The Story Behind The Story: Ed Bradley Versus Eco-Ninjas in Harlem
A few weeks ago, we brought you the story behind the "60 Minutes" story about Robert Jenkins, an army deserter who was not allowed to leave North Korea for nearly 40 years. Now we bring you the story behind this Sunday's piece on eco-terrorists – specifically, the tale of two producers, a correspondent, and a pair of environmental activists so desperate to remain anonymous that they engaged in tactics more reminiscent of spy movies than the workaday world of journalism.
"60 Minutes" producer Graham Messick, along with associate producer Michael Karzis and correspondent Ed Bradley, began working on the story in June. By September, the heavy lifting was almost finished – the team had just one interview left to do, with the FBI assistant director in charge of eco-terrorism. (The story grew out of the fact that the FBI has said eco-terrorism now represents the nation's top domestic terrorist threat.) At the time, Messick was also preparing a story about the Valerie Plame case. Towards the end of the day on Friday, Sept. 30th, he got a phone call. He heard a male voice, barely audible, and was unable to make out what the person was talking about. He asked if the call was regarding the eco-terrorist story or the Plame story. The caller "said, 'well, you may call them eco-terrorists' – he was kind of pissed off," says Messick. "So then I realized, oh s*it, this might be what I've been looking for."
Messick asked if he could call back, because the connection was so bad, but the caller refused, since the call was being "routed" to make it impossible to trace. The man on the phone, who spoke in a deep, unidentifiable monotone, said he was very active in the animal liberation movement, and told Messick he had heard that Bradley had interviewed Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon from Southern California who acts a spokesperson for several extreme animal rights organizations. Vlasak advocates assassinating animal researchers and others to slow down what he considers animal abuse, though he says he does not himself commit violent actions. The caller said his was a non-violent movement, and that Vlasak did not speak for him or his colleagues. He said he would consider doing an interview to say as much and discuss his tactics. It would be, he said, the first on-camera interview by someone from the group in more than 20 years.
Messick said he would be interested in an interview on the condition that the man provide evidence that he had actually participated in illegal (so-called "direct") actions on behalf of animal rights. He said he'd be willing to provide anonymity, but needed information to prove the man was who he said he was. The man said he'd think about it, and would call back in a week.
The man called a week later. He told Messick he wanted him and his team to fly to a neutral place, such as Mexico, for the interview. Messick balked. He was unwilling to spend the time and money, he says, without knowing more about the man and why he was worth interviewing. He asked the caller to come to New York for the interview. That made the caller uncomfortable; he was worried, he said, about the security cameras on the streets of New York. Messick suggested that perhaps the interview could take place in a residential neighborhood. The caller continued to express concerns about security. "They were completely distrustful of our ability to hold onto any material, or record their voice or face and obscure it. They were sure that we were going to hand it over to the FBI," says Messick. He said, once again, that he'd call back in a week.
But this time he didn't call, and Messick assumed the man had disappeared. Then, on the following Tuesday, Oct. 18th, around 11:00 am, his phone rang. It was the man, and it sounded like he was calling from a pay phone somewhere in New York. He said he was willing to do the interview that day, and that day only, if Messick could find an acceptable location. "He said tell us where to go, and if we feel it's safe, we'll show up," said Messick.
A friend of Messick's had a brownstone in Harlem, on 125th street, and CBS rented the space for the night. When the man called back, around 2:30, Messick informed him of the location. Bradley flew in from DC, where he had been conducting an interview, and Messick, Karzis, and a crew met him at the brownstone. They set up their equipment, left the front door slightly open, and waited.
Soon, two men in ski masks slipped in. They were dressed all in black, with gloves, black boots, black backpack, and black sunglasses. It was, says Messick, quite a sight – two guys in "just a complete ninja wardrobe." Only one man spoke. He said the other man was there to monitor the scene and look for recording devices. He would not be talking.
The CBS team showed the men the audio monitors on the camera. The plan was to record Bradley's voice, but to kill the sound whenever the interviewee spoke. The silent man positioned himself off-camera so that he could monitor the audio dial and make sure the sound was off when his partner talked. Audio was turned back on when Bradley was speaking, so "60 Minutes" producers would have audio and video of the questions, even if they couldn't record the answers.
The interview began. Messick, Karzis and Bradley took notes. Messick says he never considered surreptitiously recording the session, the skepticism of the subjects notwithstanding. The interview lasted 20 minutes. The rough transcript is here.
"I don’t have hope," said the man at the end of the interview. "The fact we're having a conversation about my tactics being extreme or violent while corporations are making a killing, literally and figuratively, and while their stocks are going through the roof, is amazing to me. To focus on us, that we are America top domestic terrorist threat, is amazing to me."
Afterward, the two men said they wanted to see the interview and make sure the speaker’s voice had not been recorded. The CBS team then interviewed them off-camera, and asked for proof they were who they said they were. "He said, 'I'm not going to tell you about any arsons. It's a serious crime, there's no statute of limitations, people can go to jail 30 years for this. We're not stupid, we're not going to do it,'" says Messick. Instead, he agreed to give details about animal raids. The first was in upstate New York, at Marshall Farms, near Buffalo, a facility that breeds animals for research and sale. There, the man said, they had released 33 Beagles and 11 Ferrets and provided the animals homes. The story was publicized, the man said, but this detail wasn't: They had tried and failed to cut through the barbed wire fence, so there would be nicks and cuts near the bottom of the fence.
The other detail they gave concerned an animal release in Salinas, California, in which 24 rabbits were freed. The man said they were just 15 yards away from owner as he slept in his bed when they freed the rabbits – something that, apparently, only they knew. Both Messick and Bradley were disappointed. "It wasn't exactly what I had in mind," says Messick. Bradley felt there was no way to prove involvement unless it was something really explicit – certainly more so than what had been offered. Messick asked if that was the best they could do, and the masked man told him they wouldn't give them any more.
At that point, Messick says, he knew the men wouldn't be a huge part of the story. They had no audio of the interview subject in the interview, and no real way to confirm the men were who they said they were. Plus, they had already interviewed Rod Coronado, a former Animal Liberation Front cell leader who had served jail time for arsons – and who was willing to show his face on camera.
CBS was unable to confirm the detail from Marshall Farms, though they did confirm that the incident in question took place on December 5, 2001. (They also confirmed that the Salinas incident took place.) A representative from Marshall Farms wouldn’t discuss the crime, and the state police in Albany refused to release a copy of the police report. Messick says that after conversations with Bradley, lawyers and CBS brass, they decided they didn't need to go any further, since they were presenting the man only as someone who claimed to be involved in the movement. His role in the story ended up being a small one. He served as a punctuation mark – one that showed how far people in the movement were willing to go to protect themselves.
The whole scene, Bradley says, was "sort of surreal." "You're sitting in a townhouse in Harlem and two guys walk in in these sort of ninja outfits, as you describe them," he says. His thoughts, he says, turned to the men leaving the Harlem townhouse. "I don't know how quickly they can get all that stuff off. Certainly they had to take a few steps away from the house if they're paranoid that we're watching them. I'm thinking of these two white guys walking somewhere in Harlem, dressed like that, and am just saying, whoa," he says, laughing.
The CBS team has no idea where the men went when they left. They just looked out at the street, scanned for activity, and then walked out the door, masks still on. The producers, correspondent and crew, meanwhile, remained in the house, wrapping up and packing equipment. Messick thinks the men got into a car, but he can't be sure. He says he has no idea who they are, and has no idea how he could identify them to authorities. "I got the sense they were suburban kids – they weren't from Harlem or Brooklyn," he says. "But I have no idea."
As for their credibility, Messick says he doesn't doubt it. "I thought they were being very sincere," he says. "This guy was a true believer."