Authors: Tim Weiner
Nixon was satisfied. He had chosen a successor. Everyone was smiling now.
“The moment you’re confirmed,” the president said, “we’ve got to have the kind of relationship we had with Hoover.”
“THE BUREAU CANNOT SURVIVE”
3, 1973, a suave-looking Iraqi in his late twenties, wearing modish sideburns and bell-bottom jeans, parked his rented Plymouth Fury and checked in at the Skyway Hotel next to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York.
The Iraqi had arrived in New York eight weeks earlier. Shortly thereafter, the FBI had received a tip from Israeli intelligence that he might be an agent of the murderous gang called Black September, under the control of Yasser Arafat, the chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Black September had just murdered the American ambassador and his deputy in the Sudan.
An FBI agent interviewed the Iraqi, who explained that he had come to the United States to attend flight school and become an airline pilot.
The interview was filed away, and for a time forgotten. The agent could not be blamed for the oversight. As an institution, the FBI did not know how to investigate a terrorist. The United States had not experienced a transnational conspiracy to commit mass murder since the terrorist attacks during and after World War I.
On the morning of March 4, the Iraqi left his Fury parked next to the El Al terminal at Kennedy, where the prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, was due to arrive in a few hours. In midtown Manhattan, his two accomplices parked their cars on Fifth Avenue, in front of two Israeli banks.
On March 5, linguists at the National Security Agency, which had just created a branch to handle the issue of international terrorism, began to translate a newly intercepted message from the Iraqi mission at the United Nations. The message had been sent to Baghdad and relayed to the PLO. It contained the outlines of a murderous plan.
As the NSA started to read the message, a tow truck operator impounded
a 1973 Dodge Dart from the corner of 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue. The next morning, a 1972 Plymouth Duster at 47th Street and Fifth was towed away. Both had been ticketed for standing in a no-standing zone. An Olin rent-a-car supervisor came to the impound lot at a pier on the Hudson River to claim the Dart. He opened the trunk and stared in wonder.
A call went out to the New York Police Department’s bomb squad. Its best men raced to the lot. In the back of the Dart, and then the Duster, they found plastic containers filled with gasoline, propane tanks, blocks of Semtex plastic explosive, blasting caps, batteries, and fuses. On the dashboards lay Black September and PLO propaganda, wrapped in Hebrew news papers.
The bombs had been set to go off at noon on March 4. Had they exploded, they could have killed or maimed many hundreds of people, and terrorized many thousands more. But each had an identical flaw in the circuitry of its fuse.
The police had stumbled upon the first bomb plot in the war between Arab terrorists and the United States.
on March 6, the FBI joined the case. In Washington, the NSA told the Bureau about the coded message to Baghdad and warned that a third car bomb lay waiting outside the El Al terminal at JFK. Later that night, the FBI and the NYPD bomb squad found the Fury and opened the trunk.
The bomb at JFK was identical to the ones found in Manhattan, down to the faulty circuitry—but it was twice as big. Had it exploded as designed, it would have produced a fireball about fifty yards high and wide, and a destructive shock wave three times that size, ripping through the El Al terminal and into the surrounding tarmac. Airplanes at an altitude of a hundred yards or higher could have been knocked sideways.
The FBI lifted a fingerprint off the propane tank in the Fury. Eighteen years would pass before the Bureau matched the print with the bomb maker.
It only took a day for the FBI to discover that all three cars had been rented by the Iraqi whom the Bureau had interviewed weeks before. The FBI quickly traced the suspect’s travels to the Skyway Motel at JFK, where they found bomb-making components. They tracked a $1,500 bank transfer he had received from Beirut. They analyzed the handwriting on his rental car agreements and his application for flight instruction at the Teterboro School of Aeronautics.
But the agents missed the phony passport he had stuffed behind an air conditioner at the Skyway; a maintenance man found it months later. And they never found his accomplices. To this day, the two men remain the most likely suspects in the assassination of Yosef Alon, the Israeli air force attaché in Washington. Alon, a leading Israeli intelligence liaison with Washington, was shot dead outside his home in Maryland four months later. The FBI’s investigation of the killing was futile; the case remains officially unsolved.
On March 15, 1973, the FBI realized that the Iraqi with the Fury was responsible for all three bombs. The case against him was code-named TRIBOMB.
Six years later, the same man was stopped and questioned by the border police in Bavaria as he drove out of Germany. He was carrying a phony French passport. In the trunk of the car, police found nine more passports—along with eighty-eight pounds of explosives, eight sets of electronic timers and detonators, and $12,500 in United States currency. The wrapping on the explosives came from a pastry shop in Beirut that was a known front for terrorists. The suspect was jailed for seven months, and questioned by German and Israeli intelligence officers. He never broke. The Germans deported him to Syria. The FBI never knew.
The TRIBOMB investigation went cold. The case was fifteen years old when the FBI’s Mike Finnegan revived it. In October 1990, he had been on it for two years when he received a crucial tip. The United States and its allies were on the highest intelligence alert against Iraq. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait; the clock was ticking toward an American counterattack. The tip came in the form of fresh intelligence from the Israelis: the Iraqi suspect was Khalid Mohammed el-Jessem, a senior PLO lieutenant with close ties to Baghdad. The FBI put out a worldwide alert. It worked. The TRIBOMB suspect was detained on the day the first Gulf War started; he was traveling through the international airport in Rome, en route to Tunis, to attend the funeral of his close colleague, Salah Khalaf, a founder of Black September who had been assassinated after opposing Saddam Hussein.
The FBI still had the fingerprints from the bomb in the Fury. Finnegan sent them to the Italian police. They matched el-Jessem’s. The Italians arrested the suspect and, after a long legal wrangle, handed him over to the FBI.
On March 5, 1993, twenty years to the day after the TRIBOMB plot was first discovered, and a week after the first terrorist attack on the World
Trade Center, the Iraqi went on trial at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. His trial lasted three and a half days. The only issue for the jurors was the fingerprint evidence. They found him guilty in three hours. United States district judge Jack B. Weinstein gave him thirty years. “The work of the FBI was methodical and careful,” the judge said as he pronounced the sentence. “Its institutional memory was faultless. Its tenacity was impressive.” It had shown international terrorists that it had the power “to hunt them down anyplace in the world.”
It had taken the FBI a generation to meet that standard. But its powers as a secret intelligence service first had to be destroyed and reborn.
The destruction had started the week that the TRIBOMB case began.
As the Bureau began to face its first confrontation with international terrorism, a struggle for power had begun that would shake the government of the United States to its foundations. On one side of the rule of law stood the president; on the other stood the FBI.
The Bureau cannot survive, John,” President Nixon said to his White House counsel, John Dean, on March 1, 1973. “It cannot survive.”
To Nixon’s horror, L. Patrick Gray had offered to let members of the Senate read the FBI’s raw files on the Watergate investigation during his confirmation hearings. Nixon had believed that Gray wanted the job so badly he would do anything the White House commanded—including covering up the crimes of Watergate.
For Christ’s sake,” the president growled, “he must be out of his mind.”
The breach of secrecy was a surrender of power, like giving an enemy a sword. Nixon had a good idea what was in the FBI’s files, since Gray had been backhanding copies to John Dean for nine months. They contained evidence of an elaborate conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Nixon decided that he had made a terrible mistake. He began to plot to sabotage the nomination and regain control of the FBI. His plan was cold-blooded. He would leak horror stories about the Bureau’s political abuses under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, including the bugging of Martin Luther King. He had learned the details from Dean’s debriefing of Bill Sullivan—the newly installed director of the Office of National Narcotics Information at the Justice Department. The White House would
feed these stories to the Senate Judiciary Committee; the senators would use them to interrogate Gray. He could not answer them in candor. He would, in John Ehrlichman’s immortal phrase, twist slowly, slowly in the wind. His nomination would fail, and a more loyal man would be chosen to run the FBI.
On March 13, 1973, Dean proposed Bill Sullivan. Nixon liked the idea.
The quid pro quo with Sullivan is that he wants someday to be back in the Bureau very badly,” he said.
“That’s easy,” Nixon replied.
But as the president plotted, two FBI agents were sitting in the chambers of the Senate, holding the weapon that Gray had offered with an open hand.
The only member of the Judiciary Committee who had taken the time to read the raw Watergate files was Senator Roman Hruska, a law-and-order Republican from Nebraska. FBI agents delivered him twenty-six thick books, along with summaries and analyses, and he had spent six hours leafing through them, from four in the afternoon until ten at night. The senator had reached a conclusion, as FBI agent Angelo Lano reported to his superiors. “
Dean had lied to us” by concealing the contents of the office safe of the Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. Lying to the FBI was a crime punishable by five years in prison.
One of the FBI’s Watergate investigators slipped this information to Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who had openly opposed Gray’s nomination. Byrd stuck in the sword. On March 22, 1973, he asked Gray bluntly: did Dean deceive the FBI?
Gray replied: “
I would have to conclude that that probably is correct, yes, sir.” He did not reveal that he had destroyed the documents Dean had taken from the safe.
The president’s men convened in the Oval Office, filled with false bravado, after Gray’s devastating statement against Dean. Ehrlichman reported that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the FBI’s best friend in Congress, Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, had suspended the nomination hearings. “
Gray is dead on the floor,” Ehrlichman told the president. “He accused your counsel of being a liar,” Haldeman chimed in. “He may be dead,” said Dean, “ ’cause I may shoot him.” Laughter all around—the last laugh captured on the White House tapes.
Late on the evening of Sunday, April 15, Ehrlichman telephoned Gray at home with bad news. Facing indictment, John Dean had determined to
save himself by revealing his darkest secrets to a federal grand jury. “
Dean has apparently decided to make a clean breast of things,” Ehrlichman told Gray. “One of the questions that apparently they’ve been asking him is about the envelopes that he turned over to you.”
Gray was horrified. “What the hell am I going to do about that?” he said. “The only thing I can do with this is to deny it.”
Two days later, the FBI’s Watergate investigators, at Mark Felt’s command, knocked at the gates of the White House. “
I’m worried,” Ehrlichman told the president. “The FBI has just served a subpoena on our White House police.” It sought the names of the people who had been cleared to enter the White House on June 18, 1972.
Now what in the hell?
Where were we then?
Ah, June 18.
The day of the bugging … Well, maybe that’s the Hunt safe thing. I bet it’s the Hunt safe thing …