBI .

 TCR: There is a common idea that the Unabomber was motivated by an anti-technology philosophy. How did reality differ from the myth?

 DN: He really wasn’t all that anti-tech. He researched his victims through a third party who used the Internet to find addresses and so forth. While he espoused all of that, if you read his writings he said that was all a bunch of crap. That was a public persona that he was putting forward. He was more of an anomaly that reminded me of the dedication that the Middle Eastern bombers and terrorists display. He was completely committed to what he was doing. He divorced himself from the public.

He had no social media, he had no Internet, he had no computer. He understood fingerprints because he had the FBI fingerprint manual that I got when I went through training school. He would buy stamps rather than go to post offices and expose himself to identification. He realized that postal workers were fingerprinted for their job and that they were the people that were putting stamps in the machines. So, even though he got the stamps out of machines, he would treat all the stamps with a concoction that he had to remove any latent fingerprints that wouldn’t necessarily identify him, but would identify where he got the stamps which might lead us to him.

He understood tool marks. He went to great lengths to erase, file and sandpaper off any tool marks that he was leaving on his devices. He made it extremely difficult from a law enforcement perspective to identify him.

 TCR: With the technology that exists today, would Kaczynski be able to wreak as much havoc now as he did then? What effect did the case of the Unabomber have on future terrorism investigation methods by the FBI?

 DN: I think one of the effects of the UNABOMB task force was that after 9/11 they created the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), and those were essentially patterned after the UNABOMB task force with investigators from various agencies working together under one roof in and one room. That was one of the extremely positive things coming out of the investigation. However, if a lone-wolf bomber had the dedication that Ted Kaczynski did today, I think they would present many of the same problems for investigators that he had, because he knew and understood our investigative techniques.

For instance, Kaczynski would collect hair that he would place in the bombs so it would survive because he knew how comparisons were done. He would cut the hair in half and place one half in one bomb and the other half in another bomb in hopes that investigators would find the hairs and by comparison deduce that the bomber had blond hair because the first composite drawing that was shown to the public had blonde hair coming out from beneath the grey hooded sweatshirt. That’s why, when we did a second composite drawing we made sure that it was done in black and white because we were concerned that he was using disguises and, in fact, we later discovered that he was.

So, I think that a person who has the dedication to isolate themselves from society, from friends, and from family, and live a Spartan lifestyle to the same degree that Ted Kaczynski did, would present the same problems for law enforcement today.

TCR: Today there is considerable concern around the dedicated menace of right-wing extremism, exemplified most recently by the January 6 riot at the Capitol. However, this is far from our country’s first experience with extremism. Why do you feel it is important to remember that?

 DN: Today, the focus has become on right-wing extremist groups, and rightfully so because what they did was terrible. However, we’ve tended to forget as a society about how violent the late 1960s and early 1970s were. Back then, it was left-wing, radical racist extremists that were trying to violently overthrow the U.S. government.

Very few people remember that the Weather Underground placed a bomb in the United States Capitol in Washington DC and blew up part of the Capitol. In 1971, for instance, there were 255 urban guerrilla actions, 60 bombings, 12 police ambushes, 51 fire bombings, and 11 hijackings. From 1968 to 1974, we had 414 domestic airliners hijacked forcibly. In 1972 there were 1,507 domestic bombings in the U.S. targeting the government and the police very similarly to what we’re seeing today, with the same type of rhetoric.

So, my hope is that we go back and familiarize ourselves with that history and say look, this happened before, now it’s happening again, only this time it’s to the other extreme. We need to bring things back into focus and remember that, while it is bad, we will continue to exist in spite of it. We will recover from it, hopefully swing back to the middle, go on being a society, and not tear ourselves apart over these extreme groups on either side.

Editor’s Note:  Ted Kaczynski, now 79, is serving a life term in ADX Florence (Colorado), a federal maximum security institution known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” which also houses former drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.  His solitary cell, slightly bigger than his Montana cabin, is  clean…and quiet, so that I can sleep, think and write (usually) without being distracted by a lot of banging and shouting,” he was quoted as saying in a February 2020 letter.

 Isidoro Rodriguez is editor of TCR’s Justice Digest. He frequently covers law enforcement issues.

One thought on “How the FBI Caught the Unabomber

  1. This claim that the FBI profiling experts caught Ted Kozinski is laughable. It was Ted’s brother, David Kozinski, who led the FBI to finding his brother. Faced with an anguishing choice of betraying his brother or letting the murders continue, David chose to save lives – even his brother’s. He insisted that the DOJ take the death penalty off the table in return for him providing documents that led them to his brother.
    The much-heralded FBI profilers have been wrong time after time, wasting time and resources chasing the wrong people while letting the actual culprits escape detection. Think Richard Jewell, the Beltway Sniper, the botched ID of Steven Hatfill in the 2001 Anthrax Case. These are just a few of he people whose lives were ruined by the use of profilers, a junk science that has never been validated in a scientific study.

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