Pentagon: an interview with former NCIS agent Craig Covert

di Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Craig Covert is a former NCIS Special Agent who was deployed to the Pentagon a few days after 9/11 as a first responder. To discuss the events of that day and the following months, Craig Covert accepted our proposal for an interview which we are offering our readers today.

We would like to thank Craig Covert for his availability and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Craig Covert: On 9/11 I was a Special Agent with the NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, in Washington DC. That morning, I was visiting the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC in preparation for the arrival of a Official dignitary from Israel the following morning, September 12th. While we were there, the Israeli Embassy chief came into the room and asked “Have you seen what happened? A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” My fellow coworker from NCIS and I watched the news in the embassy and when the second plane hit, we knew the dignitary visit was going to be canceled and that we had to get back to work immediately.

I don’t recall if the Pentagon was hit before or after we left the embassy, but it was on fire as we headed back to work. We headed straight back, knowing that we were likely going to be sent to the Pentagon to be on site for whatever was to come.

Undicisettembre: What happened in the next days?

Craig Covert: As law enforcement Special Agents, we knew we were going to be involved in one way or another. When we got back to the office there was mass confusion both in the office and in reality, throughout the entire DC government. It didn’t matter whether you worked for the FBI, NCIS, secret service; everybody was terribly confused. We didn’t know how to react, as there were still reports of other possible aircrafts in the air. We were all just scrambling to try and figure out what to do next. More importantly, we knew we had to go to the Pentagon because of our profession as NCIS agents and our connection to the military, since we work for the Department of the Navy.

NCIS has a very robust crime scene response team, and the team was assembled quickly. Pretty much all of the team members were sent to the Pentagon, not knowing initially what we were going to be doing. Regardless, we were already on stand-by until it was determined by higher powers what needed to be done and what our job was going to be in the aftermath of the crash.

Undicisettembre: What happened once you were sent to the Pentagon?

Craig Covert: I was sent to the Pentagon about three days later because there was nothing we could do as investigators until the fires were put out in the building. We tried to figure out a plan on what to do, but the government was in complete confusion. We had agents standing outside NCIS headquarters in the first few days with machine guns in case there was another attack on the facility. Nobody really knew what to do or if there was more coming. So it took three or four days for the agency to come up with a plan.

Once we, initial responders, were sent to the Pentagon, we met with all of the other various federal agencies, state and local law enforcement agencies, rescue squads, and Fire Departments that were all responding to the Pentagon crash scene. For the first six or seven days it was still too unstable to go inside. The fire department was in charge of putting out the fires and shoring up the building in the damaged areas so the first responders could enter the building and conduct recovery efforts. Initially, the Fire Department personnel were the only ones conducting rescues and body recovery, but everyone quickly realized that there weren’t going to be many if any survivors found once the fires were put out. Most of the survivors had gotten out on the first day. From the aircraft itself, there were no intact bodies, just pieces. In addition to the aircraft victims, there were some Pentagon employees that were killed, and most of them were retrieved once the Fire Department had put out the fires and agents on the different search teams started combing through the crash scene. Our team began going into the building roughly a week after 9/11, intending on doing search and rescue, but it was more or less simply body recovery, as no one survived the crash itself, and any employees inside the building anywhere near the impact site were clearly dead. The recovery effort quickly turned into an effort to collect evidence and other items from the scene.

Once everybody was aware there were going to be no other survivor found, we started focusing our search for human remains, wreckage pieces, anything possibly related to the incident like knives, box-cutters, or things like that which could help prove what the news had already started to presume in their reporting - that the hijackers perhaps used box-cutters and knives during their on-board attacks. Our mission was to retrieve the human remains first and foremost, and after that it became a recovery of items.

I was on a day-shift team; there were hundreds of agents and first responders at the Pentagon, all were law enforcement, fire and rescue or government employees of one sort or another. The NCIS personnel were divided into two teams; I was one of two day-shift team leaders, with Erin Betro serving as the second team leader. My team consisted of roughly a dozen agents from NCIS, OSI, and a few active duty military personnel.

Once the fires were out, there was no way we could continue to go into the building and stay safe, as it was too dark and dangerous inside the building to do a practical recovery of parts and evidence. I assume it was the FBI Command Center, which was in charge of the overall effort, who determined that the best way to handle it would be to bring in bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks. The plan was to scoop the rubble from the impact site into the dump trucks and move the rubble from the building to the Pentagon’s north parking lot, which was on the opposite side of the impact area when looking at the Pentagon from above. The trucks would dump the rubble into what we all called the rubble pile.

Hourly, teams would go through the rubble pile and begin clearing their individual piles. How effective each team was, I’m not sure, as other agencies have different training in conducting crime scene exams, and perhaps are not as thorough as NCIS when searching through the minutia. Regardless, before any rubble pile was searched, ATF would send in bobcats (front end loaders) to knock down the rubble pile, after which we would drag by hand or by machine all the desks, ductwork, large concrete pieces, rebars and building remnants, thus leaving only the smaller rubble and personal effects behind. Everything was wet from the days of putting out fires, and it truly was a messy job. Initially we were searching by hand for body parts, using hand rakes and shovels to assist us, but eventually the body parts started to rot and we had to bring in cadaver dogs to go through the pile and assist us with finding the human remains, as it became impossible to pinpoint where the smell was coming from. In addition to human remains, we were searching for personal effects of the airplane passengers and the Pentagon employees who were killed, such as wallets, pictures, keys... anything that we knew were personal effects belonging to the victims.

We were also tasked with looking for classified material. The plane struck a part of the Pentagon that housed a SCIF, a secured site holding classified material, so thousands of classified documents were scattered all over the place. NCIS in particular was very concerned with that information getting out, so one of our primary concern was gathering up as much of the classified material that was scattered among the debris and wreckage that we could. Unfortunately, few law enforcement agencies besides NCIS and OSI knew what to look for in order to identify the documents that were classified. I have a feeling a lot of highly classified and sensitive materials may have ended up at the landfill.

Of course, we were also looking for any airplane pieces or parts, pieces of the fuselage, and anything that we found would be gathered up and separated. Lastly, we were looking for any sort of weapons, knifes or box cutters that might be in the rubble pile. We raked through the piles with hand-rakes after the cadaver dogs went in to find the victims; we went through each pile multiple times till we were certain that we had cleared the pile of those items: the body parts, the personal effects, classified materials, airplane wreckage and any potential weapon, before the remaining rubble was scooped back up and placed into the dump truck and taken off for disposal.

That’s what we did for six weeks straight, twenty-four hours a day. Before we started removing the rubble out of the Pentagon to the North Parking lot, we were spending sixteen hours per day on scene, but eventually we got into a groove and a normal work schedule developed after which we worked 8 hour daily shifts. By the third week, we were no longer dressed in our simple work clothes. We were wearing full tyvek protective gear, masks and HEPA filters because not only had the body parts started to rot, but there were carcinogens and asbestos in the building material itself, which were dangerous and hazardous to health. Initially wearing just jeans and boots, we all ended up dressing out in what looked like space suits, basically, for the recovery efforts.

Eventually after six weeks at the rubble pile, the scene was declared complete and we wrapped things up. At that point it became a salvage effort and was turned over to construction crews to at least temporarily patch up parts of the Pentagon before they could do the rebuilding process. I don’t know if the FBI or other federal agencies like the Pentagon Force Protection Agency stayed on scene or what else occurred after we left.

Undicisettembre: Can you confirm the black box of American Airlines 77 was found by NCIS?

Craig Covert: It was found during the night shift by what I believe was one of our NCIS teams. My friend and coworker who was with me at the Israeli Embassy on 9/11, Special Agent Greg Huska, was the person whom I recall said his team found the box. Like my team, it was a mixed agency team. There were NCIS agents, OSI agents and military personnel. All I know for sure is it was found by the night shift team and some of the NCIS agents were bragging about it, but I don’t know who specifically found the black box.

Undicisettembre: Was anyone having doubts that a plane had hit the Pentagon?

Craig Covert: No. Absolutely not. The Pentagon is located adjacent to the Arlington International Cemetery; the plane came in so low that it actually sheared off some of the light-poles that line the highway. There was a cab driver on whose car one of the light-poles landed on after the plane clipped it only a couple hundred yards from the point of impact. The plane hit the Pentagon so low that it left a hole in the outer ring and unbelievably part of the upper floors on a couple of the inner rings were still intact, almost creating what appeared to be a bridge above the impact site. Since the top floor was still intact above the impact hole, it was a danger to us because it was unstable and could potentially collapse. Someone brought in a crane in and knocked it down so we could go in there safely to remove the rubble.

But there was no question and no doubt in anyone’s mind that a plane had hit. Initially there were airplane pieces all over the area between the Pentagon and the highway. There were wheels, the landing gear, and even large chunks of fuselage with windows still visible. Thousands of pieces of aircraft fuselage aluminum shards littered the area. The unmistakable smell of JP-4 or JP-5 jet fuel was ever present for several weeks. So, no. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what had happened.

On our very last rubble pile my team worked, I personally saw the throttle controls for the plane. They were in that pile. When we recovered human remains, they were usually no bigger than your hand: a finger, a piece of shoulder, a chunk of meat. The cadaver dogs went through and recovered 95% of the human remains, but occasionally you would find human remains while raking through the pile. You would pick something that would look like wet cardboard, because everything was wet and dirty from all the ash and water inside the Pentagon. While washing off the dirt, you would see hair and skin pores and realize the wet cardboard you thought you had found was someone’s skin. I found several human scalps and in one of the scalps was an airline flight attendant’s name-tag stuck in the hair. It’s hard to refute that came from an aircraft victim. We also found pieces of the pilot’s seat cover and the airplane’s throttle controls; my team retrieved those items the last week we were there. There was no mistake: a plane hit the Pentagon.

Undicisettembre: Years after 9/11 you were also sent to Afghanistan. What was your duty there?

Craig Covert: That was a separate duty. During most of my law enforcement career, I was also a Marine Corps reservist. During a military duty drill weekend, I was approached by a Superior at Camp Lejeune who asked “Hey, you are an agent aren’t you? You speak ‘special agent’, you speak ‘law enforcement’ don’t you? We need a liaison officer to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, in Afghanistan. Are you interested in deploying?” So that’s how I ended up in Afghanistan, coordinating anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan with the DEA and the Marine Corps.

Undicisettembre: How did 9/11 affect the daily work of NCIS?

Craig Covert: It radically changed not just the way NCIS conducted its business, but law enforcement overall. NCIS became much more anti-terrorism centric. We started developing high risk operational teams to do everything from protection details to counter-intelligence details, be that against foreign intelligence services or potential terrorists against the United States. We got involved with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force around the country, and I was even assigned to a JTTF in Hawaii for two years. So the agency became much more involved with the anti-terrorism efforts both domestically and internationally in conjunction with other agencies. Everyone changed their methodology. NCIS has agents at home, or who are stationed overseas, and even those on-board aircraft carriers; all of us faced radical changes in the ways we conducted law enforcement post 9/11.

Things just changed, new groups formed to address counter-terrorism, new positions were created. It changed us but it changed everybody in federal law enforcement.

Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories according to which 9/11 was an inside job?

Craig Covert: I just have to laugh. As a JTTF agent I was seeing information and threat reporting that the public doesn’t get to know or hear about. They have no idea of the real threats the United States faces on a daily basis. And when I hear about the conspiracy theorists who have no basis behind their thought process, I shake my head. They don’t work for agencies with access to this kind of information and are not privy to information that I have seen or that other federal agencies have seen or investigated. They are entitled to their misinformed and misguided decisions and opinions, but they are not based in reality. The reality is that there are people out there who want to kill us, who want to destroy the western way of life and it’s going to stay that way for the near future. All we can do is try and combat it, whether it’s behind the scenes without the public’s knowledge or in the open, before it reaches our shores again.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your personal life even today?

Craig Covert: It made me more aware of the threats we face, particularly after being assigned to the JTTF the following year. It certainly made me aware that there’s much more that we, as federal law enforcement, do behind the scenes to thwart potential threats against the United States. It made me more aware of how much is going on to protect our own safety and to thwart the daily threats against our citizens than I would have ever known before 9/11. I never previously realized the level of threat we face. Most intelligence is only looked at or known by a small selected group of people in the intelligence community, the White House or high levels of government. But now that we are post 9/11, and many more agencies are involved in the effort to thwart terrorism, we are on better ground to combat those daily threats we face. The public may never be made aware of it, but these are dangerous times. Thank God for our law enforcement and intelligence communities.

I didn’t have children back then, and at that time, I considered it the crime scene of a lifetime to be involved in. However, looking back on the matter, and considering I now look at it through the lens of a father, I can see how people with children were emotionally scarred. We had several agents who developed post traumatic stress disorder, so I know a lot of people were affected personally. I wouldn’t say I was affected personally, but again, it opened my eyes to the threats we face on a daily basis.

Nessun commento: