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9/11 Stories: The FBI Agents Who Gathered Clues

WBUR is remembering Sept. 11 through the stories of men and women from around Massachusetts whose lives were touched that day — those who lost loved ones, those who responded and those whose lives were affected in more unexpected ways.

After authorities realized two of the hijacked planes had taken off from Boston’s Logan Airport, FBI agents rushed to the scene.

Richard DesLauriers now heads the FBI’s Boston office, but at that time, he supervised the counterintelligence squad. Special Agent Michael McCall was on the FBI’s evidence response team at the time. Within about an hour of the attacks, DesLauriers and his team were on the tarmac at Logan, along with the Massachusetts State Police and other law enforcement officials.

Click here to hear DesLauriers and McCall tell their stories, or read them below.

Massachusetts State Police troopers stand in front of the closed entrance to American Airlines gate area as passengers are evacuated at Logan International Airport in Boston on Sept. 11, 2001. A team of law enforcement officials quickly gathered at Logan that day to begin a criminal investigation. (AP)

DesLauriers: We set up at Logan because once we realized that those two flights had left Logan, we immediately had to go into an investigative mode. The JTTF [Joint Terrorism Task Force] was activated, with all of our JTTF partners.

It was an eerie feeling out of Logan, standing out there, looking over the tarmac and seeing nothing but planes parked at the gates, with no noise whatsoever.

We were lucky at that time because we only had — and I say “only” with a grain of salt — we only had multiple crime scenes. We did not have a disaster scene in Boston like New York and Washington D.C. and Shanksville, Pa., so we could immediately focus on investigative response, as opposed to assisting first responders with trying to save lives.

Almost every agent in the division was put on that investigation at that time. Whether you worked counterintelligence, whether you worked counterterrorism, whether you worked criminal or cyber matters, you were responding to the situation.

McCall worked Organized Crime at the time, but as a member of the Evidence Response Team, he quickly found himself at Logan looking for clues.

McCall: We were just gathering evidence, that’s all our job was. We were told, “Hey, head over to this car, head over to this hotel, head over to this dumpster and then find any evidence that you think may be able to explain this travesty.”

Planes sit idle at Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, in the wake of the attacks. (AP)

The terrorists, two of them, flew out of Portland, Maine, and caught a flight down to Boston. Their connecting luggage that was on the Portland, Maine, airplane did not make it on the plane that flew to New York.

I saw the luggage that morning and I was told almost immediately that there was, basically, a last will and testament in there of Mohammed Atta’s. We had some FBI translators come over and translate it real-time at the scene, basically right in the Massachusetts State Police barracks at the airport. They translated it to determine that, in fact, it was a suicide mission that these men were on. It was no accident. And the question was: “Who is behind this?”

I ended up being assigned to going through all the trash that was in Terminal C. A lot of coffee cups and a lot of newspapers. Some people, when they watch these “CSI” crime scene shows, they think it’s a lot of very sexy and very cool things to do, but I was basically assigned to work a dumpster and go into a dumpster and look for evidence relating to the terrorists who flew out of Logan that day.

We ended up being notified by Massport and the Massachusetts State Police regarding a vehicle that was suspicious in Terminal C at the airport. When we went through that vehicle, late into the evening of Sept. 11 and early into the morning of Sept. 12, we processed the vehicle and we found a lot of key evidence, including ATM receipts, Western Union receipts (and) hotel receipts.

Several days later a Massachusetts state trooper by the name of Lo Ming Chang showed me a picture and he said, “You remember that ATM receipt you found in the vehicle?” And I said, “Yeah, I remember the ATM receipt.” And he said to me, “Here’s a picture.”

It was three of the terrorists in the vehicle that I processed on Sept. 11. It was a picture of them, in that vehicle, withdrawing money from an ATM machine — three of the terrorists all looking at the ATM machine. It was very sad to think that somebody, those three, had a part in, basically, the biggest crime scene in American history.

As a crime scene member, picking up evidence at the crime scene, you may not know the relevance of that evidence when you’re picking it up. You are to pick it up and preserve it and let the laboratory and the investigators determine the relevancy of it. So, there was a lot of evidence that was picked up at these hotels. Basically, we cleaned out those hotel rooms — the bedding, the bed, lamps, tables — looking for finger prints, DNA, to be analyzed.

It was only after maybe a day or two that these Western Union receipts were popping up as a common theme in each of the hotel rooms, in each of the vehicles that we found, and it was the analysts here in the office who were bringing all that together.

What we learned was that several of the Western Union receipts were the cash remaining from each of the terrorists. Mohammed Atta put all the Western Union money orders into a Federal Express package and sent the Federal Express package to the United Arab Emirates. With the work of the FBI overseas, we were able to determine who actually picked up that package and the Federal Express package was picked up by an associate of Osama bin Laden.

My life and my career have changed after 9/11. I learned that there’s more to the FBI than organized crime.

What I’ve learned from it is working with your law enforcement partners is so critical. And when I see now at the FBI here in Boston, knowing that our partners from the Massachusetts State Police work with us every day. Our partners from the MBTA, the Boston Police Department, Customs and Border Protection, the State Department, all working with us every day.

We address suspicious behavior. Did it happen prior to 9/11? It definitely didn’t happen to the extent it does now. The FBI takes every threat or suspicious behavior that citizens see today and when they call it in, we address it.

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