Counterterrorism with Retired FBI Agent Neil Herman
Play • 1 hr 4 min

Neil Herman is a retired FBI agent and was one of the lead investigators involved with US counterterrorism operations after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He worked for the FBI from 1974 until his retirement in July of 1998, and he is currently a resident of Somers. Today Herman joins host Brett Freeman to discuss the many incidents of international and domestic terrorism that he investigated over the course of his distinguished career with the FBI. He begins with a detailed timeline of terrorism cases he worked in New York City through the 1970s to the 1990s, including the Unabomber investigation, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and the murder of Meir Kahane in 1990. He then recounts the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and explains how this ultimately led to the tragedy of 9/11.

Herman shares his own personal experience of watching the events of September 11, 2001 unfold on television, and his initial hunch that al-Qaeda was responsible. He speaks about the toll that terrorism investigations can take on both victims and agents, and explains why cooperation between local, federal, and international law enforcement is so essential when working these cases. Freeman asks Herman what mistakes our federal government made leading up to 9/11, how he feels about current events in Afghanistan and having unvetted refugees in our country, and how he became one of the first in America to learn who Osama bin Laden was. Herman offers his perspective on whether the Patriot Act has been used in excess, our position in Guantanamo Bay, and what lies ahead for the future of terrorism in America. He reflects on the cyclical nature of international and domestic terrorism, and shares his concerns about declining support toward law enforcement, as well as misinformation being perpetuated on social media. 


Finally, you’ll hear about the great personal sacrifices made by Herman’s family throughout his career, the invaluable relationships he developed during his time as an agent, and how his early experience in journalism school helped him transition to his post with the FBI. Herman concludes with what he loves most about living in Somers, and explains why moving there was one of the best decisions he ever made for himself and his family following his retirement from law enforcement.


Episode Highlights:

  • Today’s guest is retired FBI agent and Somers resident Neil Herman 
  • Herman joined the FBI in 1971, became a Special Agent in 1973, and was transferred to New York in 1974
  • This is when the modern age of international and domestic terrorism began (Summer Olympics in Munich, Puerto Rican Independence Movement, LaGuardia Airport Bombing, car bomb at Dupont Circle, Croatian Movement)
  • Weather Underground Task Force was formed under Ken Walton and Bob McGuire in May 1980; this was responsible for investigating domestic and international acts of terrorism
  • The Weather Underground terrorist group, in conjunction with the Black Liberation Army, killed a Brinks security guard and two police officers on October 20, 1981
  • Herman was involved with investigations such as the Unabomber case, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, the murder of Meir Kahane in 1990, and the first World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993
  • The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 set the tone for what became of international terrorism around the world
  • Several defendants fled the country - each extradition had to be coordinated through the Justice Department
  • Ramzi Yosef was one of the main perpetrators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing
  • The most significant bridge between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and 9/11 was the Bojinka Plot, which was a large-scale, three-phase terrorist attack planned by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for January 1995
  • Herman was also involved with the TWA Flight 800 case, in which a Boeing 747-100 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, on July 17, 1996
  • The final conclusion was that there was a center fuel tank explosion, which was not caused by a bomb
  • The 1990s concluded with a series of bombings in East Africa in 1998 - there was a massive investigation by the FBI with East African governments overseas because of the connection to ongoing cases in New York
  • On September 11, 2001, Herman was in Somers and watched the tragedy unfold on television
  • An act of terrorism itself only takes a split second, but the resulting investigation takes many, many years to develop
  • It generally takes a toll on the agents and investigators - it becomes very personal for them
  • It was always important to Herman to deal with victims’ families with sensitivity and understanding for what they had been through
  • Agents who work international or domestic terrorism cases have specialized expertise in that area
  • Cooperation between local, federal, and international government agencies is also essential
  • Herman acknowledges that leading up to 9/11, there was a breakdown in communication between various agencies, but these events took place over a very long period of time
  • In a free society, it’s difficult to prevent these kinds of acts from happening
  • Domestic terrorism is not a new phenomena - when extreme groups become violent and take on government officials, combined with current political polarization, it’s a perfect storm
  • Our role in Afghanistan is complicated and really started to evolve in 2001
  • Refugees need to be properly vetted or that can create other problems
  • Herman believes the world of terrorism has moved around all over the world
  • With terrorism, it’s crucial to stay ahead of the process and prevent these acts from happening before the bombs go off
  • Herman was among the first in America to learn who Osama bin Laden was
  • There were events and warning signs leading up to 9/11 - it did not just happen in a vacuum
  • One of the defendants involved in 9/11 fled to Iraq and has never been located - he was likely killed
  • There will always be people who believe the US overextended the Patriot Act following 9/11 - Herman acknowledges that it is a very complicated situation and he cannot say definitively whether it was right or wrong
  • He has grave reservations about the continuation of our position in Guantanamo Bay
  • Declassifying information needs to be part of the process so that victims and the American people know the extent of what truly happened with these crimes
  • General area of terrorism is cyclical - the public became skeptical of political officials following Watergate and guidelines were put in place after many felt the government had overreached
  • Herman believes domestic terrorism is an issue in our society, and law enforcement needs to be equipped with the resources, manpower, and will of the American people to effectively prevent these acts of terrorism from happening
  • He feels removing support for law enforcement is reckless
  • When Herman was in the FBI, politics was never part of the discussion - they were only concerned with upholding justice and performing their responsibilities
  • Social media can be concerning in terms of spreading misinformation
  • In journalism, you’re taught to get the facts right the first time, and this due diligence just isn’t happening in the world of social media today
  • There is a great deal of personal sacrifice when you take the oath to protect your country - Herman took his oath seriously 
  • He received several awards throughout his career, but the personal relationships he made were just as important
  • Herman had important connections with presidents through the Secret Service
  • He went to the University of Missouri Journalism School; he had never considered a career in law enforcement
  • There was a big push for FBI agents in 1970, and he applied, not knowing where it would take him
  • There were actually a lot of parallels between journalism and working in the FBI - he was able to transfer the skills he learned in journalism school to his career in law enforcement
  • Herman lives in Somers, NY and has close family in the area
  • He is an avid reader
  • He tells the story of attending a 9-hour long baseball game with his father when he first moved to New York, and how it showed him how busy and unique New York City was
  • Somers has been a bucolic haven from the hustle and bustle of New York City


Quotes

“When I came to New York in 1974, the early remnants of what became the modern age of international and domestic terrorism began in the early 1970s, primarily, at the Summer Olympics in Munich, when 12 Israeli athletes were murdered.”


“The LaGuardia Airport bombing in 1975, which took the lives of 13 people - still an unsolved bombing. Individuals placed the device at LaGuardia Airport. At that time it was the largest incident of terrorism in America.”


“The real beginning of what led up to become the 9/11 tragedy was the first World Trade Center bombing, February 26 1993. It was an act of international terrorism in America…  It really set the tone for the future of what became international terrorism around the world.”


“In my opinion, the most significant bridge between what happened in 1993 and 9/11 was the case that we investigated called the Bojinka Plot.”


“The [TWA Flight 800] tragedy occurred over Long Island in the early morning hours of July 17. 240 people lost their lives, many of them young students, teenagers. They were on their way from New York to Paris. The plane had come in that afternoon from Athens, Greece. It was probably the most massive investigation at that time in FBI history.”

 

“The Bureau concluded that it was a tragedy involving an electrical field probe that caused the explosion.”


“It's a sobering day, on the 20th anniversary [of 9/11], to see the tragedy unfold over a long number of years and many incidents leading up to that event.”


“It's almost as if the case takes on a life of itself, in that there are multiple trials, multiple defendants. Oftentimes, the defendants nowadays, are spread out all over the world.”


“It becomes a very personal thing for the people that work these cases.”


“Here was a woman that had all the means in the world. And yet, she had just lost the real jewel of her life. And I remember after leaving, she turned to me at the end of the interview, and she said, Agent Herman, what is it that you can do now for me - you could find the people that did this.”


“I'm proud of what the FBI and law enforcement has been able to do over the years in dealing with these tragedies, because it really is a lifetime of tragedy.”


“These investigations are broken down into areas of expertise. You have domestic/international terrorism, you have organized crime investigations, you have violent crimes investigations, you have counterintelligence investigations, espionage.”


“These cases have to be very specialized. And you have to have the ability to conduct extensive crime scenes, with multiple agencies over many days. And there has to be a great partnership between the local state and federal law enforcement community, as well as dealing with these foreign governments in all corners of the world, regardless of their allies.”


“You can stop 99 out of 100 acts of terrorism, but it's the one act that you let get through that is what is going to be looked at.”


“Domestic terrorism is not a new phenomena in this country. It takes on different shapes, groups change their name, whether they represent the extreme left or the extreme right.”


“Once they become violent, and they take on institutions and governments and elected officials - throw that into the melting pot with the polarization in our political process. It's combustible. And it's a perfect storm, which you see happening not only in America, but really all over the world.”


“[Refugees] have to be vetted, and they have to be properly screened or that can create other problems… It is a long, ongoing process that has to be done. And it has to be done thoroughly and effectively to protect our own homeland.”


“The reality is these groups, it's sort of like cancer, it's like a disease. They metastasize, whether it's in small countries all over Africa, or Europe, or even from within our own borders, you have to be vigilant.”


“The best way to combat these events is to prevent them from ever, ever, ever actually happening.”


“Again, these were all events that led up to 9/11. It wasn't as if 9/11 just happened in a vacuum by itself on that day. And there were warning signals.”


“I have some grave reservations about the continuation of our position in Guantanamo Bay.”


“There comes a point where these hard decisions have to be made, whether you agree with them or not.”


“It also includes declassifying information - that all has to be part of the process. These things can be hidden for so long. And if they continue to be hidden or not brought to the attention of the American people, no one will ever know what really did happen to the extent that they should.”


“I do believe that the the general area of terrorism is cyclical. It's ironic the way some things sort of come full circle in life.”


“What I see in America today, in a world that’s so polarized - the politics that I see that they're trying to restrict what law enforcement can effectively do, does concern me that the rubber band is being stretched too far.”


“I do believe that domestic terrorism is an issue in our society now that has to be carefully looked at. And law enforcement has to have the resources, the manpower, and the will of the American people to effectively prevent these acts of terrorism that we see and could see in the very near future.”


“When I was an FBI agent, it's funny, we never talked about politics.”


“It's combustible - with misinformation and violence, and word of mouth, and you don't know what's factual and what's not.”


“I always took the oath seriously. It's something that I tried to uphold. And there are regrets. My family, as with most law enforcement, had to make great sacrifices. And it was a commitment that I took seriously.”


“I was just as proud of the relationships - more than the awards and the accolades.”


“When I left [journalism school] in 1970, I never really considered going into something like the FBI.”


“There are a lot of similarities, more than you would think, between journalism and doing a job like being an FBI agent… There were similarities that I was able to use my skills being taught in journalism that I could apply to being an agent.”


“Living in Northern Westchester was one of the big facets of my life that played a big role because it gave me an escape from the city, from the stress of the job.”


“It was one of my better decisions for my family to live and grow up and live in a place like Somers because it is a nice, bucolic suburb of the city.”


Links:

Halston Media Group website


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