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The Accidental Witness 

Puzzling run-ins with NBC and the FBI

Wednesday, Feb 13 2002
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Brian Seifert, a 44-year-old computer specialist, has been indicted on suspicion of filing a false terrorist complaint in the days after September 11. Seifert told the FBI that a Middle Eastern man came into his computer-consulting business and gave him disks showing how to drive fuel tanker trucks into churches, synagogues and shopping malls, but when pressed, Seifert changed his story, implicating a second man in a bar. The FBI says neither story has a shred of truth.

Rather amazingly, this is not the first time Seifert has come forward with such an elaborate tale. Back in 1989, as U.S. troops invaded Panama, Seifert said he got a call in the middle of the night from NBC seeking his eyewitness account of the scene at the Marriott Hotel in Panama City. The only problem: Seifert had actually been at home asleep in Indianapolis and knew nothing about the invasion until, he alleges, his handlers at NBC dictated the script. Seifert’s version of the NBC intrigue was turned into a play by L.A. TV writer Glen Merzer, and The Sizemore Interviews (named after his assumed identity in the NBC interviews) had a brief run in Los Angeles at Hudson Guild Theater last March.

Seifert sees himself as the victim of the FBI in much the same way as he says NBC duped him and its viewers. ”It‘s just unbelievable,“ says Seifert today. ”I’m just absolutely stunned. I feel like a lightning rod. I swear, this will not happen to me again. If anything comes across [my desk], I‘ll tell them, ’Get it the fuck out of my face.‘ I don’t give a shit, I don‘t care, it’s too much stress. My kid called me crying the other day -- ‘Dad, what’s going to happen to you in all this?‘ It was all I could do to keep my chin up. But I’m so mad now, I just told him, ‘Don’t worry, I‘m going to fight it.’ It‘s going to cost me a hundred grand.“

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Contrary to stories in his hometown paper, Seifert says he has not confessed, and accused the FBI of trying to make him a scapegoat for its failure to find the terrorists in question. Seifert’s initial claims made it as far as Vice President Dick Cheney.

Seifert says he fudged the detail about the initial source of the computer disks out of fear for his safety, after the FBI reneged on a promise of confidentiality. He says he got the disks from an American he met in the bar and not a Middle Eastern client of his computer-consulting business. He says the disks showed up in his mailbox a week after his visit to the bar, where the American pointed out some Middle Eastern men plotting the crimes. The disks should offer ample evidence, he says, that he hasn‘t dreamed up the whole thing.

Seifert, who says he will plead not guilty, faces trial March 25 in Indianapolis. If convicted, he could be fined $250,000 and sentenced to five years in a federal prison.

This is the second time Seifert has stumbled into the news. In the early-morning hours of December 20, 1989, as U.S. troops landed in Panama, Seifert says he was awakened by a phone call from NBC studios in New York City and provided with a fantastic identity and back story: He was a businessman from Southern California staying at the Panama City Marriott; there was gunfire, a20 tanks in the street, fires in the distance, and Noriega’s ”dignity battalions“ were roaming the corridors and dragging Americans from their rooms. And then before he fully grasped the situation, he was ”patched through to Brokaw,“ and found himself in three live, on-air phone interviews with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel.

For its part, NBC professes no knowledge of the veiled conspiracy alleged by Seifert. ”All I know,“ says David McCormick, NBC ombudsman, ”is that this is like the lunar eclipse -- it seems to come around every three or four years . . . We tried to check the allegations at the time, and we could never confirm anything. I‘ve always believed that there is a real possibility that we had been hoaxed. I’m not saying that‘s the case, but I certainly think it’s a possibility. That‘s certainly a question, and one I’d like answered. If there had even been a whiff of this sort of thing in the newsroom, we would have taken measures to correct it. All you‘ve really got in this business is your credibility.“

So preposterous do Seifert’s claims appear at first glance that, despite 10 years of trying to tell his story, no reputable media outlet would touch it. Bolstering Seifert‘s story are disturbing coincidences and evidence: Tapes of the broadcast secured independently from NBC feature what sounds like Seifert’s voice, and in 1998 an independent voice-identification analysis conducted by Michael C. McDermott of Great Falls, Virginia, confirmed it was Seifert on the videotape and that it had not been altered. Seifert‘s phone bills show outgoing calls to various NBC extensions on the day of the second and third interviews, and their times correspond to a time log and synopsis of the evening’s broadcast later supplied by NBC. None of the events ”Sizemore“ is describing on the tape can be heard in the background, and at no time was correspondent Ed Rabel, also broadcasting from the Panama City Marriott, ever dispatched to try to find him. There is also an obvious excision early in the first tape, during which Seifert claims Brokaw asked him biographical questions that would have made him easier to locate -- a claim supported by other observers at the time.

And then there is the case of Roger Nelson, a second caller identified as a USC student, also at the Panama City Marriott. Seifert speculates that this was the original shill whom NBC intended to contact, now threatened with losing his one moment of glory: His one on-air phone call is drowned in a severe echo. His eyewitness claims are all easily proved as specious, his on-air performance is an unmitigated disaster, and he is not heard from again. For the record, there was no Roger Nelson enrolled at USC in 1989, and there is no record of a Roger Sizemore found to be living anywhere in Southern California, nor has NBC ever been able to produce him.

Seifert, in an interview last year, remembered just how strange the calls got with NBC. ”The last time I got a call, they were wondering if I could get hold of a starter pistol, to add a little more drama. And that‘s when I thought, ’This is too nuts.‘ I just kind of paused, and that’s when I told them, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna go on with this any further. You guys got the wrong Roger.‘ I said, ’It‘s been fun, but . . .’ And there was a silence for a long, long time. And they said, ‘Shit -- come on.’ And I said, ‘No, really. You got a guy from Indiana.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how you misdialed my number, but I‘m done.’“

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