Now that the media and political dust has settled regarding the Boston bombing investigation, a failure by our intelligence agencies to properly “track” the Tsarnaev brothers seems like an inescapable factor. So a reminder of how the FBI once handled these matters might be good for the soul:
“I’ve got Suero and Garcia in sight,” reported Special Agent John Malone to Assistant FBI director Alan Belmont. “Can arrest them easily.”
“Anything on Santiesteban?” asked Belmont, who sat just down the hall from J. Edgar Hoover.
“We have the area around the U.N. staked out but haven’t spotted him yet,” answered Malone who ran the FBI’s New York field office.
“Then hold off,” ordered a tense Belmont.
The date was November 17, 1962 and the FBI wanted a clean sweep of the three top plotters, all Cuban agents. The night before–relying on their bedrock tool of human intelligence: moles, snitches–they’d pieced together the plot puzzle. The resulting picture must have staggered the FBI men. These men had served at their posts during WWII and the height of the Cold War and seen plenty. But this?!
The Castro brothers’ and Che Guevara’s agents had targeted Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdales, and Manhattan’s Grand Central Station with a dozen incendiary devices and 500 kilos of TNT. The Holocaust was set for detonation the following week, on the day after Thanksgiving.
Some perspective: for their March 2004 Madrid subway blasts, all 10 of them, that killed and maimed almost 2,000 people, al-Qaeda used a grand total of 100 kilos of TNT. Castro and Che’s agents planned to set off five times that explosive power in the three biggest department stores on earth, all packed to suffocation and pulsing with holiday cheer on the year’s biggest shopping day. Macy’s gets 50,000 shoppers that one day. Thousands of New Yorkers, including women and children—actually, given the date and targets, probably mostly women and children—were to be incinerated and entombed.
The FBI agents and officers were haggard and red-eyed –but seriously wired. Like hawks on a perch they’d been watching the plot unfold, sweating bullets the whole time. It was nearing time to swoop down on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s agents, busy with a terror plot that would have made Bin Laden drool decades later.
Alan Belmont was second to J. Edgar Hoover at the time. Raymond Wannall headed the Bureau’s Intelligence Division. That nerve-jangling dawn both were in Belmont’s office just down the hall from Hoover’s communicating with John Malone and his New York field agents. These were busily “tracking” the plotters in Manhattan, keeping a touch-and-go, but more or less constant, surveillance on the ringleaders of the Castroite terror plot.
“Suero and Garcia getting skittish,” reported a worried Malone to FBI headquarters after two more hours of his “tracking.”
“Hold off” said Belmont. “We want Santiesteban too.”
“We were sure happy we weren’t ones forced to make those decisions,” recalled Raymond Wannall, who headed the FBI’s Intelligence divison and was in on the calls with Malone. “If we botched it, Mr. Hoover would not have been happy. We knew Al could feel Mr Hoover’s unseen pressure right over his shoulder that entire night and early morning.”
“We’ve got Mr. Three (Santiesteban) in sight,” blurted Malone an hour later.