Wayne Barrett with Williams Cole
Wayne Barrett, a Senior Editor at the Village Voice, is an icon of New York City journalism, resulting from the undaunted and exhaustively researched investigative reporting that led to his classic books City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York (co-written with the late Jack Newfield) and Rudy! An Investigative Biography. Rudy! revealed shocking new information about Giuliani’s past and was instrumental for researching Giuliani Time, a recent feature documentary (that I produced along with director Kevin Keating) about Giuliani and New York City. Barrett’s new book (co-written with Dan Collins) is Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11. –W. Cole
Williams Cole (Brooklyn Rail): In writing and researching the book, what was the most shocking thing you found out about Giuliani and 9/11 for you, a Giuliani expert?
Wayne Barrett: I was really surprised at how the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had absolutely no effect on his consciousness. Six people died, but so many more could have and we show in four or five different ways how a much bigger catastrophe was only narrowly averted. It was a dramatic announcement of the arrival of terrorism in this country and in this city. Then in June of ’93 the FBI and the NYPD busted terrorists in Queens who were a week away from blowing up the Holland Tunnel, the United Nations, a whole series of targets. So 1993 was the peak year of terrorism in this country and in this city prior to 9/11, yet it did not register in any way in the Giuliani mind. We did many interviews with people that were in high levels within the Giuliani administration, who interviewed for the police commissioner in 1993 and the panel that Giuliani appointed for choosing the police commissioner. All of them say that the question of the ’93 bombings, the question of terrorism generally, absolutely never came up. The mayor never raised it, top advisors never raised it, it was nowhere on the screen, it was nowhere. It was much the same two years later when Giuliani created the Office of Emergency Management which, retroactively, he claimed was the best sign that he understood the terrorist threat. But as we establish in the book, terrorism had nothing to do with the OEM. Again, we interviewed the panel that picked the first OEM director, we interviewed the candidates, even Jerry Hauer who got the job, and terrorism had almost nothing to do with the creation of the OEM. So what I was really shocked about, and surprised about, was how clear it was that terrorism was something that he never fixated on.
Rail: But now he pitches himself as an expert on terrorism.
Barrett: But it’s not just Rudy who postures himself as an expert on terrorism. Why is it that after every event, the media immediately asks him to come on, and the media positions him as an expert on terrorism? It is obviously a consequence of the belief that because he was roaming the canyons of lower Manhattan on 9/11, that somehow that is an indication that he is a leader in the fight against terrorism, when actually he shouldn’t have been in the canyons of lower Manhattan if he had located his command center where Mike Bloomberg has now and where his own top security people recommended he locate it in the ’90s—namely in downtown Brooklyn, underneath the ground. If the command center had been there, Rudy wouldn’t have been roaming the canyons of lower Manhattan and he wouldn’t be the icon of 9/11. But somehow that visual has insinuated itself in the American mindset and in the American media mindset, that he’s the expert on terrorism because he faced it down that morning. He should have been operating less inspirationally and more effectively in a command center located at a responsible location, rather than at a most vulnerable location. And he should have been with his top chiefs, the fire department, police department, emergency management; he should have been making solid judgments about how to respond to this. Instead, he was walking the streets of lower Manhattan, making bad decisions down there as well.
Rail: And it’s pretty clear that the comments on security and terrorism are going to be one of his defining roles should he run for president.
Barrett: Absolutely, I think the rationale for his presidential candidacy is five years of spin about him as the leader of 9/11 and as the terrorism prophet. Look, you’ve got to give Rudy credit for some of the things he did do that day. I think he made some terrible mistakes that morning in terms of strategic response, but as far as an inspirational figure, he said all the right things. Even on 9/11 itself he was circumspect enough to say let’s not blame a community for this attack—he was urging tolerance! After seven-and-a-half years of his mayoralty, the last thing we would expect from him is empathy. But beyond that voice was seven years of miserable preparation for an attack, and even critical mistakes that day. For example, he left the command post at the World Trade Center—the command post is just a makeshift, essentially a table set up by the fire department outside a major event—with all the police brass in total violation of his own protocol. If he had left even one of the top police commanders with the fire chiefs, if he had observed even one iota of his own protocol, then the fire chiefs would have known what the police brass knew from the helicopter pilots, which was that the towers were going to collapse. But because he didn’t leave anybody there, because he didn’t insist on a unified command post, but instead split the command post himself, then the breakdown of the radios proved to be very much more deadly because you couldn’t have all communication. If you had a police chief standing next to a fire chief at the command post, they would have been able to tell each other what they were hearing from helicopter radios. There are critical failings, even on that terrible morning.
Rail: Talk a little more about the radio situation.
Barrett: I think we have major, shocking revelations about the relationship between the Giuliani Administration and Motorola. There is such travesty in the fact that firefighters wound up with the same radios in their hands that malfunctioned at the ’93 bombing. We have one chapter devoted exclusively to tracking the narrative of why it was that no change occurred on the radio front, and that there are all kinds of relationships. A pivotal person at the city’s information agency had a sister who worked for Motorola in a high capacity, and this was the woman who steered the city, in large measure, toward the new radios that were purchased. But even so, the city waited until March of 2001 to actually put new radios in fire fighters hands, and then those radios malfunctioned within a week. The Giuliani Administration could have easily reconfigured those radios, the new radios, and put them back in fire houses in the intervening months between then and 9/11. Instead, as a lame duck administration, it didn’t do anything to put those radios back out. We detailed a whole story of the nexus of the relationships between Motorola and the Giuliani Administration and I think it’s certainly one of the reasons that fire fighters died that day. Because of how bad radio communications were. I think we make that case very strongly.
Rail: Who went on the record for the book and were you surprised by some of the people that did?
Barrett: Some of the most interesting quotes in the book come from the staff of the 9/11 commission itself. We talked to almost everybody who worked on chapter nine of the 9/11 commission report that deals specifically with the city’s response. I think some of the most interesting quotations come from people like Don Farmer, who was one of the top counsels in the 9/11 commission in charge of chapter nine, and Sam Caspersen who is top assistant. Both of them said some pretty remarkable things in the book. Don Farmer, for example, says that there’s no question, had the command center been located at a responsible site where the city could’ve functioned that day, that in his mind there’s no question that the number of uniform casualties could have been greatly reduced. The current Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says that he doesn’t have any idea who was in charge on 9/11 because Bernie Kerik and all the top chiefs in the police department basically acted as body guards to the mayor and no one was running the shop. They didn’t even open the emergency command center at the police department until an hour into the incident. Louis Anemone, the highest-ranking officer throughout most of the Giuliani era, said he worked for more than a year developing what he called the vulnerability list, defining the most vulnerable sites for terrorists in New York. But when he made his presentation to the mayor about it, Anemone said the mayor glazed over, he was so totally uninterested. And of course, the World Trade Center was at the top his vulnerability list. So some of the people who did talk for the record are pretty remarkable. It’s a sign of the fact that, in New York at least people are willing to come to grips with the failings that cost lives that day.
Rail: I wonder if you could comment, after writing two books now about Giuliani, how you would sum up his personality? Does he calculate things politically, is he an opportunist? What is the essence there? Can he admit mistakes?
Barrett: He’s never really admitted any mistakes about 9/11. It’s astonishing to me. I don’t think he’s a very reflective man about these kinds of things. Rudy is a spinmeister, he is an extraordinary, flexible public personality in the sense that he now champions virtually any Republican. He was campaigning for Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, who is a man who likened gay people, black and gay people, to animals. Yet the night of 9/11 Rudy went to the house of Howard Koeppel, his gay friend, where he had been staying because of his marital difficulties, and where he continued to stay. He was living with two gay men on the night of 9/11 and now he’s campaigning for Rick Santorim who is likening them to animals. That’s Rudy’s ever-flexible political mind. The last time he ran for public office was in 1997. People tend to forget how long ago it was and then he was very consciously projecting himself as this very non-partisan manager who was only sort of accidentally a Republican. He used to do everything to distance himself from his years of service to Ronald Reagan when he ran for mayor of New York in 1989 and 1993. He consciously did that, and explicitly did it. Now, he invokes Ronald Reagan all the time. Recently he was campaigning for Ralph Reed and he was invoking Jesus in Florida. He’s certainly calculated. It’s this elastic politics, this ability to be whatever he needs to be to make it to the next goal. It’s so striking. I don’t think there’s any core there.