May 6, 2011


What if Osama Bin Laden Had Been Captured: Unlike bin Laden, the US managed to capture former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein alive. A Washington FBI agent then found himself with an unlikely assignment: Interrogate the captured dictator (Garrett M. Graff, April 2011, The Washingtonian)

FBI agent George Piro was driving south on the Fairfax County Parkway when his cell phone rang on Christmas Eve 2003. He knew immediately it was something big: "It was my section chief—my boss's boss," Piro says. The mission was quickly explained: Just months after returning from his first wartime deployment to Iraq, he was being ordered back. He had a new assignment: to interrogate Saddam Hussein.

Piro's path to Iraq had begun two years earlier, on September 11, 2001. Then the sole Arabic speaker in the FBI's Phoenix field office, he had watched the attacks on the television in the office gym. Piro's knowledge of Islamic extremism was unparalleled in the bureau. Born in Lebanon, he and his family lived through years of the civil war there before moving to California's San Joaquin Valley when he was 12. He already had a deeper understanding of the threat of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas than most counterterrorism experts. Drawn from the start to law enforcement—Air Force security police, then a police detective in California—he became an FBI agent in 1999.

On 9/11, the Phoenix field office had a single squad working all the various threads of international terror. Piro worked with Kenneth Williams, a more experienced agent, and they'd made some good cases in just two years, including the bureau's first prosecution of an Iranian agent for violating sanctions against Iran. In the summer of 2001, Williams, after his work with Piro, had sent FBI headquarters an "electronic communication" warning of Arab students taking flight lessons; the so-called "Phoenix memo" would be held up later as a missed opportunity before 9/11.

Starting just after 7 am in Phoenix on September 11, Piro watched the attacks unfold on TV. He quickly showered and headed upstairs to meet Williams, who had been through big cases before—he'd helped work the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Williams began to tell Piro what the coming days were likely to hold for the Phoenix office. As the attacks continued on the East Coast, the partners decided they didn't want to sit around waiting for an order. They knew Phoenix had the nation's second-highest concentration of flight schools. Piro opened the Yellow Pages and scanned the listings until he found three programs that offered commercial licenses. The two men set out.

Just then, Piro's cell phone rang. On the line was an agent at Boston's Logan Airport with a name from the flight manifest for the Phoenix team to check out: Hani Hanjour. I"'m holding his file in my hands right now," Piro said.

They raced back to the field office. "I've identified one of the hijackers," Piro told his squad leader.

"Get out of here—I don't have time for jokes today," his supervisor said.

Hanjour's file was just the beginning: A second hijacker also had trained nearby. And there were other suspicious individuals who hadn't been on the planes—were they lying in wait for a second wave? Warning bells went off as they examined the file of Faisal al-Salmi. He was Saudi, matched the age range of the other hijackers, had signed up for flight lessons along with Hanjour, but hadn't performed well. "If this guy ran into a cloud, he'd be dead," one flight instructor said of him.

On September 18, Piro and Williams knocked on al-Salmi's door. Over the next eight hours, the agents interrogated him, first at his apartment and then at the FBI field office.

"I was very uncomfortable with his statement," recalls Piro, who alternated between Arabic and English in his questioning. Initially al-Salmi denied any ties to Hanjour. By night's end, he admitted having had conversations with Hanjour. Al-Salmi, indicted for lying to federal agents, became the first arrest directly tied to the 9/11 investigation.

September was the beginning of a whirlwind for Piro and Williams, neither of whom took a day off until Thanksgiving—and got going again as soon as the turkey was eaten.

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Posted by at May 6, 2011 8:00 PM

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