There is a group of men in South Florida who insist they knew the horrific events of September 11 were coming. They didn't know the particulars -- the day, or the way it would happen -- but they have long felt certain that a deadly large-scale act of terrorism on United States soil was inevitable. Furthermore they are convinced that such attacks will continue in the near future.
These men, mostly older and retired, have worked on the frontlines of counterterrorism, hunting the bombers, spies, and smugglers endemic to this area in the Seventies and Eighties. Some of them participated in secret missions to attack Cuba, or, conversely, worked for Castro to defend the island nation. They belonged to a variety of different law-enforcement and intelligence agencies on both sides of the Florida Straits, from the CIA to Metro-Dade police to the Cuban Department of State Security.
In an effort to try to understand the post-September 11 security challenges facing the nation, and South Florida in particular, New Times interviewed more than half a dozen of these local counterterrorism experts. The questions were simple: What are our vulnerabilities? What must be done to defend ourselves? What can we expect from the future?
Read related New Times stories
Surprisingly, despite the differences of political perspective and experience among those polled, there was widespread agreement on several key points. All concurred that the U.S. government's intelligence services have lost their way, relying too heavily on technology instead of human resources. Most decried the lack of coordination between local and federal law enforcement. Some criticized U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's detention of hundreds of possible suspects as detrimental to an effective investigation of terrorist cells. Finally several cited cultural problems that cut to the core of who we are as a nation, detailing a self-indulgent complacency among many Americans that, combined with a "convenience-store mentality," renders our nation psychologically unprepared to deal with catastrophic terrorist acts.
Never far from the discussion was the specter of more attacks. During the course of six weeks of conversations with New Times, the U.S. Justice Department issued three separate terrorism alerts. Evidence also mounted that the al Qaeda terrorist organization has access to the material and expertise to make a "dirty bomb," which if exploded could contaminate a large area with radioactive fallout. Most of those surveyed believe it is simply a matter of when, not whether, the United States will fall victim to this sort of violence again.
One of José A. Lopez's many feats during his 27 years as a U.S. marshal was the capture of rogue CIA agent Edwin Wilson in 1982. Wilson, who had sold twenty tons of explosives to Libya, took refuge in that nation in an attempt to evade U.S. authorities. Lopez, a tall man with a laconic style, operated as a Dominican Air Force colonel to mastermind the operation that lured Wilson from Libya to the Dominican Republic, where federal authorities apprehended him. A native of Puerto Rico, Lopez also helped investigate and arrest independence terrorists from the island, such as the Macheteros and the Armed Forces of National Liberation, responsible for scores of bombings and robberies. He retired in 1992 as a chief inspector and currently is a senior director at Security Associates Group, a Miami-based consulting firm.
Lopez, who battled the first wave of modern twentieth-century terrorists in the United States in the the Sixties, is not impressed with the present state of U.S. intelligence. "Our intelligence sucks," he says flatly.
"The way we broke up the Macheteros was through infiltration. The people who were working those cells knew how they thought and knew where to look."
Such methods are a rarity today, he believes.
"I remember when I was young, intelligence analysts were scholars," Lopez continues. "They were people who knew history. Now I see a bunch of very bright kids who are fantastic with their laptop computers. You take that fucking computer away from them and they are lost. And they are the intelligence analysts. Once you have the human intelligence, then you can go back and play with your satellites, and play with your computer, and then it has some meaning."
Retired Metro-Dade Police Lt. Raul Diaz, who maintains a friendship with Lopez, echoes that sentiment. Diaz led CENTAC-26 (Central Tactical Unit), a federally funded task force involving Metro-Dade County, the City of Miami, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) created in 1980 to investigate drug-related murders. The group actively pursued South Florida's cocaine cowboys at the height of their murderous rampage. Diaz, who now operates a private investigative firm called ICDA Consulting Services, also logged years in the Seventies investigating the dozens of bombings and terrorist murders then rocking Miami.
Diaz credits his successes in thwarting exile terrorism to his knowledge of Miami. "My success as an investigator came from my experience in a juvenile gang," he explains. "You have to be able to communicate with people at their level across cultural and ethnic lines. I've lived in the community for 41 years. They knew me. They knew they could trust me. They knew that if they told me something, I would die before I would say who told me. And that doesn't get developed over a period of months."
It will be a long time before the United States is capable of such intelligence, both men agree.
"You don't go to a mosque and start recruiting those people in there," says Lopez. "You have to recruit Middle Eastern people and then send them into the mosque. It is a process. It's not, Let's go in and recruit a couple of those guys because we need them next week.' It's more like, Let's go in and recruit them today, because in ten years they will be producing.'
"Some of them should be recruited outside the country and brought in and allowed to work here," he adds. "That is the only way you are going to infiltrate those groups. You can have the best actor, the best undercover guy, but once [the terrorists] start talking their language, or they start talking about the pueblito where they come from, he will be lost. You have to recruit from families that are moving here or recruit from people [in the Middle East] and say, Hey, work for us, and we will get a visa for you and your family.' The whole thing has to be re-created again.
"Osama bin Laden wasn't born on September 10," notes Lopez. "He was there. He was announcing what he was going to do. Why didn't we infiltrate his organization? Why did we have to wait for something like this to happen to start looking for friends?"
Asked to respond, a U.S. intelligence official blamed the end of the Cold War and decreasing budgets for the movement away from human intelligence. He insists that has changed. "The intelligence community for the past several years has been recruiting to rebuild its human collectors," the official maintains. He describes infiltrating terrorist cells as very difficult because they are small and often based on family or long-term relationships. "You almost have to be one of them to actually penetrate it."
One method by which to penetrate terrorist cells is to buy informants, instructs José Diaz. A former Metro-Dade homicide detective, Diaz has a kind, slightly cherubic face that no doubt misled many a criminal. He worked with Raul Diaz (no relation) in CENTAC-26 and today also is a partner in ICDA Consulting Services.
"People will give information for a lot of reasons," he says. "Money is one of them. One group will give information to another group because of a turf war they are having. That happens a lot with all criminal organizations. Members with one group that are disgruntled will tell you what is happening.
"Who is the person who has no loyalty? It is always the criminal element," he goes on. "They have no loyalty to each other. There are people in the terrorist cells who are very loyal to the cause. They are fanatics, will do anything, and won't betray the cause. But they cannot operate by themselves. How about the guy who is selling the passports and making the false IDs?"
Raul Diaz agrees: "The criminal element is the one they are going to resort to when they need to buy weapons. To whom did [the September 11 hijackers] go in Virginia to buy the drivers' licenses? They went to some Mexican immigrant who was selling drivers' licenses to people who were here illegally. It is a criminal act. You have to go in there and start recruiting [them]."
José Raul Alfonso worked for two decades as a Cuban government soldier, analyst, and counterintelligence agent. As a teenager he fought with the island's troops to repel the invasion force at the Bay of Pigs. In 1980 the Cuban government imprisoned him on trumped-up charges. Alfonso says he recognized that the Soviet Union was doomed, and his insistence that Cuba should distance itself did not play well with authorities. His objections to the treatment of those who wished to leave the country during Mariel sealed his fate. Alfonso served eight years in one of Castro's jails. Upon his release he came to Miami, where, he says, the CIA tried to recruit him. He declined. Diminutive in size, he has the energy of a man twice his height. He is currently writing a comprehensive book on the subject of terrorism.
Alfonso believes federal agents are poorly situated for counterintelligence. "Remember: The difference between an FBI agent undercover and one not undercover is whether his tie is loosened," he jokes. "They have to go down to the base."
Echoing high-profile critics such as former FBI Director William Webster, Alfonso blasts U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft for the wholesale detention of suspected terrorists.
"It is evident Ashcroft is not receiving good counsel," he claims. "The last thing you do in counterintelligence is capture a prisoner like we have done. [You have to] follow them, which will give you their contacts, the methods in which they work, and the way they communicate. That is unless you are Israel, where they allow torture [to get information]. The U.S. does not function like that."
Raul Diaz is also critical. "If they don't know by now who the fuck they have, we are in big trouble," he observes.
José Lopez thinks the detentions could be an indication of the weakness of U.S. intelligence. "It may be the intelligence community doesn't have the people capable of taking those guys, and instead of putting them in jail where they are a nuisance and serve no purpose, [they should be] utilizing them by putting them to work for us. It may be that they are overwhelmed and they don't have time, but in the long run, it has to be infiltration."
South Florida, with its open coastline and proximity to Latin America, has been largely impossible to defend, whether it be from rumrunners in the Twenties, drugs in the Eighties, or immigrants today. It presents unique challenges as far as homeland security is concerned as well. While the region was used as a staging area by some of the September 11 terrorists, there seems to be no evidence it is seen as a target. Yet the experts interviewed agree that could change.
"Right now the symbols are Washington and New York -- the older cities. That doesn't mean we couldn't be subject to it tomorrow," says Robert Creighton, former special agent in charge of Florida and the Caribbean for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). "We have large downtown urban areas. We have a large population center. Bioterrorism can be just as effective in South Florida as in New York."
Pressed, former U.S. Marshal José Lopez tries to think like a terrorist: "If you want to bankrupt Miami or the State of Florida, it's the tourism industry. You go after hotels in Miami Beach."
He also considers another distinguishing characteristic of the region. "Where is the second largest concentration of Jews outside of New York?" he asks. "If they are going to do something to hurt Americans in the Jewish community, they could come here. That is something that worries me."
Those interviewed are reluctant to guess what could be specific targets in South Florida. It could be something as random as a suicide bomber strapped with C-4 explosives at the Publix in Sunny Isles Beach to sow panic.
"Somebody created a checklist of all the things we have to do to prevent terrorism," says Lopez. "[It likely includes] Turkey Point, the electrical supply, the water supply. Forget about all that crap. They are not going to touch that. Those are the obvious ones. They are going to come up with something so stupid like hitting the Twin Towers with an airplane that people are not waiting for them."
Despite fearmongering from some exiles, most agree that Cuba does not present much of a threat. "I think the best ally this country has in preventing any terrorism coming here is Fidel himself," asserts Lopez, who served more than ten years as chief U.S. marshal in his native Puerto Rico. "He can't afford the repercussions."
What worries Lopez more than Cuba is South America. He fears that immigration and intelligence authorities are concentrating only on identifiable Muslims and might miss terrorists who have acculturated in Latin America.
"We know there is a big concentration of Hamas in Ecuador. We know there is a big concentration of [Muslims] in the triborder area: Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina," says Lopez.
"They plan years in advance," he continues. "Here is how it would work: They take ten guys and send them to Ecuador, to Venezuela, to Paraguay. They are there for ten years. They have a Paraguayan driver's license or an Ecuadorian driver's license and passport, a cedula. They learned the language. They learned something that is more important than the language: They learned the culture and the body language. But they are sleepers. They are sent to this country. Maybe their name is Juan Perez Herrera. Who is looking for that guy? If your name is not Arabic, you're just another stupid Latin."
He believes the only way to combat this potential threat is by sending agents to South America like the United States did in World War II to hunt Nazi agents operating south of the border.
The lack of cooperation between local law-enforcement and intelligence agencies actually helps the terrorists, believes Raul Diaz. He has a shocking story from his days investigating exile terrorism here in South Florida that helps illustrate his point.
In November and December of 1975, Diaz was investigating a series of bombings in Miami undertaken by Rolando Otero Hernandez, who operated under the name El Condor. Diaz worked as part of a task force that included the City of Miami police, the state FDLE, and the FBI. While sharing information with one of his colleagues, he made a disturbing discovery: Something was rotten about one of Diaz's informants, whom he will only identify today as Big O.
The informant received money from a variety of law-enforcement agencies. Acting individually, the City of Miami, Metro-Dade County, and the FBI all bought his information on exile extremists.
"It turns out later that the guy was suspected of being a Castro agent," relates Diaz. "The United States government and our security agencies had been paying for Castro's counterintelligence all these years."
So Diaz set a trap. Big O was scheduled to attend a meeting of a clandestine exile group. Diaz went to the owner of the house where the meeting was to be held and asked for permission to tape the gathering. The next day the informant came to Diaz and told him the group had planned to blow up a boat. Diaz had the tape and knew the informant was lying. Armed with the evidence, he told the FBI Big O was no good. To this day he is flabbergasted at the response: The FBI refused to cut him loose because it would embarrass the bureau.
"They said, We can't blackball him. We must have warehouses full of his fucking reports. All these years this guy has been lying to us, and what are we going to say now?'" he recalls.
"So not only does [lack of cooperation] effect the inner relations among the agencies but bad guys capitalize on it. This guy was a suspected agent for Castro. He was putting pressure on the Cuban activists to do more stuff, and then he would tell on them to the FBI. So he was an agent provocateur, an informant for the FBI, and a suspected Castro agent!"
Diaz says nothing was ever done about the informant, although local police stopped using him.
"Everything can't be done by the federal government," says former Metro-Dade homicide detective José Diaz. "Give more resources to local and state law-enforcement agencies so they can have more people. [They] need to share their resources and intelligence. If [the feds] had closer relations with local police departments, they could solve the problem of having people who speak the language."
"If [fighting terrorism] continues to be solely a federal task, it will be a failure," concurs former ATF chief Robert Creighton. "The FBI has 12,000 agents or so. What are 12,000 people going to do in a country of 300 million? The only way we are going to be successful is if state and local law enforcement are involved 100 percent."
Raul Diaz puts it bluntly: "Somebody has to tell local not all FBI agents are assholes. Then you have to tell the FBI that all local police officers are not spies. They have to trust each other."
Not everybody sees it this way. Former Miami DEA chief Thomas Cash points out existing overlap between local and federal authorities. He believes some collaboration is detrimental. "Our federal agencies spend a lot of time doing local police work in the name of cooperation," complains Cash. "The words task force mean nobody is responsible."
But Raul Diaz believes it's too dangerous not to cooperate. "They don't want locals to know, because God forbid they should fuck up an operation," he says. "Well you know what? They could have had Mohamed Atta when that [traffic cop] stopped the man and checked him on the computer, but [Atta] wasn't [in the database]."
"[The terrorists] need to fear every police car they see," insists Creighton.
The tendency to hoard information rather than make it useful by distributing the data attracts the ire of former U.S. Marshal José Lopez.
"You have no idea how much bullshit is classified in the bowels of this government," he says. "I have seen newspaper articles that are classified.... [Then] you come and ask me: Do you know about this?' and I say, I cannot tell you; it's classified.' That has to change. We have to share."
José Diaz also criticizes the Florida legislature's recent eagerness to deprive the public of information by restricting access to public records, not least of all because it interferes with his private investigative business. "It's the worst thing they can do," he believes. "How are we going to know about backgrounds? Private industry has no [way] to find out if they are hiring illegal aliens or not.
"If a terrorist can access illegal weapons and bacteria like anthrax, do you think they cannot get driver's license information? Please, it's child's play. It is infantile to think if you can get weapons, and even weapons of mass destruction, that you as a terrorist with the resources, the money, and the contacts, will not be able to hack into a computer or outright buy it from a city employee. Yet you hear all these people now cry we should ban access to public records."
Rolando Eugenio Martinez refuses to talk about operational issues. It is part of the code of a man who conducted well over 300 clandestine missions into Cuba. Today, still spry and muscular at the age of 79, he deflects questions about how law enforcement should combat terrorism. Professionals in the government will do the job is his stock reply. But he will address more fundamental issues, which Martinez believes the nation must face to strengthen itself.
His almost generational conviction in the importance of supporting the government comes from a deep-seated patriotism to both the United States and Cuba. It is a belief that led Martinez astray when he helped break into the Watergate Hotel in 1972, on what he believed to be the orders of President Richard Nixon. At the time he worked for the CIA, the only agent among the Cuban "plumbers" arrested. He takes pride in the fact that he did not reveal his CIA association, even as he served fifteen months in prison for the break-in.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan pardoned Martinez. Called "the Cuban James Bond" by some in Miami, he is held in such esteem in the exile community that when he sits at a table at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, more than half the people who walk through the door feel compelled to greet him effusively. His bravery, thoughtfulness, and discretion are well-known. In 1991 Norman Mailer wrote in Harlot's Ghost: "Give me a hundred men like Eugenio Martinez, and I will take Cuba myself."
Martinez worries that those around him take America for granted, particularly immigrants. New citizens, he fears, are failing to learn that their status brings with it obligations and responsibilities in addition to economic benefits. Their selfishness harms the community at a time when it needs to be strong.
"The [political] parties are in such a hurry to make you a citizen in order to earn your vote that they do not care about the kind of citizen you are," insists Martinez. "They should make it harder to get. What costs you, you learn to love more. But if you told the political parties [this], they would go crazy."
He is particularly upset by the way many of his fellow Cuban exiles exercise the right to vote. "When you have the benefit of the vote, why would you elect [indicted City of Miami Commissioner] Humberto Hernandez?" he asks. "What are you saying about that privilege that they have given you? Does it say that you are a good citizen?"
Martinez also speaks against a corrosive materialism, which he sees as weakening the nation today. "The problem is the tyranny of the dollar," he believes. "We have to be more spiritualistic than materialistic. That is the most important and difficult point. I don't believe you are successful because you make a lot of money, or because you are lucky, but because there are certain obligations and duties which involve character and respect.
"It is going to take a long time to educate the people of the United States. They have a convenience-store mentality. We have to educate [them] that we all have to do our part. We have to be more realistic in the problem we are facing. [Al Qaeda] are not fighting for money or land. We have to start changing the morality of the people here. We cannot be as complacent as we have been with our leaders. This is the time we define ourselves."
The theme of American arrogance and insularity is one Puerto Rican José Lopez also takes up as he mimics the "ugly American" to try to make a point: I don't need to learn about your culture and respect [it] because I am the most powerful nation in the world. You have to learn my culture. You have to adopt to the American ways. You have to talk my language. You have to behave according to my guidelines....'
"That's wrong. That is what has taken us to this debacle."
Ironically, he notes, the general lack of language proficiency in America today is hurting the nation's ability to detect and understand those who wish to do it harm.
"How many of our [intelligence] analysts know French, speak Farsi, can read a newspaper in Arabic and catch the meaning? How many know how these people think? Have knowledge of their religion and beliefs? We are not prepared.
"You see all the people from the Russian Mafia that come here [to South Florida]," he adds. "They become millionaires in two months selling dope, and they talk perfect English. I haven't met one American that is fluent in Russian. We want the world to integrate to us, but at the same time we have to integrate to the rest of the world.
"We cannot keep on being complacent, drop a few bombs, and go home. What you are creating is hate and more hate and more hate against us."
Despite the noose growing ever tighter around Osama bin Laden, most of those interviewed are pessimistic about the near future. They expect an attack, particularly in the likely event of bin Laden's death.
"Bin Laden dead or bin Laden alive, it is coming," contends José Lopez. "The problem right now is that we don't know how many sleepers this guy has all over the world and what are his instructions to all these fanatics: The day I am gone this is what you have to do.'"
Former ATF chief Robert Creighton points out that nobody knows the whereabouts of the thousands of activists who went through the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and other nations. He and others warn against complacency.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"The U.S. has a very short memory," notes Raul Diaz. "I'm no exception. That first alert we had worried the shit out of me. This latest one, not so much. We get back into the routine and we forget."
"I think this country is not awake yet," argues José Lopez. "I think it is going to take -- God help us, I think it is going to take another incident. People are not going to wake up [after September 11]. [They will get the message] when they have to sleep three days without air conditioning. When they have to stand in a big line in front of Publix to buy groceries. When they don't have hot water to take a shower in the morning. Then they are going to start getting the message, because everything has been so good in this country, and we have had everything.
"With the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, they paralyzed the American economy for one week and put an airplane in what we call las entrañas del monstro -- inside the monster's belly," he goes on. "You have to see that not as a terrorist act but as a message: Hey, gringos, we can get you.' Forget about the  people that were killed in the Twin Towers. Forget about all the people that died at the Pentagon. Look at the message. Look at the statement.
"I won't doubt that these people can get atomic bombs. They are willing to die. What's next? I don't know, the wake-up call.