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The Agent Who Might Have Saved Hamid Hayat

For 35 years, James Wedick had been a star at the FBI. When his former colleagues prosecuted a suspected terrorist, he came to the side of the defense and was branded a traitor. Here`s what he wasn`t allowed to say in court.

May 28, 2006|Mark Arax

Wedick could see that Hamid Hayat was cold and scared. To keep from fidgeting, he locked his hands between his legs like a kid trying not to pee. He was rail-thin with deep sunken eyes and eyebrows so wonderfully arched that he had the gaze of perpetual befuddlement. Even with his long black beard, he looked more teenager than man. The agents gave him a blanket and pulled their chairs closer. We're here to listen, not judge. Whatever you tell us about the training camp won't come as a surprise. We have spy satellites over Pakistan. If you're thinking about lying, you might think again. Wedick knew the game they were playing, the back and forth between trust and fear. It might take hours, but if trust and fear were maneuvered the right way, the whole room suddenly would turn. One moment the suspect was way up here--seeing the world his way. And the next moment he was way down here--seeing it your way. The freefall, Wedick called it. The release that came from finally shedding the weight of lies. It happened with even the most cunning crook.

Hayat shifted in his chair, and his voice grew submissive. One hour, two hours, yawns, cigarette break, yawns, candy break, exhaustion. The freefall never came. Instead, each new revelation, each dramatic turn in his story, was coming from the mouths of the agents first. Rather than ask Hayat to describe what happened, they were describing what happened for him and then taking his "uh-huhs" and "um-hmms" as solemn declarations. He was so open to suggestion that the camp itself went from being a village of mud huts to a building the size of Arco Arena. His fellow trainees numbered 35, 40, 50, 200. The camp was run by a political group, a religious school, his uncle, his grandfather, yes, it was Al Qaeda. The camp's location was all over the map--from Afghanistan to Kashmir to a village in Pakistan called Balakot. As for weapons training, the camp owned one pistol, two rifles and a knife to cut vegetables.

Wedick was troubled by the inability of the agents to pin down the contours of one believable story. They didn't seem to know the terrain of Pakistan or the month of Ramadan. They didn't seem to fully appreciate that they were dealing with an immigrant kid from a lowly Pashtun tribe whose sixth-grade education and poor command of the English language--"Martyred? What does that mean, sir?"--demanded a more skeptical approach. And then there was the matter of the father's confession. Umer Hayat described visiting his son's camp and finding 1,000 men wearing black Ninja Turtle masks and performing "pole vaulting" exercises in huge basement rooms--100 miles from Balakot. The agents going back and forth between the two interrogations that night never attempted to reconcile the vast differences in the confessions.

The video ended and Wedick picked up the phone and called defense attorney Johnny L. Griffin. Whatever hesitation he had about taking on the FBI office that he, more than anyone, had put on the map--the office where his wife still worked as an agent--was now gone. "Johnny, it's the sorriest interrogation, the sorriest confession, I've ever seen."

They speculated that the government had its best evidence still tucked away. "There's got to be a silver bullet, Johnny. Because without it, I just can't see the bureau or the U.S. attorney going forward with this case."

What he didn't fully appreciate was that this was a different Justice Department, charged with a different task, than the one he knew.

jim wedick could tell you all about the lore. Even as a kid growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, he imagined not DiMaggio roaming center field but Melvin Purvis, the G-man, running down John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Out there was a new Public Enemy No. 1, and he wrote the FBI saying he'd like to join. A month later, an agent from New York was on the phone, wondering if he might come in for an interview. Wedick paused and stammered. He must have forgotten to mention that he was 14 years old.

Nine years later, an accounting degree from Fordham University in his back pocket, he was standing inside the FBI Academy when he received his first posting: Indiana. "How in the hell did that happen?" his fellow graduates wanted to know. All through training, as the other rookies set their sights on San Diego or Miami Beach, Wedick kept telling them about his dream job in Gary, Ind. That's where Purvis worked. That's the territory where Dillinger carved the gun out of soap to escape from prison. That's where the Lady in Red who fingered Dillinger ran her brothels.

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