The Threat Matrix The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror
By Graff, Garrett M.
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2011 Graff, Garrett M.
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316068611
The year, 1972, was a memory, like it or not…. The future was calling us, and no matter what, there was no turning back now.
—The Wonder Years
The year 1972 was officially the longest year in recorded history. To ensure the time on earth kept up with its orbit of the sun, the official world timekeepers—the International Time Bureau at the Paris Observatory—added two leap seconds to the leap year, something that had never happened before and hasn’t been repeated since. There was certainly enough history to fill the year—among many other notable events, Nixon visited China, a hapless gang of burglars was caught in the Watergate, Jane Fonda toured North Vietnam, Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky to become the first American world chess champion, and the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, returned safely to earth. But 1972 turned out to be an especially important year in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, perhaps the most important of all.
J. Edgar Hoover, it is said, never took a vacation, but he often spent weekends in Manhattan, the home of the FBI’s largest and most politically powerful field office, staying with his aide Clyde Tolson in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria that the hotel comped the legendary FBI director—without a doubt the most famous man in American law enforcement and arguably the second most powerful man in the government. As much as he liked the escapes, Hoover never liked being away from his desk at the Justice Department in Washington and would every few hours call his deputy at the Bureau, Mark Felt. On one such weekend getaway he’d received that panicked phone call at 2:30 P.M. on December 7, 1941, from Robert Shivers, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Field Office, informing him of a surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Hoover had heard the explosions in the background, across the thousands of miles of scratchy copper telephone wire—the sounds of the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history. Sixty years after that phone call, New York would be the scene of the next catastrophic U.S. intelligence failure, but Hoover would be long gone by then.
His calls back to Washington were not the only predictable elements of Hoover’s Manhattan excursions. In fact, he was a man of intense routine—his workday began precisely at 9:05 and ended with exactly one bourbon and soda. But 1970s New York was less amenable to his routine. The Stork Club, just off Fifth Avenue, where he’d spent many an evening sipping Jack Daniel’s, had closed in 1965, its building demolished to become a tiny pocket park. The cozy postwar café society that had thrived in New York, where Hoover had rubbed elbows with movie stars and politicians (even the occasional gangster), was giving way across Manhattan to new signs of progress. America’s largest city was still an unrivaled center of energy, celebrity, and glamour, but now with more of a radical beat than someone like Hoover—especially Hoover—could stomach. Once he had been a fulcrum; now he was merely off balance.
On Hoover’s final trip to New York, in April 1972, the south tower of the new World Trade Center was welcoming its first tenants: Morgan Stanley, the law firm Thacher Proffitt & Wood, Dow Jones, and the New York Stock Exchange. Hoover never lived to see the towers officially open a few months later, debuting as the tallest buildings in the world and a physical incarnation of America’s growing financial and commercial dominance on the world stage. Perhaps that was for the best: New York always made Hoover a bit uncomfortable.
On his last day in the Big Apple, Hoover walked out of the new home of the FBI New York Field Office—26 Federal Plaza, the recently completed Jacob Javits Federal Building—his bulldog-like jaw set firmly against the spring cold. The towers loomed over southern Manhattan just a few blocks away. When Hoover arrived in New York the day before, their tops had been shrouded in the clouds of an overcast and rainy Monday, but the storm had blown through. Now, resplendent in their enormity, the twin towers reached toward the blue above, casting their shadows north toward 26 Federal Plaza, which by comparison was no architectural triumph. The New York Times’s architectural critic labeled the forty-story Javits structure upon opening “one of the most monumentally mediocre Federal buildings in history.” Yet these two edifices, in their own way, would come to play defining roles in the drama that unfolded for the FBI over the next generation—a drama that Hoover himself could never have imagined that April morning but one that would shape the future of his beloved Bureau.
You will hear FBI agents of a certain vintage, all of them retired now, refer to “the Funeral.” When they say it, there’s no doubt that it’s capitalized and there’s no doubt about what event they’re referencing. The phrase is also always uttered with a vague wistfulness. The Funeral refers, of course, to the death of “the Director”—also always capitalized—J. Edgar Hoover.
The day that Hoover died, agents of that era argue, a big part of the Bureau died too. Never again would it be as powerful, as omnipotent, as flawless (at least in the eyes of the public). The era that followed was tumultuous—three directors in just fourteen months, infectious politicking, broken careers, and the scandalous airing of all too much dirty laundry. The fawning press disappeared and the scaffold of public esteem collapsed. The Funeral, these agents say, was the end of the good times.
The good times had an incredible run, to be sure. It’s hard to capture the sweep of history that Hoover observed. He’d been director for three years before Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927 and he was director three years after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. The forty-eight years of J. Edgar’s reign as director of the FBI saw the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, the Atomic Age and the Space Race, the Korean War and Vietnam; he witnessed the rise of the automobile, commercial aviation, the telephone, television, and the suburbs. His Bureau battled bank robbers, kidnappers, Nazis, deserters, Commies, the KGB, student radicals, the mob, and the Klan—the last two perhaps not as hard as it could have. He started under another, unrelated Hoover—Herbert Hoover—and served straight through to Richard Nixon, fully a quarter of the history of his beloved country, amassing along the way power and reach that would far exceed the comfort level of most democratic systems.
There was one thing J. Edgar didn’t see in his impressive life. If he had lived through the summer of 1972, he would have seen the terrifying arrival of a new breed of criminal unlike anything the world had witnessed—the truly international, ideologically driven, borderless, and stateless terrorist. And if he had lived through that fall of ’72, he would have seen that his daring G-men weren’t trained for what would come next.
Oh, what a funeral it was!
John Edgar Hoover was nothing if not a man of habit. Never married, he lived in his childhood home with his mother until she died in 1938, and only after her death did he move to the house he’d occupy for the rest of his life. He lunched promptly at noon, left the office promptly each night at 4:30 P.M., and even amid the swirling social circuit of Washington, Hoover only attended events hosted by his bosses—the attorney general or the president.
And so it was immediately strange when he didn’t meet his Bureau chauffeur the Tuesday morning of May 2, 1972. Shortly after 8:30 A.M., his housekeeper went upstairs and found the director dead of a heart ailment. The news flew through the Bureau: “The king is dead.” The acting attorney general announced Hoover’s passing to the world at 11 A.M., and a few hours later his regular table at the Mayflower Hotel, where for decades he lunched nearly every day with Clyde Tolson, dining on a ritual meal of chicken soup and cottage cheese, sat empty.
Hoover’s death was front-page news throughout the country. Editorials praised him in terms reserved more for emperors than appointed government officials. Washington nearly came to a standstill. Congress quickly voted to commemorate Hoover by having him lie in state at the Capitol, the first civil servant ever so honored—but of course Hoover was no ordinary civil servant. Paranoid in death as he had been in life, the director was, by his instructions, buried in a half-ton lead-lined coffin to discourage would-be grave desecrators. After eight military pallbearers successfully navigated the thousand-pound coffin up the steps of the Capitol, it sat for a day on the catafalque originally built for President Lincoln’s body. Thousands of mourners filed past. Addressing the crowd in the Rotunda during the first of two funeral services, Chief Justice Warren Burger said, “From modest beginnings he rose to the pinnacle of his profession and established a worldwide reputation that was without equal among those to whom societies entrust the difficult tasks relating to enforcement of the law…. If the great institution he created is faithful to his standards of professional excellence, fidelity to law, and dedication to the public interest, it will survive and go on in a world of conflict and turmoil.”
The following day Hoover’s body was taken from the Capitol to the National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue for the second funeral service. In what one observer labeled a “television spectacle” carried to a live audience nationwide, two thousand mourners, including Mamie Eisenhower, congressional leaders, and law enforcement personnel from across the country, packed the church. Reverend Edward Elson, who had ministered regularly to Hoover through his life, led the congregation in Psalm 46 and Psalm 23, and prayed, “We thank thee for thy servant Edgar… for his invincible fidelity to the moral law and the laws derived therefrom, for the strength of his manhood, his elevated patriotism, his kindness and generosity, his reverence for life and his warmhearted friendship.” The U.S. Army Chorus sang “How Firm a Foundation.”
Eulogizing Hoover as “the peace officer without peer,” President Nixon echoed the chief justice’s remarks of the day before. “There is a belief that a changing of the guard will also mean a changing of the rules,” Nixon told the crowd. “This will not happen. The FBI will carry on in the future, true to the finest traditions in the past, because regardless of what the snipers and detractors would have us believe, the fact is that Director Hoover built the Bureau totally on principle, not on personality. He built well. He built to last. For that reason, the FBI will remain as a memorial to him, a living memorial, continuing to create a climate of protection, security, and impartial justice that benefits every American.”
Afterward, Hoover’s funeral motorcade wound through three of the four quadrants of Washington, past the Mayflower, the White House, and his childhood home in Seward Square, to the Congressional Cemetery, where his body would rest near those of his parents; the entire nine-mile route was closed to traffic, and police from across the country stood almost shoulder to shoulder in salute. The Senate chaplain, Edward Elson, tossed the first handful of dirt onto the casket.
The debate over where the Bureau would go after Hoover began immediately. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “How do you replace an American institution in what could be the second most powerful job in the nation?” Of course, not everyone had viewed Hoover positively: Syndicated columnists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans wrote, “It was fitting that the director died in his sleep. That was the way the Bureau was run lately.” Recalled Time magazine, “With a genius for administration and popular myth, [Hoover] fashioned his career as an improbable bureaucratic morality play peopled by bad guys and G-men. The drama worked well enough when everyone agreed on the villains—‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, John Dillinger, Nazi agents—but finally curdled somewhat in more ambiguous days.” Those “ambiguous days” toward the end were when the nonpartisan FBI seemed to be creeping more toward pursuing an ideological agenda driven by what Hoover saw as excessive permissiveness in American society. In Hoover’s final decade, the Bureau harassed student radicals, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (whom Hoover once labeled “the most notorious liar in the country”), and other political opponents whose views differed from the strict code by which Hoover abided.
In the wake of Hoover’s death, President Nixon proclaimed that the FBI’s new headquarters, still rising on Pennsylvania Avenue, would henceforth be known as the J. Edgar Hoover Building. A generation later, perhaps there’s no stronger metaphor for the Bureau’s tough position than that headquarters building in downtown Washington—ugly, worn, and outdated, plastered at every corner with the name J. Edgar Hoover. The block-sized concrete monstrosity is one of the best examples of the blessedly brief Brutalist era of architecture. Bureau analysts today have estimated that the government could tear down the eleven-story nightmare and sell the emptied lot for some $700 million. (No one, they recognize, would ever want the building.) The thousands of staff who spend their days wandering the depressingly drab corridors inside certainly would love a fresh start somewhere else, a building perhaps filled with light and a whole lot less linoleum. And yet the Bureau is centrally located, halfway between the Capitol at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House at the other, and is within walking distance of every one of Washington’s Metro lines, making it accessible to workers from all corners of the region. Perhaps someday the FBI will be able to move, but for now it’s stuck where it is. Just as, nearly forty years after Hoover’s death, the Bureau remains in the Hoover Building, it is still fighting to overcome the legacy left it in 1972.
In a 1937 New Yorker profile, Jack Anderson had warned, “There is, in fact, so much of John Edgar Hoover in the FBI as it is organized and operated today that if he were lost to it, its effectiveness would sag, possibly with disastrous results.” Fast-forward thirty-five years, through five administrations, World War II, and the Cold War, and Anderson’s words would prove all too true.
On several occasions, presidents had contemplated replacing Hoover. Lesser public servants—in fact, every single one not named John Edgar Hoover—were required by statute to retire at age seventy. President Kennedy was said to have wanted Hoover to retire at that then-mandatory federal retirement age in 1965, and when Lyndon Johnson privately considered urging Hoover into retirement, the satirical British news show That Was the Week That Was, hosted by David Frost, reported, “President Johnson has declared that he does not intend to replace J. Edgar Hoover. However, J. Edgar Hoover has not disclosed whether he plans to replace President Johnson.”
In the end, Lyndon Johnson caved and signed an executive order in 1964 saying that the FBI chief didn’t need to worry about such petty rules. As LBJ said at the Rose Garden ceremony, “Edgar, the law says that you must retire next January when you reach your seventieth birthday, and I know you wouldn’t want to break the law. But the nation cannot afford to lose you.”
In a whirlwind two days following Hoover’s death, L. Patrick Gray III, an ex-navy man known for his loyalty to Richard Nixon, became acting director—an outsider walking into a culture known for its hostility to outsiders. Driving back to the Justice Department from the White House, where the announcement of his appointment had been made, Gray expressed some reservations to Acting Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. “Pat, there is no more important position in our government than the director of the FBI,” Kleindienst replied. “Everyone knows the director of the FBI.”
Gray walked into the fifth-floor offices of the FBI and found himself in the midst of the House Hoover Built. “This was Hoover’s preserve and visitors from the Justice Department were neither encouraged nor welcomed,” he recalled years later. The anteroom was packed with grim mementoes of Hoover’s fifty-year fight against crime. There was John Dillinger’s death mask; the submachine gun favored by Clyde Barrow; the black hood used in the hanging of an obscure murderer named Carl Panzram. His agents reflected Hoover’s own unrelenting conservative patriotism. Even during a time of social unrest, 75 percent of the FBI’s new agents had served in Vietnam.
Met inside by W. Mark Felt, the Bureau’s associate director and the man who would later become famous as Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat” in Watergate, Gray shook hands and proceeded into what he called “the center ring of the Hoover extravaganza,” the ornate conference room where the fifteen leaders of the FBI were assembled. “I noted their chiseled faces, their impeccable dress, their clean, crisp appearance overall. These were the assistant directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, men molded by Hoover, advanced by Hoover, and occupying their present positions by his mandate,” Gray recalled. “I had before me an almost impossible task. I had to learn all there was to know about the FBI as fast as possible and without the benefit of a no-holds-barred briefing from the man whom I had been appointed to succeed.”
From the start, Gray’s tenure marked a major shift from the reclusive, moralistic days of Hoover’s reign. Whereas Hoover had dined either alone or with his chief aide, Gray lunched at Washington’s fashionable Sans Souci restaurant. Beyond power dining choices, though, the FBI was undergoing monumental changes. Four months after Hoover’s death, halfway around the globe, a new world would be announced in flickering black-and-white TV images, and the Bureau would never be the same.
Nothing bad was supposed to happen at the Munich Olympics—bad things didn’t fit with the happy-go-lucky image that the West German government had worked so hard to create for the “Carefree Games.” With the intention of hosting an Olympics wholly different from the militaristic Hitler-led Berlin Games of 1936, the 1972 host committee had decided that security would take a backseat for the Olympics’ return to German soil. The athletes’ village was open to nearly anyone, and many competitors chose just to jump the low fences rather than make their way through the official entrances; security personnel, the “Olys,” were unarmed, and when early in the Games several hundred demonstrators appeared on a nearby hill, security persuaded them to disperse by offering them candy.
Indeed, looking back today from an era when the Olympics are as much about tight security as they are about athletics, it’s hard to imagine just how easy it was for Black September to attack the Munich Games. The total security budget then was some $2 million ($10 million in 2010 dollars), whereas by comparison, the post-9/11 security budget for the Sydney Olympics amounted to a billion dollars.
Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, had no problems executing its plan at the Munich Olympics. Posing as Brazilians, the attackers talked their way into the athletes’ village to scout the Israeli compound in the days leading up to the attack, and were invited inside for a tour of the athletes’ apartments by an Israeli athlete. On the night of Black September’s assault, drunk, carousing American athletes actually helped the terrorists, who were disguised as fellow Olympians, scale the fence around the village and carry their gym bags filled with AK-47s and submachine guns.
It’s not as if the attack was entirely unforeseen—in fact, Dr. Georg Sieber, a West German police psychologist, had walked through twenty-six different scenarios for possible trouble. Situation 21 had focused on Palestinian terrorists storming the Israeli compound, killing hostages, and demanding the release of their counterparts in Israeli jails and a plane to make their escape to an Arab country. The West German authorities, though, weren’t thrilled with Sieber’s worst-case scenarios and had asked him to come up with less-scary alternatives. It would turn out that Sieber had gotten only one significant detail of the plan wrong: His imaginary Situation 21 had the Palestinians storming the compound at 5 A.M. In reality, they stormed the compound at 4:10 A.M., fifty minutes “early.”
The eight terrorists began their September 5 attack by jimmying the door to the Israeli rooms at 31 Connollystrasse. Sieber had envisioned them using a blasting cap, but the door wasn’t even secure enough to require that. Chaos reigned for a few minutes as the terrorists moved from room to room. Some athletes resisted—two were killed while trying to wrestle guns from their attackers—and others wandered sleepily from their rooms into the midst of the horror. A cleaning lady outside called the Olympic security office at 4:47 A.M. to report gunfire. The first unarmed Oly to arrive on the scene marched up to the hooded terrorist standing guard outside the Israeli dorm and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?” Minutes later the terrorists released their first set of demands—free 234 Palestinians held in Israeli jails—and rolled the dead body of wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg into the street as proof of their determination. Black September announced that beginning at 9 A.M., its members would execute one hostage every hour until their demands were met. They knew Israel didn’t negotiate with terrorists, and indeed, within a few hours, word came that Israeli prime minister Golda Meir would not consider freeing even a single prisoner as “the slightest concession to terrorist blackmail.”
The terrorists gradually extended their deadline through the day, realizing that the longer the situation unfolded the greater the audience became. TV cameras were trained live on the compound, and the world was captivated by the grainy images of hooded terrorists watching from the balconies; inside the compound, those TV images provided a great opportunity for the terrorists to watch themselves live. The West German police quickly invented and discarded plan after plan. One idea to use police disguised as food deliverymen was abandoned after Black September insisted the food be left outside; another idea to storm the building by sneaking police through the ventilation ducts was canceled when the ten police, in tracksuits and carrying submachine guns, were shown on live TV climbing onto the building. At 5 P.M., Black September issued new demands: a plane to take them and the Israeli hostages to Egypt. If the Palestinian prisoners weren’t waiting at the Cairo airport, all of the Israelis would be executed.
As the deadline of 9 P.M. neared, West German officials prepped two Iroquois helicopters for the short flight to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, where authorities swore that the situation must come to an end. Still reeling from the legacy of the Holocaust, the German government could never allow Jewish hostages to be taken off German soil by terrorists. Two plans were put in place: An ambush team of police would hide on the plane and take the terrorists down when they boarded, or a separate team of snipers would try to pick the Palestinian terrorists off as they crossed the tarmac before they boarded.
A few minutes after ten, the helicopters took off. Two carried assortments of hostages and terrorists; a third, ferrying frantic West German officials, raced ahead. The terror unfolding was so new and unforeseen that no specialized units stood ready to respond. West Germany had no elite special forces like the U.S. Navy SEALs or Israel’s own Sayerat Matkal. And there was no way to reason with the unreasonable. Barring a miracle, there was effectively no chance of a successful outcome.
The hole became even deeper when the onboard ambush team of police en route to the airport voted to abandon what they saw as a “suicide mission,” leaving the snipers as the only line of defense. The chosen snipers themselves weren’t specially trained—they simply enjoyed shooting competitively in their free time. Meanwhile, no one had bothered to count the terrorists, so the snipers didn’t know how many awaited them. Not issued night-vision equipment or even two-way radios so that they could coordinate their attack, the snipers, in remote locations on the airfield, had been told simply to open fire when they heard gunfire. Meanwhile, armored personnel carriers had gotten stuck in traffic on their way to the airport, and many police units were incorrectly dispatched to Riem, Munich’s main airport. A helicopter ferrying one of the few special police assault teams to the airport landed at the wrong end of the airfield, leaving the team more than two kilometers from the action.
Police snipers felled two terrorists in their opening volley and fatally wounded a third, leaving five unharmed. The surviving Black Septembrists proceeded to shoot out many of the airport’s lights. An hour passed with just the occasional shot back and forth. As midnight neared, the long-awaited armored vehicles arrived and advanced on the helicopters. A terrorist opened fire into the belly of one helicopter as the ugly behemoths neared, shooting all the hostages inside before tossing a grenade through the open door. The once-dark airport tarmac was suddenly bathed in light from the flames. A shootout at the other helicopter left two terrorists and all of the other hostages dead too. Three Black Septembrists were captured. Shortly after 12:30 A.M. on September 6, nearly twenty hours after the hostage situation began and some two hours after the helicopters arrived at the airport, West German police tracked the last remaining terrorist to where he was hiding beneath a railroad car on the airfield’s edge, ending what was to become a wake-up call to governments around the world.
Mistake after mistake had piled up through the night, an unfortunate testament to the novelty of the terror the police faced. As morning broke, the results of those mistakes were spread gruesomely across the tarmac—the burned skeleton of a helicopter surrounded by fifteen dead: Nine Israeli hostages, one police officer, and five terrorists. West German intelligence had overlooked at least three reports of Black September agents entering the country in the two weeks before the attack on the “Carefree Games”—an oversight all the more glaring considering that the group had launched five attacks in Europe within the past year, including three in West Germany. Something would have to change. Within two weeks, Germany launched GSG-9, its first counterterrorism special forces unit.
On September 15, 1972, in the United States, the CIA produced its first weekly summary of international terrorist activity—an initial draft of the Threat Matrix that decades later would greet the nation’s top intelligence officials each morning. President Nixon called to check what the FBI’s contingency plans were for terrorist attacks on major U.S. cities; the short answer: There weren’t any.
The thirty-first U.S. skyjacking of 1972 started off like all of the others that year—basically peaceful and random. Hijackings weren’t new; all told, between 1960 and 1972 some 17,000 U.S. passengers and crew had been hijacked—about 1,400 Americans a year on average. At a certain level, hijackings had become an almost accepted inconvenience of air travel—much like afternoon thunderstorms at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. But the events of 11/11 proved a wake-up call that the FBI was ill equipped to respond to the new threat of violent terrorism from the skies.
Much like Munich’s “Carefree Games,” Atlanta-based Southern Airways was supposed to be the “happy” airline. The blue-and-yellow planes that crisscrossed the nation daily during the early 1970s had smiley faces painted on their noses underneath the inscription “Have a Nice Day.”
Southern Airways Flight 49 had originated in Memphis and was on its second leg, a short fifteen-minute hop from Birmingham to Montgomery, when just before landing a man barreled his way into the cockpit—one arm around the neck of flight attendant Donna Holman, the other brandishing a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. His command was clear: “Head north, Captain—this is a hijacking.”
Captain William R. Haas hesitated only a moment before he answered, “You’ve got it.” As he transmitted a hijack code to air traffic control, he turned on the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign. First Officer Harold Johnson began to turn the airplane. On the ground, Birmingham air traffic controllers began their normal procedures—they notified the FBI in Washington and the FAA’s special hijacking command post. There had been enough hijackings that the procedures were well-known and widely used. Yet one thing was puzzling: Nearly every hijacker demanded to be flown south to Cuba. As air traffic controllers watched Flight 49’s heading swing north, they realized something different was happening here.
Security procedures, lax as they were, had worked—sort of. The airline had pegged Lewis Moore as a possible security risk and asked him whether he’d be willing to undergo screening. He readily agreed. Security officers patted him down but never checked the contents of the overcoat he held, inside of which was the arsenal he’d soon use against Flight 49. His two partners, Henry Jackson and Melvin Cale, unscreened, had no problems boarding. The trio intended to hijack the plane in response to Moore and Jackson’s latest run-in with Detroit police—they’d been arrested on October 13 and accused of a series of rapes and assaults. Earlier, after a previous incident in which Moore and Jackson had accused the police of beating them outside a bar, the city had tried to settle their $4 million police brutality lawsuit for $25. It was an insult, made worse in their minds by the follow-up arrest. The two men skipped bond, missed a planned October 30 hearing on the charges against them, recruited Moore’s half brother, Melvin, and headed for Memphis.
After a quick refueling stop in Jackson, Mississippi, the plane headed toward Detroit, where Moore and his compatriots planned to settle their score with city officials. The two flight attendants served dinner to the worried passengers, and the three hijackers began helping themselves to the plentiful supply of onboard liquor.
On the ground, FBI agents arrived at the Detroit control tower and phoned the mayor to relay the hijackers’ $10 million ransom demand. Other agents passed the hijackers’ request along to Southern’s headquarters in Atlanta. Southern’s Chicago station manager was dispatched to a local bank, where he met with FBI agents and, under escort, signed for a briefcase full of ransom money—nowhere close to the full amount but enough, the airline hoped, to buy them more time. At Chicago’s Midway Airport, the official and agents boarded another Southern jet and began to give chase. At the insistence of the Southern captain, the agents left behind their heavy weapons and carried only their sidearms.
As bad weather descended on Detroit, Flight 49 diverted to Cleveland, where it refueled and then took off for Toronto to avoid sitting idle. In Toronto, the hijackers learned that Southern had gathered only $500,000 in ransom and, insulted by the paltry amount, refused to take the money or release the passengers. Instead the plane refueled and took off once again, heading back to the States. The hijacking had been under way for almost twelve hours already, and as the plane ascended, a scary new element was added to the equation. Haas radioed that unless their ransom demands were met, the hijackers intended to crash the plane into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee. This was something the nation had never seen before. Skyjacking was one thing—nuclear terrorism was something else.
On the ground, the hijacking response proceeded on multiple fronts. Officials at Oak Ridge scrambled to shut down the systems and minimize potential damage. The Southern Airways chase plane was still tailing the hijacked flight, and the navy had also launched a plane loaded with FBI agents, heavy weapons, and gear. After talking over the situation with airline and technical personnel, the responding agents had decided that their best option would be to shoot out the airliner’s tires when it was on the ground. No one believed the plane could take off with flat tires, and with the aircraft disabled, it would be possible to better negotiate or, if need be, take more aggressive action. By now, the Atomic Energy Commission, the White House, and the Pentagon were all involved.
After another refueling stop in Lexington, Kentucky, Flight 49 returned to circling above Oak Ridge. As the morning haze burned off and the flight’s passengers caught glimpses of their intended target below, Moore made a chilling threat: “I was born to die and if I have to take all of you with me, that’s all right with me. We’re gonna make this thing look worse than Munich.”
Ground controllers connected Flight 49 to the White House, and a voice came over the cockpit intercom. “This is John Ehrlichman,” said the president’s top domestic aide. “And who am I speaking with?”
“I’m up over Oak Ridge, where I’ll either throw a grenade or I’ll put this plane down nose first,” Jackson barked. “We want a letter signed by the president declaring that our $10 million ransom demand is to be a grant from the federal government and that we won’t be prosecuted.”
Ehrlichman demurred, saying such a request would take some time, and Jackson exploded. “If you don’t, I’m gonna show you the Olympics wasn’t anything—the Munich incident wasn’t shit.”
The hijackers, initially instructed to head to Knoxville, where FBI agents and airline officials had gathered, directed the plane instead to Chattanooga, setting off a rush to get the response team there. In an age when interstate communication was still limited, the repeated hops were wreaking havoc with the FBI’s plans. Acting Director Pat Gray was home in Connecticut, so while he was in touch with headquarters, it fell to Assistant Director Robert Gebhardt, the head of the criminal division, to coordinate much of the response.
At Chattanooga, FBI agents flooded the airport and prepared to deliver the ransom via a refueling truck. Local police blocked off nearby roads and tried to control the crowds that had assembled as word spread that the dramatic headline-grabbing skyjacking was coming to town. Even peanut and popcorn vendors showed up to feed the spectators. Agents gathered food and beer to put aboard the plane, since it had been nearly a day since those on Flight 49 had eaten. Although the FBI lacked a critical response team, some Bureau sharpshooters hid themselves at strategic points around the airport in case they were needed. However, the response plan was far from perfect: No one at Chattanooga thought to summon even a single ambulance in case medical attention was required.
The fuel truck made its way slowly out on the runway toward the hijacked DC-9. The sacks of ransom money in the cabin made it impossible for the driver to shift into a higher gear. The money, food, and other supplies were passed through a cockpit window and then the truck began to refuel the jet. The flight attendants began the laborious process of counting the money. Although the hijackers had demanded $10 million, Southern Airways had been able to assemble only $2 million—but because it would take hours to count it all, they gambled on the hijackers’ not being able to tell the difference. Indeed, the trio of hijackers, unaware that they’d been swindled out of the bulk of their ransom payment, celebrated, declaring happily that they were millionaires, and began passing out cash to the passengers “for your inconvenience.” (They also gave the pilot and first officer some $300,000, stuffing it in crevices all over the cockpit.)
As Captain Haas negotiated to get the passengers off the plane, another wave of panic swept through airport officials—no one had thought to have a bus or other transport available, so a Chattanooga police car was dispatched to search the roads around the airport for the closest municipal bus. But it was too late. Southern Airways Flight 49 revved up and began taxiing down the runway. “Southern 49—advise intentions,” the tower interrogated.
“Going to Cuba—they want to talk to Castro,” First Officer Johnson replied.
So many hijackers fled south during the 1960s and early 1970s, after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba, that Fidel Castro, despite his pleasure at the aggravation such incidents caused his neighbor to the north, didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for arriving criminals. Indeed, he had set aside a shabby aging mansion in Havana’s Siboney district nicknamed the “Casa de Transitos,” the “Hijackers’ House,” for them to live in under twenty-four-hour guard. The score of hijackers residing there received a forty-pesos-a-month living stipend, yet were only rarely permitted to venture outside to spend it. Most passed their time working in sugarcane fields under Castro’s orders. More than a dozen had fled back to the United States; others tried to commit suicide, some successfully. Now, despite the dire living condition of most hijackers in Castro’s orbit, Moore, Jackson, and Cale hoped their millions in U.S. currency could buy them a better life, free from the hassle of “the Man.”
As the plane winged south down the Florida peninsula, a new worry developed: President Nixon was at his “Winter White House” retreat in Key Biscayne, off the coast of Miami. Given the hijackers’ demonstrated willingness to turn their craft into a missile, he could become a target. Sure, the single-floor concrete ranch-style house at 500 Bay Lane would be difficult to even spot from the air, but the Secret Service and the military couldn’t take that chance. Pentagon officials contacted the nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base and placed on alert F-106 “Delta Dart” fighters from the 48th Interceptor Squadron.
Luckily, the decision never had to be made—Flight 49 touched down in Havana at 4:50 P.M. Believing that, like so many other hijackings before it, the incident was over as soon as the hijacked plane arrived in Cuba, the two chase aircraft—packed with materiel, FBI agents, and Southern Airways corporate officials—set down at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base for the personnel to eat dinner and for the planes to refuel before beginning their journey homeward.
Except that it wasn’t over. To Moore and Jackson’s surprise, the Cubans weren’t thrilled to see them and, far from welcoming their millions in greenbacks, surrounded the plane with soldiers. Castro himself watched from afar, refusing to greet the hijackers as heroes. José Abrantes, Castro’s security chief, personally explained the situation to Jackson: “The matter is one that will have to be considered by the proper political authorities.”
“You people sound like a bunch of Washington bureaucrats,” Jackson spat back.
“I’m sorry, señor. There are certain procedures that must be followed, whether you’re in Washington or Havana.”
“I thought this was supposed to be a free country,” Jackson sputtered.
“There is freedom here for the Cuban people, but the admission of foreigners addresses itself to proper authorities. Otherwise,” Abrantes said with a laugh, “you must understand our tiny island couldn’t hold all of the people who might want to come here.”
The hijackers retreated back into the plane and held a grenade to Captain Haas’s head, demanding more fuel; the Cuban government, not altogether unhappy to be rid of the situation, complied. As Flight 49 took off, heading north again, frantic calls crisscrossed the United States. The FBI agents at MacDill—about to sit down for a well-deserved meal at a nearby motel—were readied for action, the FAA and FBI hijacking command posts in Washington were reactivated, and Acting Director Gray got on the phone with Southern Airways’ general manager in Atlanta. This situation had to end, Gray announced.
Assistant Director Robert Gebhardt radioed the agents aboard the navy chase plane, circling over Florida, with the plan: “Instructions are that the hijacked craft be disabled when next on the ground.”
“Roger,” replied an agent from the Detroit Field Office who had spent a long day following Flight 49 across the country.
“Over and out. That’s the completion of our transmission and instructions,” Gebhardt concluded.
Without much discussion and with even less planning, Gray had overruled Hoover’s long-standing rule that no action would be taken by the Bureau against a hijacked airliner unless the pilot of the craft had been informed and had consented. As Gray later explained to Congress, in his thinking, “the pilot was not a free agent; there was no way of getting word to him.”
Nerves on all sides were frayed as the dramatic situation converged on Orlando Airport shortly after 9 P.M. Saturday night, November 11, 1972. FBI agents from the Orlando Resident Agency arrived first, taking control of the airport. Local police began to close the roads around the airport. On its side of the shared civilian-military airport, the air force shut down the massive floodlights, plunging the tarmac into darkness. When Southern Airways Flight 49 landed, its exhausted pilots, passengers, and hijackers had no idea that, three miles behind them in the approach pattern, two planes packed with FBI agents were readying for a showdown. “This plane isn’t getting off the ground,” Knoxville special agent in charge (SAC) Wallace Estill announced to the chase plane team.
Gebhardt spoke by radio with one of the FBI agents in the airport control tower. “I have given [the other agents] instructions to go out there and shoot the goddamn tires out and disable the plane. What we wanted to do is rush the plane at the same time…. Mr. Gray says disable the plane and to storm the plane.”
“That’s ten-four. I copy. Disable and storm,” the agent replied.
The hijackers had been afraid of just such an encounter from their first stop. Haas later recalled that the hijackers believed each person they spotted outside was “an FBI man with a high-powered telescopic rifle ready to pick them off at any minute.” If only the hijackers had been aware of the FBI’s actual capabilities at that point—the agents on the ground and on the chase plane who would execute the plan lacked heavy weapons and weren’t specially trained for such hostage rescue missions. The FBI agents at the Orlando Resident Agency, a suboffice of the Tampa Field Office, didn’t have a single rifle—their request earlier that year for such heavy weapons had been held up because their safe wasn’t large enough to hold long rifles. (The current safe held a single shotgun.) Furthermore, the agents on the ground had no way to contact the FBI team on board the chase aircraft, and as a result the latter executed the plan to end the standoff before the other local agents even knew what would happen. On board the chase aircraft, far from his home territory, Knoxville SAC Estill divided the sixteen FBI agents into four-man teams; they only had enough shoulder weapons—four shotguns and two rifles—to give one or two to each team. On the ground, the agents ran nearly a mile across the airport, approaching the hijacked craft from the rear.
The first volley of rifle shots from the FBI failed to penetrate the thick tires, so another team of agents with shotguns began firing heavy slugs into the main tires. All told, according to the number of shell casings gathered at the scene afterward, the FBI agents fired twenty-six shots at the plane’s landing gear. As the first tires deflated and the plane began to tilt left, those on board figured out what was happening. Underneath, one team of agents approached the external latch to open the rear stairs. As the hijackers ordered Captain Haas to rev the engines, Jackson and Moore leaned out the cockpit window and shot blindly into the dark. The injured plane lurched twenty-five to fifty yards down the runway, with agents giving chase.
Then Jackson ordered First Officer Johnson to his feet, thinking the copilot had somehow approved the attack during his conversations on the radio. “We’re gonna shoot you,” Jackson screamed. “Stand up on the seat: I’m gonna kill you!” The shot from Jackson’s revolver caught Johnson in the arm as terrified passengers looked on. Cale interceded and insisted they get moving. The hijackers, panicked and confused, moved the now injured copilot back toward the cockpit. “Get your ass back in the cockpit or I will kill you,” Cale barked. The order was given to take off.
The revving engines sent the FBI team underneath rolling head over heels. The hot exhaust burned two agents and shredded their suits as it pushed them some seventy-five yards back down the runway. One agent’s clothes were mostly ripped off. Flight 49 began to scrape along the runway, picking up speed. The agents had disabled only two of the eight tires. In the darkness, sparks and debris from the damaged plane trailed the DC-9 as it prepared to take off. A flash lit the night as a piece of rubber cast off by the landing gear was sucked into the left engine. After initially giving chase on foot, the FBI teams now stood helpless on the runway, watching the hijacked craft gather speed. There would be no following it. By using the emergency exits, they’d rendered their own chase aircraft inoperable.
Miraculously, at the very last possible moment, an air pocket underneath the plane gave a tiny bit of lift, raising the intact tires and wounded landing gear just enough off the ground. A second later and the plane would have crashed through the airport’s boundary fence with catastrophic results.
The plane gained altitude, and Jackson ordered it south to Cuba again. Haas, though, couldn’t fly above 11,000 feet, since the damaged plane’s systems couldn’t pressurize the cabin. More than twenty-four hours after it was first hijacked, after thousands of miles and nearly a dozen stops in three countries, Flight 49 was on its last legs. Two million dollars in ransom cluttered the aisles, garbage overflowed, and the injured copilot tried to perform his flight duties with his one good arm. The hostages, exhausted and low on blood sugar and adrenaline after the long ordeal, dozed fitfully, stared out the windows, or watched the hijackers talk among themselves at the front of the cabin. With the engines running constantly since the hijacking had begun, there was at best another couple of hours of flight time before the engines ran out of oil and began to seize up. Their only hope was to land quickly, yet with their landing gear shot up and damaged, that itself wouldn’t prove easy. Knowing the situation aboard Flight 49, all the would-be rescuers could do was mobilize the Coast Guard for a possible recovery operation. One passenger, engineer Alex Halberstadt, later related, “Before we landed at Orlando, we were just on a hijacked aircraft. After the FBI acted, we were on a crippled hijacked aircraft with three gunmen going mad.” Halberstadt added, “They turned a bad trip into an immediate emergency.”
As Flight 49 headed south, Castro returned to the Havana airport. He put out a call to gather all available emergency vehicles; ambulances and fire engines from around Havana raced toward the airport, sirens screaming. Normal protocol would call for the runway to be covered in fire retardant foam, but there wasn’t enough foam in all of Cuba to do that. Planning for the worst, doctors and crews gathered at the closest Havana hospital to treat crash victims.
Meanwhile, the flight attendants did their best to clear the aisles of ransom money and garbage, review safety procedures with the passengers, and demonstrate crash positions. The hijackers, suddenly docile in the face of the gravity of the situation, took seats next to the window emergency exits with bags of ransom money gathered at their feet and in their laps. Worried about what would happen to the hijackers’ weapons in a hard landing, the flight attendants stepped up and demanded that the hijackers surrender them. With barely a word, Jackson, Moore, and Cale handed over grenades, guns, and ammunition. “There’ll be no more shooting,” Jackson said, exhaustion evident in his voice.
Five miles out from the runway, as the plane rapidly closed the distance to the airport and the Cuban countryside passed by just hundreds of feet away, the crew opened the emergency exits, sending a roaring gust of wind through the cabin. Garbage flew around the interior like debris ahead of a thunderstorm.
With a lurch and a horrific screech, the plane hit the runway hard. Sparks and smoke poured from the damaged landing gear as it disintegrated at speeds over a hundred miles per hour. Captain Haas slammed on the brakes and reversed the engines to slow the plane. After the plane slid to a halt, the flight attendants began evacuating passengers from the smoky cabin. Within minutes, everyone stood on the tarmac, miraculously alive and safe. The hijackers ran for the nearby high grass but didn’t make it far. Cuban soldiers were waiting, and the last the passengers saw of the trio of hijackers, they were being marched into the terminal. Castro later told Haas, “They’ll be kept in boxes four by four by four.”
The press conference the next morning at FBI Headquarters in Washington wasn’t pretty. Questions about the shooting and accusations of recklessness kept FBI spokesperson Thomas Bishop on the defensive. The Bureau declined to comment on almost any aspect of the decision-making process that led to their attempt to storm the aircraft. The fact that Southern Airways Flight 49’s passengers had escaped unharmed and that only one person—First Officer Johnson—had been wounded during the ordeal was more luck (and a testament to Captain Haas’s skill and patience under duress) than anything else. But, comment or not, it was clear that multiple times through the incident, the entire airliner had almost been lost. There had been no team specially trained to deal with hostage situations. Hostage negotiation training barely existed. As in Munich, the FBI’s sharpshooters considered their skill more a hobby than a professional requirement. Communications equipment had made coordination and planning difficult. The weaponry available was a joke. This idea of “terrorism,” inflicting terror for political means, was something new to U.S. shores and to the U.S. government.
Up until then, no one had ever died in a U.S. hijacking, and the government’s impractical idea to make every passenger walk through a metal detector had seemed an inconvenience that the traveling public would never tolerate. “It’s an impossible problem short of searching every passenger,” an FAA spokesman had been quoted saying in the years prior to Flight 49.
That all changed after 11/11. Within two months, the FAA initiated the first-ever mandatory screening for all aviation passengers. The results proved the program’s worth: During the first year alone, some 1,600 guns, 1,200 explosive devices, and 15,000 knives were confiscated by the new security screeners. More important, not a single U.S. commercial airliner was hijacked in 1973 after the new measures were implemented. There was also talk of armoring and locking cockpit doors, giving pilots the opportunity to carry weapons, and centralizing airport security nationwide under a single agency. It would take another three decades for those measures to be implemented.
The FBI, meanwhile, realized that the events surrounding Flight 49 wouldn’t fade into the past. There were pluses—the American public for the first time began to take the question of terrorism seriously and began to accept trade-offs of civil liberties in exchange for greater security. Yet there were also major minuses—the image of the seemingly invincible G-man was beginning to take a beating. Richard Marquise, then a special agent in Detroit who would go on to head the investigation of the Pan Am 103 bombing, remembers boarding a Southern Airways flight a few months after the hostage incident. Upon hearing that an armed FBI agent was on board, the pilot came back to talk to Marquise and demanded that the young agent hand over his weapon.
“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that,” Marquise replied sheepishly, knowing the full level of distrust pilots now had for the FBI.
“What about your bullets, can you take out your bullets and give them to me?”
“No. Sorry, sir.”
“Well, don’t shoot anyone on my plane unless I give you permission,” the pilot said warily.
The encounter was unnerving for the young agent, whose father had spent his career in Hoover’s FBI and knew the high regard with which the Bureau had been held by the American people. Now, for the first time, there were fundamental questions as to whether the FBI could do its job.
It took just six months after Munich for the Black September terror campaign to arrive in the United States. In March 1973, just a week after Black September assassinated the U.S. ambassador in Sudan, the FBI in New York—after being tipped off by a National Security Agency intercept of a communiqué by the Iraqi Mission at the United Nations—began a frantic search for three car bombs placed around the city by Black September leader Khalid Al-Jawary. Of the three explosive devices, two were parked on Fifth Avenue and the third was supposed to target El Al’s cargo terminal at Kennedy Airport. Amazingly, the two cars containing the Fifth Avenue bombs had been illegally parked and thus towed by the city to an impound lot before anyone discovered their deadly contents.
As the FBI investigation unfolded, agents discovered that the devices had been set to go off during a Big Apple visit by Israel’s Golda Meir on March 4—two days before the NSA intercept led officials even to begin the search. All three powerful bombs, which would have killed anyone within a hundred yards of the explosion, had, fortunately, been improperly wired and thus failed to explode. Once again, the nation and the FBI had gotten lucky. Continues...
Excerpted from The Threat Matrix by Graff, Garrett M. Copyright © 2011 by Graff, Garrett M.. Excerpted by permission.
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