The Ticking Stopwatch
THE LAPD's DEPUTY CHIEFS and commanders shift restlessly when 44-year-old John Miller, the just-appointed head of the department's new Bureau of Homeland Security, walks to the microphone for his first address to the troops. It doesn't help that he looks exactly like what he was until a few weeks ago the former anchor of ABC's 20/20 with Barbara Walters
But he was also NYPD's deputy police commissioner for public affairs during Chief William Bratton's New York police-commissioner days; he trekked through Afghanistan for ABC to interview Osama bin Laden in 1998, and worked for years for WNBC, New York, reporting on mobsters and domestic terrorists.
"Last week I was reviewing a manual about undercover operations," Miller begins his talk with a steady voice. "It discussed in detail how to blend into the community, how to pick a location to live, what kind of clothing to wear, what kind of job to get in order not to arouse suspicion. The thing that worries me is that it was not an LAPD manual, or an NYPD manual. It was an al Qaeda manual that was found in a European safe house . . ."
The room is suddenly silent as Miller ticks off all his other "worries" the barely foiled millennial plot to blow up LAX, the information he's gotten from debriefing al Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, the specter of suicide bombers walking into the Sherman Oaks Galleria.
It is a savvy performance. But a slew of questions remain. Back at his office on the sixth floor of Parker Center, Miller handles them deftly as I volley inquiries in his direction.
L.A. WEEKLY: The LAPD already has an Anti-Terrorist Division. Why do we need you and a new Homeland Security Bureau?
JOHN MILLER: Look, the work that ATD does is the highest quality. But having an Anti-Terrorist Division of detectives who follow leads is not enough to protect this city's infrastructure from the current threat. Prior to Chief Bratton arriving, L.A. was not living in the reality of a post-September 11 world. To give one example, the LAPD needs to have a cadre of people who are developing target folders for the 500 or so locations that are considered reasonably high-threat locations. All those things that are the no-brainers in the anti- terrorism business weren't being done, because there was an attitude that it's just not gonna happen here.
Let's talk about those 500 major targets . . .
We rank them according to a scoring system that is based on certain criteria: Has this been the kind of target hit by al Qaeda before? Is this a target that we know has been cased by al Qaeda in other cities? Is this a strong economic target, or an infrastructure target like a power plant? Is this a symbolic target?
The chief is asking the City Council for a million dollars to get your bureau up and running $500,000 of which is slated for "office furniture." When we're cutting millions out of health care and schools, aren't those priorities off just a bit?
We have around a hundred people working in this bureau. We need at least another hundred, and those officers have to sit at desks. And they need computers. A million dollars is hardly a staggering figure to create a department when the threat is this high . . . After September 11, the NYPD took 1,000 officers, and they put them toward [anti-terrorism], and they said this is the department's top priority. People here don't get it, in part, I think, because they don't have the same emotional connection to September 11 that New York has, because no part of downtown Los Angeles was turned into a multiacre ashtray.
Okay, you were in a very high-profile job as the anchor of 20/20. Now you have to beg for money to pay for desks. Why did you take this position?
I came here because of Bratton. He's one of those leaders who people tend to follow. He develops talent. And the chance to work for him again was challenging, and in many ways irresistible.
Yet you must have taken a pretty huge pay cut. At least we hope you took a huge pay cut.
Let's put it this way: On my former salary I could have bought all that furniture and those computers myself.
As a non-cop who has been catapulted to a command position in law enforcement, what kind of resistance have youencountered?
Actually, the biggest difficulty I've had has been with the press. They seem to be saying, "My God! They gave one of us a serious job! What were they thinking?!" Police officers are easier. They can tell if you're faking. But the way I see it is if anybody still has an attitude about me being here get past it, because this is a critical mission, and it has to unfold now.
In your book, The Cell, you wrote that what the FBI didn't understand when they arrested the head of the Nairobi cell of al Qaeda was that an al Qaeda soldier was eminently replaceable. Does that principle apply to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda leader who was arrested last Saturday?
It does. But it's like with the Rams. You can replace any player. But if you lose your best quarterback, the guy you replace him with may not be as good. KSM was a superstar terrorist. The next guy may be efficient and creative. But I think they lost their quarterback. I don't kid myself, though. Whatever plans he set in motion a year, even two years, ago might still be coming to fruition. Right now, you have a significant portion of the hierarchy in custody. But there are a bunch of highly effective guys still out there Haroun Fazul, who executed the bombing plan in Kenya, Tawfiq bin-Atash, who managed the bombing of the USS Cole, to name a few.
How does this arrest affect your day-to-day work in L.A.?
One of our prime concerns is to drill down through the channels with our colleagues at the FBI's joint terrorist task force to find out if anything in KSM's computers or records has a nexus to the West Coast, specifically Los Angeles.
Okay, what do you know so far?
I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.
Well, how does information travel in the anti-terrorism business? Are you going to get a call from CIA chief George Tenet if something really strange is going on?
I hope so. But I've always done best by shooting low. The bottom of those organizations is often better informed and more responsive.
If President Bush gets his way and the Patriot Act II is passed, allowing secret arrests and gag orders on those receiving subpoenas in the course of terrorist investigations, will you find yourself in, shall we say, one or two tricky situations?
You mean, because I'm a member of the "liberal media" who is now the titular head of the Anti-Terrorist Division that's had its own dark period, is it going to get interesting? Historically, whenever the LAPD was given some secret intelligence function, they took it and ran amok. But, I think my compass is pretty good, and the chief's compass is very good. I mean if, God forbid, there should be a time that we're at war and there were two or three terrorist attacks, I'm confident we're not going to suddenly turn into J. Edgar Hoover and start spying on people. On the other hand, if the U.S. marshals wanted to come in and make arrests under the direction of the attorney general, there's not much we'd be able to do about it.
You've been following Osama bin Laden since you interviewed him in 1998. What did you read into the tape released on February 10?
When the war in Afghanistan started and bin Laden released several videotapes saying America should never feel safe, Condoleezza Rice called the networks and said, "You should not broadcast these tapes. There are coded messages." I went back and played the tapes again, and said, "He's telling people to go out and kill Americans whenever and wherever they can find them. Where's the code part?" It's not subtle.
Do you think the tapes are foreshadowing events? Triggering them? Or just some generalized form of terrorist cheerleading?
Well, the pattern seems to be: Around two to six weeks after we get one of these messages, there's an event. After his interview with ABC, we had the embassy bombings. In 2000, he released a tape, and three weeks later, the USS Cole was attacked. He released a tape in August of 2001 saying the brothers have told me that there is a great surprise coming for me; three weeks later there was the September 11 attack. Last fall, Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's number two, released a tape that said those who have helped the United States will be made to pay, and right after that there was the attack on Bali. Then bin Laden himself released a tape, and three or four weeks later there was an attack on Mombassa.
How spooked should we be in the coming weeks and months?
Let's just say that, when bin Laden released this most recent communiqué, I started my stopwatch.
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