31 March 2012
"The FBI. is a massive culture. It's been a culture that served America well, and it's been focused on prosecution. But what we need in terms of terrorism is prevention." - John Ashcroft
Terry McDermott is a writer I love and he’s never written a script. But he’s just come out with a non-fiction thriller called The Hunt for KSM.
Yes, it’s true, besides scripts I actually read books, magazine articles and newspapers and that’s where you’ll find the best of the skeptical Mr. McDermott. Until Sam Zell took over the L.A. Times in order to milk it of every penny and run it into the ground, you’d have found Terry there – a staff writer covering the important stories. It was in one of his articles in 2006 covering the nascent inklings of the future 2008 election that we became convinced that Obama would run, could win and was a candidate we could support. If Terry, the poster child for sardonic, came back a believer then who were we to doubt.
Terry’s enormous range spreads from sports, with a fabulous early article on a semi-pro baseball team in Iowa, to personal, going back to the tiny village in China where his wife Millie was born, to local politics with an article on the Rampart Division, to science with the best elaboration on brain research that I had ever read, an article that finally explained to me what my husband had been toiling over for the last 40 years (we don’t discuss it at home because I don’t get it and never have); to international politics and the 9/11 Hijackers.
Out of the brain research article came the much lauded book 101 Theory Drive about scientist Gary Lynch’s search for the mechanism of memory. Out of the article on the 9/11 Hijackers came Perfect Soldiers, which Michiko Kakutami of The New York Times called the best book about the hijackers to appear in the last decade.
And finally, his article in the New Yorker entitled “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the Making of 9/11” became source material for the new non-fiction thriller that Terry and his co-writer Josh Meyer have written, The Hunt for KSM. Terrifying and true at every turn, The Hunt for KSM documents in chilling detail the failings of our multiple government agencies and their stunning inability to work together for a common cause – the fight against terrorism. Like the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle, the hunt for Bin Laden sabotaged and camouflaged the hunt for the man who gave Bin Laden the keys to the kingdom, essentially as his shill. While Bin Laden was off taking credit and generating press releases, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was creating terrorists throughout the Muslim world (and that’s a large place) all while hiding in plain sight.
The Hunt for KSM reads like the thriller it is and you’ll find it hard to put down. It’s visual, the pacing is relentless, the near-misses are non-stop and there’s a true hero at the forefront, FBI agent Frank Pellegrino.
Terry: The official date was March 26, but it was actually available before that through Amazon and possibly other places, too.
Neely: Do you have any speaking engagements lined up?
Terry: I gave a speech to the World Affairs Council last week. I’m also doing some bookstore signings and some radio interviews… things like that.
Neely: Anything local we can attend?
Terry: Yes, I’m reading at Booksmith in San Francisco on April 5, Vroman’s in Pasadena on April 16 and Pages in Manhattan Beach on April 20. I try to keep a current schedule at www.thehuntforksm.com.
Neely: How did the speech at the World Affairs Council go?
Terry: It went well… fine. It’s kind of a weird group. They send you an instruction sheet beforehand and it mentions that they have had 250 heads of State speak to them (laughing) like Prime Ministers and Presidents and… me. (Neely laughs loudly, not offensively, well maybe a little). But it went fine. They’re a very interested audience with good questions. They actually have fairly good food, too. I was shocked!
Neely: Where was it?
Terry: At the Luxe. It’s right off of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, at the 405. It’s a cool place – great place to go for a drink sometime.
Neely: They serve a great brunch there. Fyvush Finkel, an actor on “Boston Public” used to live at the Luxe when he was in L.A. and invited us once.
Will you and Josh be speaking together at various venues or how will that work?
Terry: It’s split up. He’s doing the East Coast and I’m doing West Coast.
Neely: Is he East Coast based?
Terry: Yeah. He’s in Washington.
Neely: I guess that makes sense when you’re cutting costs.
Obviously there was always the potential for a book in the hunt for KSM, but how did you find the specific focus which seems to be the lack of communication and cooperation between U.S. agencies.
Terry: Josh and I both started reporting on KSM early in 2002, and along with another L.A. Times reporter, Patrick McDonell, we did the first substantive stories about him in the summer of 2002, followed by a big profile of him that December. And almost since that time, Josh has been wanting to write a KSM book.
I went off and did other things. I did the hijacker book (Perfect Soldiers) and then did the memory book (101 Theory Drive), but about every year or so he’d call me and say we needed to do that KSM book. What I always said, at the time, was that there wasn’t enough material. It was so hard to find stuff about the guy.
Then in 2010, when I was doing a New Yorker profile of KSM, Josh called me again and said the same thing. And I said, again, nothing had changed. I could hardly find enough stuff to fill a magazine piece about him, much less a book. And then Josh said, “It’s not about him. It’s about them – the guys chasing him.” I said, “Oh shit, why didn’t you say so five years ago?”(Neely laughs)
That was a much more obvious book. The difficulty there was that none of those people had ever been willing to talk. But Josh thought we could get cooperation from them now because it looked, at that point, like they were actually going to put the guy on trial.
If you recall, the Obama administration had come in and promised to close Guantanamo and bring the prisoners into the American courts. Attorney General Holder had, in fact, announced the trial of KSM and four other guys for the New York Southern District. So that seemed to be pointing to the end of the road and the people who had been chasing and investigating KSM since ’93 agreed to talk. Of course, in the interim, before the book could be written, the trial was scuttled and the people who had agreed to talk said they didn’t want to talk and it became quite a struggle. But the idea of following the investigation as they pursued him was there from the very beginning when we started working on the book. I mean that was the idea for the book.
The dysfunction among these different factions just came out of the reporting. We didn’t know anything of that when we started. You always know that the FBI and the CIA aren’t going to get along whenever they’re working together or against one another. At the bottom they are just fundamentally different organizations and the characteristics of them couldn’t be farther apart.. The easiest, maybe flip way to characterize them is that the FBI agents are sticklers. What they do is make cases; they gather evidence and make cases and take people to trial. They’re very rule-bound; they have all these manuals and forms and it’s the most bureaucratic organization you could ever imagine. And they’re honest to a fault. I mean these guys, they have to get up in court and testify. That’s what they do. They bring evidence to a federal prosecutor, the prosecutor brings a case and they bring the agents in to testify. So they’re trained to be rigid in adhering to the truth. And CIA agents are trained to lie.
So you’ve got people who are doing things whose whole way of looking at the world is completely different. The FBI looks backwards; they’re looking for evidence of a crime. And the CIA is looking forward; they’re looking to the future to see how they can shape the world. They are fundamentally opposed. Anytime you’re going to be working with both of them, you know there are going to be problems.
Neely: I want to go back to something you said earlier. When it looked like they were finally going to put KSM on trial, people opened up and started talking. Then they clammed up. But you did get them talking. What was the linchpin? How did you get them talking?
Terry: That was Josh. I always joked that if I had to get information from the CIA that I’d have to get out the phone book to find the phone number. The basic division was that Josh did the cops and the robbers and I did the “on the ground” stuff. I spent a lot of time over a number of years in Pakistan and the Middle East knocking on doors.
The people in the book who are at the center of the story – Frank Pellegrino, an FBI agent and Matt Basheer, a Port Authority detective – were cultivated by Josh. He was persistent. He’s a very persistent guy. And they had a reason to want to talk. They also had reasons not to. I mean Pellegrino started chasing KSM in 1993 and obviously didn’t catch him in time to stop 9/11. He was still looking for him when 9/11 happened. Pellegrino was out of the country, overseas chasing a clue. So he, in particular, felt this burden of guilt for the whole thing. He wanted in some way, as people often do, he wanted to talk about it partly as a way to relieve some of the guilt, I guess.
I’ve always been astonished as a reporter that when something horrible happens, like a terrible crime or a tragedy of some sort, people are usually willing to talk about it. It always surprises me. As a young reporter you’re kind of afraid to go up to people in most circumstances and ask them because you think that you’re interfering. But a lot of people actually want to talk. It’s probably happened to me a couple of dozen times in my life where I’ve been in somebody’s living room and walked in, never having known them, and some terrible thing has happened. Someone in the family has committed a terrible crime and you’re sitting there and in 10 minutes the husband is telling you these dark secrets, tears pouring down his face, and you look at the wife and she’s never heard any of this before. They’ve been married 20 years and you’ve just walked in the room. It’s just the damnedest thing. And it’s not just the husband’s talking and the wife’s listening, it could be the other way around, too. It’s just that generally people are waiting to be asked, to a certain extent. Sometimes they have to be asked many times, but most people want to tell their stories.
Neely: I know these were Josh’s contacts, but did you get a chance to talk to Pellegrino and some of the other players in this situation?
Terry: Nope. Never met ‘em.
Neely: Did you have to go through a cleansing period with this. What I mean to say, was there information in an earlier draft that “They” wouldn’t let you publish?
Terry: There’s a lot of massaging that goes on and a lot of discussion about how things would be sourced. So more than taking stuff out, you try to find ways to leave it in, but satisfy everybody who doesn’t want to be identified.
Neely: There are clear heroes and clear villains in the piece (and KSM isn’t the only villain). I’m amazed at how forthright some of your sources seemed to be. How do you get someone to talk who probably shouldn’t be talking? How do you do that?
Terry: You talk to them. You just talk. You have different needs. It’s almost always the case that a source has a different agenda about whatever you’re writing than you do, but lots of sources persuade themselves that you have the same desires; that your aims are the same. But they’re not. Your loyalty is to the story and the source’s loyalty is to himself or herself. So you have to convince them of the worthiness of your goal. And sometimes what you appeal to is that this is history; this is a record of what happened. So it’s not just their idea of what happened, you’re trying to get the best sense from everybody of what happened.
People disagree and disagree honestly about events. Human recollection is imperfect and an individual’s knowledge of what happened is grossly imperfect so, as a reporter, you’ll often have more information than even the principles do. You talk to so many other people and they’ve probably never talked to anybody. So your job is to persuade them that your loyalty is to the historical record and that’s what you’re trying to do.
Neely: I know this wasn’t an easy birth. The Swansons and the McDermotts took a joint vacation this past summer renting a house in the south of France. And most of what you saw was the backyard because you were up at dawn working on your laptop with only occasional breaks for meals and trips to the internet café. As a matter of fact, it seemed as you were traveling under a dark cloud from the moment you got on the plane. You want to tell that story?
Terry: No. (Neely laughs really loudly because it’s a funny answer and because it’s very much Terry.) I don’t even want to think about it (Terry laughs). Yeah, it was a mess. You know, the book kept changing… actually the book didn’t exist because the sources who had agreed to talk when the trial seemed imminent then disagreed to talk when the trial was removed. So we were sitting there in the Spring with no book. (Terry laughs again). I wouldn’t say we were close to panic time but we were. We didn’t begin to actually get the story, the coordinates or path of the book, until maybe about a year ago, maybe March and April of last year. So after 6 or 8 months of a really horrible lack of information and dead-end reporting, we finally started to get stuff. Then we got a lot of stuff and a lot of different stuff that we never anticipated. The information for at least half of the book was brand new last Spring. I had done some early drafting of the first portions of the book which we threw away because it was made useless by the new information. So when we got on a plane to go to France in June, I started writing the book anew.
The only good thing about long plane rides is that you have time to actually do something. So over the transatlantic flight I got a lot of work done and wrote a whole chapter, maybe part of another one. I’d written maybe 4 or 5,000 words which is a lot of words to write in a day and really felt like I was doing great. And then, I guess it was on the connecting flight, I was feeling really good about everything and as we’re getting ready to land, the woman who was sitting in front of me started getting a big bag out of the overhead. Her husband was sitting right next to her and he’s not doing anything, so I asked if I could help her. That bag was right over my head and it didn’t look to me like she was going to be able to handle it. “No, no, no. It’s fine,” she said. So I’m sitting there with my laptop and the beginnings of this book and a cup of coffee and she drops the goddamn bag on my lap, hitting the laptop and knocking the coffee across the keyboard. Of course it went dead. And she doesn’t even say she was sorry! It was remarkable. I’d never seen such an insensitive person in my life. So by the time we got to France, I had nothin’ except a dead laptop.
I had no idea what I was going to do – buy a computer, I guess. But the computer revived itself once we got it dried out and, remarkably, I didn’t lose anything. I was able to continue with what I had on the plane. So while we were in France for 3 weeks, I got a lot of work done. I didn’t see much of France, but I didn’t really have much of a choice.
I thought Josh and I would be able to get an extension on the deadline for the book, which it turns out was due at the end of July, two weeks after we would get back from France. Well there was no way I was ever going to be able to write 100,000 words in 5 or 6 weeks. They gave us a one month extension until the end of August and I still wasn’t done. I’d written maybe 60% of the book by then and the publisher was pretty angry. But they read it and liked it and gave us another month. So I wrote the rest of the book in August and turned it in in September. The whole book basically was written in late June through August. I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody.
The book is complicated. It takes place in a lot of different locations around the world. I don’t know how many different characters are in it but there are probably a hundred. And there are way more than that who aren’t in the book who contributed information. There are several thousand source documents; just loads of information that’s distilled in the book. And doing that in less than three months is… you barely have time to do anything but breathe. Once you get into a writing fugue, you can really roll, but that was dumb.
Neely: I’m actually going to change my opinion here. Whereas I was thinking of the dark cloud because of the coffee on the computer and the deadlines, in reality, you were traveling under whatever the opposite of a dark cloud is. Gifted…
Terry: …sunny skies!
Neely: Sunny skies! Because you triumphed over every rocky adversity that was put in your path and produced one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s absolutely thrilling and I got to watch you type and you couldn’t give me shit for about three months. It was like a heavenly respite in our whole relationship.
Terry: (laughing) Yeah, well that’s over.
Neely: (cackling) Don't I know it!
So, this is such a Hollywood story. Has there been any interest?
Terry: There was interest but we haven’t gotten anywhere. The Bin Laden movie that was already in production is taking up all the air right now. You know better than I how that works.
Neely: Well this is not your typical boy meets girl story; they’re not going to greenlight two terrorist hunts into production at the same time before they see what happens with the first one. They still feel that Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker” was an anomaly and complete surprise, which is the only reason I think that they would have been willing to greenlight something they considered risky in the first place.
Terry: Right. And “Hurt Locker” didn’t make any money either, so it’s actually a negative. I don’t know. I guess we have to wait and see what happens with the Bigelow movie. It’s too bad because this is very cinematic and I think it’s actually a better story in a lot of ways than the Bin Laden story.
Neely: I think it’s a lot better, plus I don’t know what her source material is.
Terry: They got access to the SEAL team. There had been a search for Bin Laden as well. It also occurred over a long period of time before 9/11 and those people would be available to talk, or at least some of them, mainly CIA, would have been. But we’ve talked to some of those same people.
I think that’s what they were originally writing – the failure to catch him. So they did that early research and I think they already had a screenplay. I’m sure it’ll be excellent; I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.
Neely: It’s the shortsightedness. There’s room for two thrillers.
Terry: Right. You actually have real life characters here. You don’t have to make people up. There were real people chasing this guy. And not only that, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was traveling the world. He was trying to buy frozen chicken legs in Brazil. He was learning how to drill caves in the mountains in Japan. He was all over the place. He was smuggling bomb parts onto an airplane in Korea. Bin Laden was sitting in a cave in Afghanistan. There’s not a lot of dynamism there. (Neely giggles).
You’ve got these guys chasing KSM and the key break in the whole pursuit of him prior to 9/11 was from letters that Khalid Sheikh had sent to a bar girl in Manila. He’d used the envelope with the return address (Terry chuckling) of the Ministry of the Interior in Doha. He whited out the return address but the cops were able to figure out that it was a Wite-out and took the stuff off and there it was. They almost caught him in 1996 because they tracked him down to Doha and were all set to pick him up. It probably would have stopped 9/11 if they had been able to do it. But they waited too long and he got away.
There are a lot of moving parts in this story; it’s actually fun, in a way. It’s this great global chase.
Neely: Certainly one of the things that was always appealing to me was that global aspect. And in any kind of cinematic adaptation, you really have to focus on a particular story and one particular group of characters. And what you have in Pellegrino is a focus with a real hero and a real ticking bomb. Somewhere along the line someone will get that. It’s just so evident. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but someone is going to get it.
Terry: Yeah, I actually think it’s the best 9/11 story I’ve seen and that’s not just because I’m involved in it. It gives the reader a place to stand. There’s a character you can root for. Most of the other stories… I wrote an earlier 9/11 book on the hijackers (note: the excellent Perfect Soldiers) and there’s nobody to root for. It’s just a bunch of bad guys. I’m really proud of that book and it has great reporting in it and I like the way it turned out, but, you know, it’s hard to find a place to stand there.
I agree when you say that the KSM story is a natural because I think that sooner or later it would make a good film.
Neely: And I think Perfect Soldiers was a brilliant book. It was an absolute page turner, but you’re right, you’re just not going to make a movie about Mohammed Atta.
Terry: Right. Right. There’s nobody to root for.
Neely: I want everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Hunt for KSM and send back their comments. We only mentioned Pellegrino and Basheer, but there’s also a great kick-ass female FBI agent named Jenny Keenan who gives the guys a run for their money.
So let’s break here and pick up on some of your earlier work next week.