A "CNN Newsroom" producer reached me at home early yesterday morning. Having just absorbed the breaking news unfolding across my television screen, I had anticipated the phone call. Suspicious packages that appeared to contain explosive devices had just been intercepted by intrepid Secret Service agents screening mail intended for two former presidents. The producer asked if she could put me through to the control room. The phone line crackled and I was immediately transferred onto a panel with a former FBI colleague, retired assistant director Tom Fuentes. I quickly scrolled through reporting on my cellphone and mentally prepared myself for the expected queries that would soon follow.
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Anchors Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow ably guided us through the standard questions about law enforcement protocols and practices in the wake of the discoveries of a series of improvised explosive devices. I wasn’t caught off guard by the criminality. Billionaire liberal cause supporter George Soros had recently received a similar package that was opened in his Katonah, New York residence by an unsuspecting employee. And there was discussion across law enforcement channels that the packages may be linked; the work of a depraved serial bomber.
I had just begun my on-air assessment for "CNN Newsroom," when Harlow interrupted me: “Hang on a second, James. I think we’re hearing fire alarms sounding in the building.” From their compact set in the middle of the bustling 5th floor newsroom, the veteran anchors noted the disturbance, describing the scene to viewers who could clearly hear the piercing alarm in the background. Sensing it may have been a prank or an unscheduled building fire drill, they made the pivot back to breaking news. Sciutto began to engage with Fuentes, when seconds later, he halted the back-and-forth, and calmly advised to the audience that all employees were being directed to evacuate the cavernous Time Warner Center building that houses CNN on 58th Street in Manhattan.
Coverage seamlessly shifted to our Washington, D.C. studios after a short commercial break. I didn’t wait for the next call. I knew. As a contributor to the network, events like this were in my wheelhouse. CNN employs me as a law enforcement analyst. And when word from the control room confirmed it was a bomb scare that was emptying out the building, I tossed a few clothes into my “go bag” and headed south towards the City.
There’s a certain adrenaline that overtakes you in these situations. Thirty-three combined years in the U.S. Military and as an FBI investigator and crisis resolution leader had done more than prepare me by steeling the response condition that kicks into overdrive during crisis incidents. Texting my wife before I got on the road of my intentions, her worried response didn’t surprise me: “I thought when you left the FBI, you left this business behind. Wish you weren’t headed to the scene. It’s all over the news now, and it’s still unsafe. But I understand, and know this is what you do. Please be careful. I love you.”
How many times over three decades did I hear similar words of caution and support from family when I headed overseas on dangerous assignments or raced to the scene of bombings at the World Trade Center (’93), Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park (’96), the East Africa embassies (’98), the U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf of Aden (’00), and the World Trade Center again on 9/11 (’01).
My mind went to autopilot during my race down to New York City. I wasn’t thinking about what I would say on air. I thought of all the folks I had formed relationships with at CNN from security personnel to hair and makeup specialists. This was my team now. And I wasn’t there to help them navigate this dangerous uncertainty. I was bummed that I hadn’t been scheduled for an appearance in our studios that morning. I should have been there. Blessedly, no one had been injured when one of our employees adroitly recognized something amiss with the package addressed to John Brenan (sic), c/o CNN’s New York bureau inside the Time Warner Center.
When I finally arrived in Manhattan an hour later, I was prevented from getting closer to the Time Warner Center, as the NYPD had already cordoned off city blocks, redirecting traffic in order for the “Total Containment Vessel” – a large white hardened sphere soon to contain the unexploded, but still very unstable and dangerous device, and attached to an NYPD trailer – could be transported north to a facility where the bomb could be safely examined and rendered safe, via disassembly or controlled detonation.
Navigating the slow-moving New York traffic, I parked on the street and hustled across the eight blocks to where CNN employees – technicians, show bookers, producers, security personnel, reporters, audio specialists, cameramen, along with Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow had already reconstituted "CNN Newsroom" operations on the northwest corner of 8th Avenue and 58th Street. I fist-bumped a couple of the CNN security guys – all former NYPD cops. Their job is usually one of the most critical, controlling access into and out of the CNN New York bureau and maintaining security on all the floors. But today was different. Remote location shoots are fraught with potential security risks. These guys faced out towards any and every potential threat to those of us on camera, with our backs to the, at times, swollen crowds that accompany broadcasting from the field. Our country is divided. Some view the press as the enemy. The hurled epithets and taunts are to be expected. But what of the “unhinged” zealot who elects to take action?
Armed only with cellphones when they were forced to abandon the building, the "CNN Newsroom" crew had ably begun reporting from the street almost from the moment that camera crews could assemble their equipment. No one whined about going home or shrank from their duties and responsibilities. Whomever the miscreant was that had elected to deliver the sinister package to CNN was not going to stop us from reporting the news.
As I sidled up next to the indefatigable anchors, Sciutto winked at me and slyly stated – “Thanks for joining us, James.” I slid in between him and Harlow, as the technicians placed an earpiece in my ear and pointed to the camera I’d be facing. The producer counted down from three, and we were back on-air. Poppy supplied the first question and we were off – doing what needs to be done in a situation where uncertainty abounded, but a group of professional journalists and their support team refused to be stopped in their tracks.
The rest of the day is a blur. I hugged folks who have become like family to me and reveled in the fact that we had stuck our finger in the eye of some lunatic(s) who endeavored to instill fear in our hearts. But what I saw all around me throughout the day and into the night was courage and resolve, and it made me proud to be a part of it.
When I retired from the FBI, I lamented the fact that I would never find another profession where the instincts are to run towards danger again. And while I no longer operate inside the police tape, my new profession allows me to toil alongside folks – like the intrepid "CNN Newsroom" crew – who perform their professional duties just outside the police tape.
Think these folks aren’t courageous? One member of the camera team had his arm shattered by an IED in Iraq. Yep. There he was, hefting a CNN camera on his shoulder and hustling towards danger again, so that the public could be informed. I knew patriots like that when I was overseas. Quiet professionals, all. They made me proud to be an American. Just as the actions of my friends and colleagues in the news business made me proud to be part of the CNN family yesterday.
Someone intended to introduce evil into our inviolate workspace at the Time Warner Center yesterday morning. They failed miserably in accomplishing their goals of intimidation, fear fomentation, and shutting down our operations. All the same displaced CNN employees I met on the corner of 58th and 9th yesterday morning were back at work today.
Evil never wins in the long run. And let it be known that I couldn’t be prouder of folks who you wouldn’t expect to be courageous in the face of danger … but that’s just who they were.